How Visible Hands helped a pre-idea, non-tech founder revolutionize the restaurant industry
Prepshift is a tool that helps restaurant owners and workers start on the right foot and stay on the same page. With a focus on onboarding and orientation, our platform makes it easy to communicate expectations, policy, and culture, while minimizing stressful friction in the early days of employment.
Irene Li has never identified as a tech founder or an entrepreneur. Instead, she has always seen herself as someone who is passionate and driven to create social change and does so through her experience in the restaurant industry.
After opening her first restaurant, Mei Mei Dumplings, she saw major flaws in how restaurant employees were onboarded. This lack of proper onboarding made it harder for new hires to be successful in their roles. Additionally, managers and owners were financially hemorrhaging due to unnecessary turnover.
As a whole, the employer-employee relationship was suffering due to inadequate access to tools and resources for training. To solve this problem, Li created Prepshift, a tech-enabled restaurant training, and employee management platform.
“I identify most strongly with being someone who really cares about restaurants, and tech is the vehicle for that. It’s not about being an inventor, right? It’s about having a vision.”
— Irene Li, Prepshift Co-Founder and CEO
Mei Mei Dumplings started as a family project. In 2011, Li and her sibling decided to open a food truck and in 2012, it hit the road. Li had always been mission-oriented, letting her passion drive her toward opening a business before she had even graduated from college.
“Honestly, at the time, I had no interest in business, or being an entrepreneur,” Li said. “I didn’t identify at all with that pathway. But I was really passionate about food and where food comes from and how it’s prepared.”
Li worked hard to ensure that employees at her restaurant were treated respectfully and onboarded efficiently.
“We were really trying to prove and build a model for restaurant employment that was more progressive, empowering, and fair,” Li said. “We invested a lot of time into supporting employee growth and engagement and making sure that people were trained thoroughly.”
However, even after taking painstaking care to ensure the success and wellbeing of her employees, Li explained that the infrastructure to manage employees effectively simply did not exist.
“We were throwing our full firepower at the problem and it still wasn’t organized,” Li said. “The idea that someone with even fewer resources would ever try to have a stellar onboarding program is just unrealistic. The question became: how can we democratize this and make it into a tool that we can share and not something that people have to build from scratch?”
The restaurant industry has always been an option for people looking for a flexible job with a decent wage and benefits. Additionally, the company culture at restaurants is within the top five most important factors for employees, although a healthy atmosphere is difficult to maintain, according to a Black Box Intelligence survey.
“The nature of restaurants creates an environment ripe for physical transmission of illness and emotionally taxing social interactions — on top of already challenging work,” noted the Black Box Intelligence 2021 restaurant analysis.
The pandemic has only exacerbated problems within employer-employee relationships. In 2021, research from One Fair Wage revealed that 53% of all restaurant workers were considering leaving their jobs since the COVID-19 outbreak, 26% of which were leaving due to hostility and harassment from coworkers and/or management. Additionally, 49% of restaurant employees have experienced emotional abuse from managers.
Full-service restaurants are now operating with 6.2 fewer employees in the back of the house and 2.8 fewer staff members in the front of the house (Black Box Intelligence). Managers’ first priority has become keeping the kitchen running and the restaurant open, while aspects like culture and training are falling through the cracks.
After experiencing the challenges of employee management and training firsthand, Li understood how a solution could be implemented.
“This is an analog system for a problem that could be easily solved by technology,” Li said. “Then in the intervening years, still no one solved this [problem]. I think that’s what inspired me to feel like no one’s cracked it. Maybe we are the people to do it.”
The foundations of Prepshift began as an idea for a pitch competition. In 2018, Irene and her siblings pitched an idea for an open-book management app and won. However, Irene felt she didn’t have the tools she needed to put her vision into action.
“No one has time or energy to make restaurant jobs suck less,” Li said. “We want to solve this problem because restaurant workers represent nearly half of the nation’s minimum wage workers and women and immigrants are overly represented in the most vulnerable roles. Uplifting and empowering restaurant workers has the potential to change millions of lives for the better.”
Why Visible Hands?
It wasn’t until years after the pitch competition that Li was approached by the Visible Hands (VH) team and revisited the idea. Justin Kang, VH GP and Co-founder valued Li’s industry experience and saw her as a perfect fit for the firm’s 14-week accelerator program for underrepresented founders.
“Irene is a company builder and a community builder,” Kang said. “She had proven herself as an entrepreneur with her restaurant Mei Mei. We knew she could be resilient in the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur. Her superpower is inspiring people and being a resource magnet. She is one of the best in galvanizing a community and that is necessary as a founder to recruit talent, resources, and customers.”
