ucy Xu W13 spent her earlier years as a child of two cultures, growing up as a first-generation Chinese-American in the suburbs of Detroit. This experience led her to discover the innovative space that transpires when two different cultures — and schools of thought — come together. From that discovery, she gained a global perspective and cross-cultural skills that were instrumental in the launch of her new Athens-based business, The Port. Xu caught up with the University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab to discuss the venture’s mission of helping startups in emerging tech markets grow internationally.
Venture Lab: What drew you to Penn/Wharton?
Lucy Xu: As I was applying to the Penn Engineering program, I saw the option to select a checkbox and be considered for the dual-degree engineering and business program. This immediately caught my attention, and while I hadn’t considered business as a career path before, I thought, “Why not?” So, I started my Penn career in the Jerome Fisher Management and Technology Program.
VL: What was the entrepreneurial ecosystem like at Penn?
LX: When I was at Penn, I’d say it was barely budding. Entrepreneurship was still very much the minority as a career path; other paths — such as consulting and finance — were more the norm for students across all schools. From a student-organization level, I could have counted the number of entrepreneurship-focused clubs and initiatives on one hand.
Looking back, the one big entrepreneurial memory that was a huge inspiration in my career was hearing the story of the Warby Parker team. The co-founders were Wharton MBAs at the same time I was an undergrad, and I remember hearing the stories of how they won the Summer Venture Award and took that $10,000 to grow their business into the empire it is now. That one unicorn story really fed my drive and ambition and that of the handful of entrepreneurial peers and friends I had at Penn.
Penn and MUSE helped plant the seed pretty early on that entrepreneurship and marketing were the fields for me. Courses like Consumer Behavior and Strategic Brand Management really piqued my interest, and that’s where the dream to eventually have my own marketing consultancy began.
VL: Can you tell us about your venture?
LX: The Port is a consultancy that provides marketing and business services to startups in Greece and the U.S. I founded it in 2018, after working on the ground in Athens at an early-stage edtech startup, immersing myself in the local startup ecosystem and seeing the opportunity to test out what I believed to be a promising hypothesis: that enabling the exchange of perspectives and resources across global markets would help startups in early-stage tech ecosystems like Greece scale faster — and, at the same time, be beneficial for those outside the ecosystem to apply their expertise for greater impact, and capital for greater return.
VL: How did you validate the opportunity?
LX: I would say the opportunity was, and is, being validated in two phases. Before founding The Port, I spent my first year in Greece working full time with the early-stage edtech startup I just mentioned. I was their first marketing hire after a couple of years of operation and, as their digital marketing manager, I spent the year setting up foundational programs, training the team on inbound marketing, bridging and optimizing their sales and marketing processes, and doing the other nitty-gritty work of creating and launching marketing programs. In a broader context, it’s important to note that this startup was not the exception but rather the norm, in that they were seeking experienced native English-speaking marketers to more effectively market and sell in foreign markets like the U.S. Given this, I realized that what I was doing with them I could be doing at scale for the Greek market and eventually all emerging tech markets. Thus, The Port was born.
Now, over the last three years, we’ve continued to validate our hypothesis through our work with entrepreneurs, startups, and innovation organizations across sectors in Greece, receiving real-time feedback and seeing the true impact of our global and American expertise in the context of an emerging tech market. In the coming year, we look forward to bringing this model to emerging tech markets across the world, to support them in the same way we have with the startups here in Greece.
VL: How has COVID-19 impacted your venture?
LX: We were already primarily an internet-based and remote business, so we were lucky that navigating this year has been relatively smooth. We even had the opportunity to bring on a couple of new clients since startups are taking this period to focus more on marketing and branding, nurturing clients, capturing new market opportunities, and setting themselves up for success in a post-COVID world, whenever that arrives.
Given the current climate, we also took a step back to make sure we were setting up our community for success. From open office hours to pro bono services, our team took active steps to make sure we were not only continuing to engage with our local tech community but also actively giving back and supporting wherever we could.
VL: What advice would you give to aspiring student entrepreneurs?
LX: The one piece of advice I’d give is to forget the “shoulds.” They all come from people who are not you, who don’t have your same background, experiences, or vision — and, therefore, cannot understand that for you, your dream perhaps is your “should.” Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely important to be grateful for all the frameworks and goals that your parents, educational institutions, professors, managers, and mentors help set, but they don’t need to determine your course.
So, if you know in your heart of hearts what you want, go after it, trust the process, and I promise that the adventure, experience, and growth will be invaluable beyond what words can explain.
Taylor Durham is associate director of communications for the University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab.