September 16th, 2020
Olga Bartnicki as a child.
By Olga Bartnicki Managing Director of the New York Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars
Some say entrepreneurs are born, as if entrepreneurship is a personality trait or wired into our DNA. While I think that is true to some degree, I also believe entrepreneurs can be “designed” based on the necessary skill sets and life experiences one seeks out in the primordial soup of the universe.
The creation of my entrepreneurial profile was probably a mix of the two — some of it following the stereotypical American dream, confront hardships, yearn for a better life storyline, and some of it being intentionally designed to ensure I had all the genetic markers necessary to be successful in any entrepreneurial venture I attempted.
My journey began when I landed at JFK Airport after a 10-hour flight from Moscow. My whole life was packed into one suitcase, and my future in America was stuffed into one thin envelope containing $140 and a tourist visa. As an 18-year-old, my grand plan to succeed in the U.S. amounted to little more than . . . TBD.
As I stood in the airport, I inventoried what I had going for me. I calculated that I had one Yes and three Noes. Yes, I could speak English. No, I didn’t have any family in the US. No, I didn’t know how to go about finding a job. And No, I didn’t have a college degree.
None of those Nos discouraged me. I grew up in Russian, but from the age of 14, I felt as though I was born in the wrong country. Even at that young age, I could feel the oppression and controlling nature of my socialist and dictatorial country. I could see the lack of human rights and the brutality of the Russian police. I knew that if I was to have any chance of living the life I imagined for myself, I had to leave Russia. That motivation alone was enough to overcome 100 Noes.
Read this mini-interview with Olga and learn about her philosophy as Managing Director of the New York Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars.
Not surprisingly, there was no red carpet rolled out for me in the “land of opportunity.” Regardless of the dreams I dreamt about America while still in Russia, or the hope and liberation I felt as my plane’s wheels touched down in the U.S., those thoughts definitely did not include a three-year stint washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant, selling balloons in a party supply store, or being a babysitter for an Orthodox Jewish family. But that, nevertheless, was the path I was traveling.
It was clear to me that to become self-sufficient and get onto the path I dreamt about in Russia I would need a college degree. Of course, there was that tiny little detail of finding $150,000 to pay for college, so I began applying for every scholarship, loan, and grant I could find. As might be expected, a fat three-ring binder that I bought to track my applications filled up fast with rejections.
At 21, after three years of working “immigrant” jobs and being rejected by one tuition funding source after another, my patience ran out. As a result, I became bolder and more creative with my solutions. One morning, I simply pretended I was a college student and walked onto a college campus. I wanted to attend classes just to feel what it was like to be a student and achieve my goal.
Not long after I began my career as a pretend student sitting in on classes uninvited, an engineering professor saw my binder of rejections. After asking about them, he introduced me to his entrepreneur friend who was now a venture capitalist. When the venture capitalist recognized my grit and determination, he offered to pay for my college education so that I could become a real college student.
There was one condition: I had to one day do something significant for someone else, as he was doing for me. I agreed.
As grateful as I was for this lucky break, I wanted to make the most of it, so I daringly approached the Dean of the Graduate School and made a proposal. I wanted to get a Master’s degree in telecommunications rather than an undergraduate degree. The dean dutifully explained to me that there are rules and that I first had to get my undergraduate degree. I then explained to the dean that I did not believe in rules, and I made a counter offer. If I got A’s in every class, could I get the Master’s degree rather than the undergraduate degree? Intrigued by my determination, he took it to the college’s board of advisors and they agreed. As long as I could keep my GPA above a certain point, I could attempt to get a Master’s.
Not only did I achieve that distinction, but I did it in a year and half rather than four years, which later catapulted me on to Harvard, where I earned my MBA.
In the few short years I was in the United States, my tenacity, hunger and determination powered my drive and success. Perhaps as a natural-born entrepreneur, these are qualities that are coded into my DNA. But after graduating from Harvard, I made a conscious choice that would help to design myself as a more rounded entrepreneur. I knew that a vital part of any entrepreneurial venture is the need to raise capital. As such, I joined a Wall Street firm to learn finance, do M&A and venture investing. After that I was ready, according to my design, so I went on to build four startups (two failed and two exits).
This brings us to the present day, and me fulfilling my promise to that venture capitalist. There is not much I can do about a person’s entrepreneurial personality, DNA, or life experiences. They either have they grit they need or they don’t. But there is a great deal I can do to help design entrepreneurs for greater success. My life, founder experiences, mistakes and successes have taught me a great deal about what is necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur here in America. This is what I now do at Techstars as a way to give back.
Olga Bartnicki is Managing Director of the New York Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars. She is a former investment banker, a C-level operator, and an entrepreneur. Olga earned a Master of Sciences degree from the University of Colorado and an MBA from Harvard Business School.