The ESG Initiative at the Wharton School
My experience sourcing Lula Delivery for the Fund for Health: Why I was confident in their impact and the pitch
It is a hot, humid Saturday in August 2020 – pre COVID-19 vaccines, quarantine guidelines are still in effect. It is the weekend before I begin medical school, and I am walking to my new Philadelphia apartment. On the way, I notice a corner store deli and excitedly run over in the hopes of grabbing a quick bite to eat. Unfortunately, a sign on the door reads “CLOSED FOR GOOD.” I shrug, pull out my phone, and order something on DoorDash.
That experience was only a minor inconvenience to my day. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made closings like this corner store an all-to-frequent reality for small businesses, which are the cornerstones (no pun intended) of local economies. Both directly and indirectly, these lost economic opportunities affect Philadelphia communities’ social determinants of health (SDoH) in profound ways.
In medical school, our Health Systems Sciences curriculum examined the complex relationship between a patient’s social setting, their overall health, and the healthcare they receive – a relationship with societal disparities that have been highlighted in dramatic fashion by the pandemic. In particular, a person’s employment status and associated healthcare benefits may be their only access point to feasible, sustainable healthcare. Not only that, but employment impacts their ability to provide essentials for themselves and their family.
Penn has made strong commitments to support SDoHs for our local communities, such as its $100 million commitment to the Philadelphia Public School District. As I began a role as a Fund for Health (FFH) Associate, I knew this opportunity would be a way for me to join those efforts and use my developing medical education to think critically about ways to improve the SDoHs for Philadelphians.
I thought back to my now-closed neighborhood convenience store and began to ask: What would happen to the employees who worked there? Will they find a new job, especially amid the ongoing economic turmoil? How does the loss of income affect their daily lives? Can they afford food? Housing? Healthcare?
These questions illuminate why I was so excited to learn about Lula Delivery. It provides a simple, affordable way for small business convenience stores in Philadelphia and beyond to enter the online delivery marketplace for the first time.
Lula was born out of co-founder Adit Gupta and his parents’ struggles to digitize their convenience store’s inventory and participate in online delivery at the start of the pandemic. As quarantine guidelines dramatically reduced foot traffic to nearly every storefront, businesses that could not transition to online ordering and delivery were hit the hardest. The Guptas and many of their peers did not have a feasible tool to leverage or a pathway to enter the online marketplace; sadly, their store was among those permanently lost.
The Lula team saw this gap in the convenience store industry as a glaring disparity in opportunity. Many convenience stores Lula serves are single-store operators who cannot afford the high fixed or recurring costs of participating in apps like Uber Eats or DoorDash; so Lula made it their mission to fill this void with a high-tech, easy-to-use, affordable product. One that enables convenience store operators to leverage all major online delivery apps through a single interface, allowing them to weather the storms of the pandemic much more capably.
In this regard, Lula was unique – no other product on the market was filling this need. But, more impressively than that, Lula grew exponentially month to month, with 150+ stores in less than a year.
However, what most powerfully caught my attention (and that of our Investment Committee) during our diligence was the intentional impact Lula is making. Each product element – from affordability to functionality across delivery platforms – was designed explicitly for small business owners for whom their store is their livelihood. There was ample evidence of this: To start, the founder’s story and motivation centered around helping small stores like that of his family. Lula also did not charge small businesses any commission, unlike their larger competitors (e.g., DoorDash). Most importantly, 90% of their customers were minorities, immigrants, or older adults, and over 40% of the stores were in low-income areas.
With this analysis, I enthusiastically pitched Lula to our FFH Investment Committee. I could see firsthand that Lula directly improves the financial performance of the cornerstones of local Philadelphia economies – their customer stores averaged a ~$1,000 increase in revenue within 2-3 months. Helping corner store owners meant helping local entrepreneurs, which has a multiplier effect on their families and community, giving me confidence in their impact on the SDoHs. That impact is tangible, measurable, and memorable, as Lula’s customers can now feasibly enter the online marketplace, more reliably withstand volatility to remain in business, and continue to serve and employ their local communities.
I look forward to seeing the effects of our investment in the years to come.
— Michael Karamardian, PSOM’24, Fund for Health Associate
Michael Karamardian, PSOM’24
Michael Karamardian (PSOM’24) is a third-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine. Prior to medical school, Michael studied economics and worked in consulting at Bain & Co., developing an interest in tackling problems at the intersection of business and medicine. He was drawn to the innovative nature of the Fund for Health as a tangible way to use the knowledge he was learning in medical school to positively impact the local community. This experience inspired Michael and fellow medical student and Fund for Health Associate Medha Sharma to co-found the Penn HealthX SDoH Accelerator, teaming up medical students as pro bono consultants for startups working to improve SDoHs.