The Company You Keep: How Vlada Lotkina Found Support and Stability While Building a Business in the U.S.
This is part 4 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership,’’ a series created in partnership with growth marketing agency Ideometry. We spoke with some extraordinary immigrant founders who shared how their journeys to the U.S. influenced their journeys as entrepreneurs. Tune in 3 weeks from now for the final installment of the series.
In our fourth interview, we chatted with the founder of ClassTag, Vlada Lotkina. Vlada is simplifying communication between parents and teachers in order to improve the education experience for children near and far.
Growing up in Ukraine, Vlada first dipped her toes into the entrepreneurship world when (as a teenager) she organized a large, well attended international symposium. She later went on to get an MBA at The Wharton School, where she left with the hope to start her own company. But that desire proved to be easier said than done, as she took a detour to work in Corporate America to secure a visa sponsorship and receive her green card. That allowed her to more easily transition into her current entrepreneurial role, leading ClassTag. Her tenacity, determination, and ‘anything is possible’ attitude are a few of the reasons ClassTag has built up a customer base of over 2 million parents and teachers nationwide.
Tell us a bit about ClassTag?
Vlada: ClassTag is a simple parent-teacher communication tool. We know that when parents and teachers are partners in the child’s education, everyone wins. When everyone is able to collaborate and communicate easily, parents are happier, teachers’ jobs are easier, and students are more successful. That’s what ClassTag is all about.
In terms of milestones, we’re on a really exciting growth trajectory. We now have 2 million parents and teachers who rely on ClassTag for communicating with one another. We also have some great investors as part of our seed round, such as Founder Collective, One Way Ventures, Newark Venture Partners, as well as a few others. We’ve raised over $3 million to date.
What’s the company’s origin story?
Vlada: ClassTag effectively came from solving problems related to my own personal experiences. When my daughter started school, I was shocked that parent-teacher communication was incredibly outdated. Messages came through paper notices transported in backpacks. The communication tools didn’t holistically help parents connect and collaborate with the teacher. That brought me into thinking about the education space and the need for improved parent-teacher communication.
In terms of how ClassTag was founded, we had a really interesting story. My co-founder has a child who’s in my daughter’s preschool, so our kids were classmates at the time. He shared my frustrations and also turned out to be a serial entrepreneur and former CEO of a successful company. Naturally, we bonded and talked about why we really cared about solving this issue.
I’m originally from Ukraine and, at the age of 22, I got into The Wharton School here in the U.S. When I was applying, I didn’t really know where I was going and what I wanted to do, but I somehow magically ended up here. One thing in particular allowed me to carve out a great career for myself prior to getting back into a more entrepreneurial role. The one thing was my parent’s engagement. They were very involved with my education and set high standards for me. They knew how valuable a good education was, and wanted to make sure I was receiving the best education possible. When it was my turn to ensure I was providing an excellent education for my daughter, I found myself struggling to do what my parents had done.
What made you decide to go to school in the U.S.?
Vlada: Quite simply, I just really wanted to live in the U.S. Early on, I applied to some business schools in London, but I’m definitely glad I ended up here. I wanted to learn the proper way of doing things, and learn from companies that are out on the forefront of defining their industries. In my opinion, some of the most innovative companies in the world are based in the U.S. This made coming to the U.S. a top priority for me.
What hardships or difficulties did you encounter as a result of living in a foreign country?
Vlada: When I think about my journey, I avoided setting easily achievable goals for myself, and that lead to a lot of hard work and determination. I think the first example of this determination would be when I organized a huge international symposium in Ukraine as a teenager. Looking back on it now, It seems absolutely impossible to accomplish, but I didn’t know any better and I think that sort of ignorance and attitude helped me tremendously. Feeling like I could just go for it and not look back is what got me through the tough times. What helps me tremendously now is setting high goals and not accepting that things can’t be accomplished.
What are the advantages or disadvantages of starting a company in the U.S.?
Vlada: I think that it’s much easier to start a company here for a number of reasons. Obviously, the access to venture capital and other people who’ve succeeded at a global scale is incredibly beneficial. It’s great to be able to leverage their expertise and use it to fuel your own success. Also, finding people to back you early on before you are profitable is really hard to do in developing countries like Ukraine. On top of that, there’s obviously a lot of corruption and regulatory pressure that exists in Ukraine and many other countries. Unfortunately, creating an impactful business that solves a real problem is not enough to be successful in countries like Ukraine.
What was your experience with the process of obtaining a visa?
Vlada: For everyone who comes to the U.S. looking to stay here, the visa process becomes a critical part of how they’re able to live. After graduating from business school, I was really keen on starting my own business within a year or so, but wasn’t able to. At that time, I really needed a visa sponsorship, so I decided to take the corporate route, where I was able to find a sponsor and receive my green card. This gave me some time to easily transition from a corporate role to a more entrepreneurial role.
When you were raising money, did you encounter any difficulties because you weren’t an American?
Vlada: Raising capital is tough as an American man, and I had to raise it as a Ukranian woman. That naturally comes with a number of biases. When I think about who my investors are today, many of them are CEOs and founders who don’t have any bias towards me. They also are very well-traveled and originally grew up in foreign countries, which makes them more sympathetic to my journey and background. It’s great to be supported by people who I not only get along with well, but are also open-minded and believe in my vision.
What advice do you have for immigrant founders building companies outside of their native countries?
Vlada: I think that it’s great to always have the support of the community you grew up in. Entrepreneurs can find support from a number of different dimensions, one of which is their country of origin. I do think that surrounding yourself with founders or investors that possess a shared affinity for your company’s goals will help you in the early stages of building your company. You want to work with people that are open and supportive, and maybe have had similar experiences to you so that they understand where you’re coming from. I would certainly recommend leveraging the solid relationships you have and build an affinity group that you can count on.
Other than that, I would say to just go for it and have fun. It’s an amazing journey to build your own company. Above all else, you should thoroughly enjoy it.
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Stay tuned for our next interview as part of The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership. On 1/28/20, we’ll be sharing our conversation with Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled, co-founders of Chipper Cash. Together, they’ve created the first platform to support cross-border mobile payments in Africa.
Ideometry is a Boston-based full-service marketing agency serving a global client base. With a full suite of creative, development, and strategic services, Ideometry helps growth stage startups and Fortune 500 companies alike get the business results they’re looking for. If you’re doing something interesting, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us at ideometry.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.