Not only did Li believe in the company-building support that the VH accelerator offered; she could also see her professional and personal goals aligning with Visible Hands.
“I believe in the mission of Visible Hands so deeply,” Li said. “I probably would never have considered going with another accelerator, and probably no other accelerator would have come to me and said, ‘We want you to try this.’ That always felt like a good balance, because in these situations, there is such a power dynamic. It felt like a very safe and transparent relationship to enter into.”
Over the course of the 2021 accelerator, Prepshift went from an idea to a platform that is currently being used by pilot customers.
Li came to VH starting at square one. She had to examine foundational business questions before she could delve into the specifics of her function and execution. Li notes that VH VP, Tia Thomson, played a major role in understanding the vision of Prepshift.
“Tia was the exact right combination of expertise, but also being a facilitator, not an opinionated party,” said Li. “She took the time to start from the big picture with us. She had us do a competitor exercise and pull a couple of brands, websites, and logos, that resonated with us. We also did work on core values and mission.”
Thomson provided Li with a few essential deliverables and tools for success, including useful resources to assist in drafting Prepshift’s eventual website. Li was able to trust Thomson to take the concept and values of Prepshift and turn them into the foundations of a company.
“The first draft of the landing page that Tia showed us, we were like, ‘Great -sign us up,” Li said.
Along with the brand guidelines and landing page, the VH team helped with launching a Prepshift newsletter, a design mockup for the app, and a pitch deck. These assets were also crucial to the initial stages of Prepshift as they encouraged Li and her team to think critically about the vision they were working to build.
“[Prepshift] went from being a tiny, tiny concept to being something that actually resembles a product,” Li said. “We have a handful of pilot customers and we are getting the app in the hands of employees, which is pretty amazing.”
How was VH a catalyst for growth?
Another important factor of the VH accelerator was the mentorship and support the Prepshift team received.
“Justin definitely was a huge supporter of us,” Li said. “His positivity was a confidence builder. Every one of our ideas didn’t have to be great, but the fact that he trusted us to be making these decisions was really meaningful.”
Although Li was passionate about executing and solving a real problem that impacted herself and others in the restaurant industry, she was initially hesitant to take on such a large responsibility, especially when she didn’t quite feel like an entrepreneur.
“We started out with a much smaller and safer idea for our company,” Li said. “VH gave us the confidence to tackle this scarier but much more important problem. We felt like we were in really good hands that whole time.”
Despite the challenge, Kang reflects on how Li capitalized on the VH resources and feedback, hitting each growth milestone efficiently.
“They did it the right way in listening to the customer and pulling the threads they saw as true paint points,” Kang said. “They built a low-tech platform. Found customers. Built a waitlist. Secured contracts. Raised angel money. They focused on finding magic with their product. All in a few months. Imagine where they will be next year and beyond.”
Beyond the Visible Hands team, the fellow founders in the cohort also inspired Li and taught her throughout the accelerator.
“Having access to the other fellows was incredible, and will continue to be helpful,” Li said. “There were a lot of businesses that were pretty far along, relative to where we were. I think that was really helpful; to talk to people who have moved farther down the path.”
As someone who didn’t necessarily see themselves becoming a founder, one of the most valuable takeaways for Li was the confidence and sense of empowerment that she and her team walked away with. This confidence has led Li to take the leap from Prepshift being a side hustle to a full-time role.
“Coming out of the accelerator has made me feel like, okay, this is my full-time job. This is my company,” Li said.
After going through the Visible Hands accelerator and launching Prepshift, Li still resonates with her industry roots and entrepreneurial spirit.
“I still identify most strongly with being someone who really cares about restaurants, and then tech is the vehicle for that,” Li said.
Whether she identifies as one or not, Li is an incredible founder. She is deeply motivated and passionate about changing the management infrastructure of the restaurant industry.
Li has hit personal and professional milestones since wrapping up with the accelerator in December 2021. She was named one of The James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards winners. This honor is colloquially known as the “Oscars of Food" and the Leadership Awards spotlight the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health.
Prepshift is also seeing success with 11 pilot customers and a goal of 20 in the next month, as well as a growing waitlist.
Li truly embraced the Visible Hands experience and walked away with the necessary confidence and tools to succeed in her entrepreneurial journey. We encourage all founders who align with the Visible Hands mission to consider being a part of our accelerator. If you are an aspiring or early-stage startup founder from an underrepresented community, apply now to join our 2022 cohort.
- The Visible Hands Team