People who live in cities have a lot of stuff – but not always enough space to store or park it all. That’s why Bonnie Lai (who goes by “Bon”) and her business partner Jonathan Gillon co-founded roost.com in March 2014.
“It came out of a need,” she says. “My Co-Founder’s brother was moving to San Francisco and he needed a place to store things, but he didn’t want to get locked into a monthly contract for a public storage space.”
Their concept has been smart and simple enough to generate interest from 500Startups, a San Francisco incubator that provides startups with guidance, advice, workspace, and funding http://500.co/accelerator. Roost.com is one of the companies that will receive 500 Startups support in 2015. 500Startups was founded by 2014 StartOut Award winner Dave McClure and is a partner is StartOut’s Access to Capital program.
Lai is also a mentee in StartOut’s Lesbian Entrepreneur Mentoring Program (LEMP), working with her mentor Anne Moellering, an executive leadership and career coach. “I really enjoy our face-to-face meetings and our pow-wows with other members in the group,” she says. Working with a fellow lesbian who understands her professional needs as an entrepreneur as well as the personal journey of being an out business leader has been invaluable asset.
Coming of age, both personally and professionally, in the San Francisco Bay Area has given Lai perspective on how to integrate both sides of her life. “At work, I never felt the need to keep quiet about being gay,” she says. “My focus in the workplace is to be respectful of others and their lives.”
So what is her advice to young LGBT people who are entering the workforce today? “Understand that there are certain norms in different work environments. Don’t try to challenge them, just do your best work and let people recognize that. Channel your energy towards doing the best job you can, and being a really good person.”
“Speak openly about your life,” she says. “And be comfortable with who you are.”
Since launching roost.com in August 2014, they’ve already signed up more than 500 users and 100 unique storage spaces in San Francisco without doing any marketing. They plan to expand to other cities in 2015, such as New York, where real estate and rental costs far exceed available urban storage space. “Public storage spaces are always in commercial areas, the ones in cities can be very expensive, and many people don’t have cars,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll cripple the storage industry, since people will always be willing to drive.”
Born in Hong Kong, and growing up in Nigeria from the age of 5 to 15, Lai was surrounded by cultural diversity. “I went to a very conservative school,” she says. “We had Muslims, Christians, Indians, and Pakistanis all together. Being gay was never spoken about. I didn’t even know about homosexuality until we moved to San Francisco when I was 15.”
Coming out was never a big issue for her. “There was no ‘aha’ moment, just a gradual realization. My friends and family knew I was gay before I did. My mother knew, but she was just waiting for me to tell her. My father used to be vocally anti-gay until my mother told him about me.”
Throughout her college years at UC Davis, she majored in Psychology but had a passion for building computers. Her passion for technology and business grew throughout her product manager and consultant jobs at Charles Schwab, Wells Fargo, and Intuit.
“As a product manager I knew everything about hardware but I wanted to learn about coding,” she says. She enrolled as a student at Coding Dojo in Mountain View, and within a year, she was teaching others as a T.A.