Founder Series: Julia Li of Create Space On Why A Startup City Needs Artists

At the heart of every startup ecosystem is its entrepreneurs. Each with his or her own backstory, calling and mission, our city's founders are those charting a new path for themselves, their teams and their tribes. Introducing EQ's Founder Series, conversations with entrepreneurs from various industries and walks of life.

Julia Li doesn’t believe in the idea of the “Starving Artist.” As founder of Create Space, and an artist herself with a degree from Washington University in Painting and Urban Studies, she has a passion for driving creative entrepreneurship within the arts community.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAb8AAAAJDBiNjM2ZjFkLTQxMGMtNGI2Yi04NzhlLTk3MmZmNjNiMjU1NQAfter creating Create Space as a festive and rotating artisan market last fall in the heart of the Delmar Loop, Li has now partnered with University City and the University City Chamber of Commerce for Create Space Generator, the first and only Creative Entrepreneurship Incubator in St. Louis. We sat down with Julia to learn more about Create Space and why she thinks St. Louis is the perfect place for creative startups.

Where did the idea for Create Space Generator come from? 

Create Space was really born out of a conversation. We met with University City when some retail space came available on the Loop. I thought, how cool would it be to have an artisan market to fill that space? From November 2014 to January 2015, we had over 42 artisans come and sell their art. Everything from hand-drip coffee to metalwork, scarves, handmade ornaments. It went so well and had so much support that the city asked if we could stay longer.

We realized early on that this artisan market concept would need to have a business education piece to it. There’s nothing really business-wise for artists and creatives to turn their art into business here. We are interested in helping artists who have a vision to expand into business. So the program shifted from an artisan market to an incubator for creative startups. Thankfully, U. City and the Chamber of Commerce have been extremely accessible and supportive. They saw the opportunity to transform the space and to partner for economic growth in the creative class.

Why is creative economic development so important to you? 

As an artist myself—I’m a painter—I just don’t believe in the term “starving artist.” The creative class is growing 10% faster than the regular economy. There is so much potential. University City and St. Louis can be a robust part of that growth. If we are going to be a startup city, then that has to include artists, too.

Photo courtesy of Create Space

Speaking of St. Louis, what brought you back?

I grew up in St. Louis, but for the past five years, I’ve worked in L.A. and New York with other artists at Nickelodeon Animation Studios, Disney ABC television group, and Scratch Music Group. And it was great. I got to travel a lot for work and was kind of living the dream, but the corporate environment definitely took its toll.

I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor—I’m fine now—but it really made me evaluate what’s important. For me that was family, creative self-expression and my health and wellness. So I moved back to St. Louis to help expand my family’s restaurant, LuLu Seafood, and to develop avenues for artists to connect with their community.

What makes St. Louis an ideal place for creative startups? 

First of all, St. Louis is a manufacturing city. Creative startups are a little different than tech because there is a physical product to sell. The art must be created and manufactured. Second, University City is an extremely artistic community. Third, there is huge opportunity for education on the business side of things for artists who want to sell. Also, as a growing startup city, I see incredible potential in St. Louis to combine art and technology to make something really new and special.

Photo courtesy of Create Space

How will Create Space Generator work? 

We offer a 6-month or 1-year training program, complete with classes, curriculum, advisors and speakers from the local and national business communities. There will be classes each Tuesday night (that will also be open to the public for a small fee) as well as additional in-depth workshops focusing on specific topics such as product development and basics of branding. We go through the entire process from creating a sustainable business model, to marketing, to the nuts and bolts of running a business, to manufacturing and finding partners and store fronts.

For $250 a month and an agreement to contribute 8 hours a week to the program (or $500 if you opt out of the 8 hours), Create Space provides the resources, support and motivation to develop a business mindset and cultivate professional relationships. We also allow the artists to test the market by actually providing a retail space for them to sell their art at our location on the Delmar Loop.

Also, this program will equip artists with the business know-how so that they are able to apply for a $10,000 grant that University City is offering to open a new business in U-City.

For those interested in participating, what do they need to know?

We will accept 15 artists, with an additional five spots open for food makers. We will actually have a space available for artists to create their work, and that includes a commercial kitchen, which will be ideal for food trucks that aren’t connected with a restaurant kitchen.

We are accepting applications now through November 15th, and the final selection and acceptance announcements will be in early December. We plan to officially launch in 2016. To submit an application, visit or email [email protected].