Karina Sotnik emigrated to the United States from Latvia in 1988. She spent over a decade in Silicon Valley, forming international partnerships for American companies and going through IPOs twice, only to lose everything in the crash of 2000.
After moving to Philadelphia with her husband in 2002, her career took a 180 degree turn as she decided to open a retail store and import European linens and home accessories. Of that choice she said, “Don’t ask me why, I don’t even like shopping! I didn’t know anything about import or retail and had to learn fast.”
Currently she’s working on a new initiative to bring immigrants into the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Below she shares more about her story and the goals of Global Startup Accelerator program.
Please tell us about yourself. How did you develop a specialty in international business attraction?
I started as an engineer, but very quickly moved to business development and in particular, international business development. I was helping emerging American companies enter international markets.
In 1997 I met my future husband, gave birth to two daughters a few years later. In 2002 we moved to Philadelphia where my husband was offered a position at the University of Pennsylvania.
I opened a store [in 2003] and landed on the cover of Philadelphia Magazine in the “Best of Philadelphia” issue. When later I couldn’t find the right baby product for my store, I decided to manufacture it myself in Europe and started a wholesale and e-commerce business in addition to retail.
I manufactured and imported mostly from the Baltic countries, but after they joined European Union and Euro a few years into my business, I noticed a serious jump in their prices due to a rising labor cost there. At the same time, the transportation cost was doubling due to the rising oil prices and the economy here took a sharp downturn in 2008. I closed my business in 2009.
I went into consulting afterward and spent a year in Europe where I got involved with academic incubators and started to help local startups prepare to enter the American market.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, I joined a very energetic group called PCI Ventures at the Penn Center for Innovation that is helping [University of Pennsylvania] faculty start and grow companies based on their inventions.
I grew and managed a portfolio of 19 companies and started a digital accelerator for mobile apps that I ran for five years, giving “birth” to close to 20 companies and products.
Last fall, I joined the Science Center as director for Business Incubation and Accelerator Programs. My task is to build a self-sustainable program and my initial focus is on building an accelerator platform for international companies to help them enter US market and become successful here, in Pennsylvania.
Why is this a good moment for the Science Center to emphasize international companies? What are the most promising business types?
The Science Center has been designated a Global Soft Landing site for at least seven years. During that time we helped numerous international companies land and expand in the United States. We provided space, community and guidance, but the latter was not given in any kind of systematic or a programming nature. We reached into our Rolodexes, when asked, but didn’t have any structured program to help companies with the fundamentals that they all need regardless of the field they are in or the country they are from.
Through this new program, called the Global Startup Accelerator (this name may change), we will first be offering a one week to 10-day boot camp to assist companies with the fundamentals of entering U.S. market.
From my experience, companies are usually very opportunistic in their approach to U.S. – they may have a good conversation with the potential partner or the CEO’s cousin lives somewhere in the country and this usually determines where the company will try to land.
Also, most of the companies have no realistic expectation of how to budget for their financial and human resources for such expansion. We are trying to address that through our boot camp and provide each company with a good roadmap to follow for the successful entry into the States.
After the company graduates from bootcamp and is ready to make a move, we will have a fellowship program for them to assist with hiring the general manager or other [high] level people, find board members, introduce them to investors and assist with strategic partnerships and sales.
The profile of the ideal company will be in the broadly defined “science and technology” space. I think that companies that would benefit the most are the companies in the life sciences (therapeutics, diagnostics), medical devices, digital and mobile health but also, fin-tech, ed-tech, [internet of things] and robotics companies.
The ideal company will not be in the very early stage, but rather already at revenue in their own markets (this proves market traction) and perhaps already selling in some other market and are thinking of expanding to the US.
A lot of international companies only think of San Francisco or New York when thinking of the United States. As someone who spent over a decade in Silicon Valley, I can usually talk people out of the west coast and New York is just as expensive.
When I point out to people that we are one hour away from NYC and are 23% cheaper than Boston with the similar access to talent and industry, this usually puts Philadelphia on the map as a place to land.
What is the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians initiative?
The Science Center together with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians received a three year grant last year to help local companies expand to the international markets (specifically Europe and India) through a targeted outreach to local immigrant communities.
The idea is that we have an untapped, but very valuable resource right here with a lot of connections to the markets in their own countries but our companies are not taking advantage of it. American companies usually do not think of international expansion until an opportunity presents itself and they are often not prepared. We are planning to create awareness and give companies necessary tools to start planning their global expansion.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. This article was produced as part of our Writer in Residence Program with the University City Science Center.