For immigrant founders in the UK, office hours with VCs are rocket fuel


Image Credits: Owen Smith / Getty Images

Lyubov Guk


Lyubov Guk is a founding partner at Blue Lake VC. She supports early-stage international founders working in the U.K.

More posts from Lyubov Guk

All three of us are immigrants to the U.K. We were each greeted with the classic “catch-22” of trying to open a bank account and finding a place to live: To get a bank account, you need an address, but to rent a flat, you need a bank account.

This is just one of the (very minor) points of friction immigrants face when moving to a new country. Entrepreneurs who set up a business in a new country encounter more challenges. Lyubov’s own experiences as a Ukrainian immigrant in the U.K. gave her both great empathy for the trials immigrant founders face, and the belief that immigrants often make and build world-leading businesses.

Beyond personal experiences, academic research seems to point to an almost inverse relationship between the contributions immigrant founders make and early acceptance by the ecosystem.

Designing an international founders open office hours pilot

With personal experience as her motivation, Lyubov piloted a program that would offer a softer landing for immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.K. The pilot was an “International Founders Open Office Hours” program that would help immigrant founders boost their social networks and local know-how by meeting with VCs in the U.K.

Instead of the usual pitch format, the meetings were informal conversations that aimed to help founders build up this essential — and for immigrants, missing — social capital. The program was inspired by Playfair Capital and its Female Founders Office Hours.

The initial start was rocky, as it coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Lyubov and her Blue Lake partner, David Gilgur, were helping families and friends in Ukraine by day and drafting the program plan by night. Early on, there was the challenge of bringing VCs and partners on board. Blue Lake had been active for a few years but was still a new name in the investment ecosystem. Asking for investors’ time meant that we had to prove we could launch something impactful that key players would want to be a part of.

The pilot program ran for three months and offered startups 1-to-1 conversations with top U.K. investors (angels, accelerators, family offices and VCs). The aim was simple: enable founders to establish new connections, ask questions and obtain feedback from “insiders” in the U.K. ecosystem.

How did we find international founders?

As is the case with many pilot projects, a significant multinational marketing budget was out of the question. So how did Lyubov and David go about publicizing the pilot so that immigrant founders — from all over the world — knew about the program?

Their own experience as immigrants helped. Lyubov started promoting the pilot in the region she had the closest relationships in: Ukraine. Utilizing an extensive regional partner network ensured a significant inflow of Ukrainian founders.

To reach a wider cohort of immigrant founders new to the U.K., Blue Lake partnered with the Tech Nation Visa Team and the U.K. Department for International Trade (DIT). Both actively promoted the initiative, spreading the word across their channels, including mentioning the initiative in their widely disseminated newsletters. Soon after DIT promoted the event, we started seeing truly diverse inflow of founders from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.

Participating VCs brought their own networks, which helped spread the word. Many U.K.-based VCs are themselves immigrants, and they helped promote the event in their respective regions, which also helped diversify the cohort.

The pilot launch

In February 2022, Blue Lake VC and Tech Nation’s Global Talent Visa team launched the pilot. More than 40 entrepreneurs applied within hours of the launch, and we capped applications when we quickly reached 180 startups. The remaining applicants joined the waiting list for the next iteration of open office hours (more on 2.0 later).

At the end of the first three-month pilot, here’s what we learned from the 186 startups and 120 meetings on which we received feedback.

Country of origin

Applicants hailed from more than 20 countries, including Belgium, Estonia, Germany, India, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore and Turkey. 61 of the participants were from Ukraine, which underscores the mass immigration and the need for these founders to quickly hook into the U.K. ecosystem (it also likely reflected our own personal network, and who our office hours message reached).


26% identified as female. We’d like to see a higher gender mix.


The majority of founders are well-educated professionals aged 30 years and over, with years of expertise and diverse backgrounds.


Startups across the technology sector, including clean tech, deep tech, edtech, fintech and medtech attended.

The application form was designed so that we could learn more about the aims and needs of these founders. Academic research has found that transnational experience could help identify new opportunities and link together otherwise disparate social networks. At the same time, without personal connections in the ecosystem or the right associated brands, research suggests that investors are unlikely to invest in immigrant founders.

Emerging research shows that access to accelerators and VCs can boost startup performance even if the startup does not raise money from that investor. Gonzalez Uribe et al. (2022), for instance, show that going through the due diligence process with a seed-stage VC fund in the U.K. can increase a startup’s performance by approximately 20%.

Was it the access to money, the social network, insight into “how things work locally,” or something else that the applicants sought? To understand the pain points, our application form asked: “Other than direct investment, what support would you find the most valuable?”

For 41%, it was “Introductions/Network,” while 21% chose “Mentorship.” Less than 5% sought “Sales and marketing,” nearly 3% wanted help with “Fundraising strategy” and only 2% chose “Team.”

Rather than value through direct access to money, fundraising strategy or prospective team building, founders prized access to the “right” U.K. network. There was overwhelmingly positive feedback from participating startups that the initiative delivered on these aims.

What’s next?

In startup language, the first installation of International Founders Open Office Hours verified initial market demand and developed the minimum viable product (MVP). Now, it’s time to iterate and scale things up.

The vision is to continue to involve more startups from more countries and become an integral part of U.K.’s tech ecosystem. The larger ambition is to build a home for all great immigrant founders in the U.K., helping them to start building valuable connections from the first day of their journeys. Blue Lake is adjusting the application and feedback forms to learn more, and more systematically, about the support immigrant founders seek, what works and what doesn’t.

With Immigrant Office Hours 2.0 (launching in Q1 2023), we want to deliver more startups-investors connections and help more founders scale up.

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