‘I have no fear’: How Ukrainian tech founders operate during Russia’s war
Entrepreneurs in Ukraine have continued to work through explosions, air raid sirens, the gunfire of heavy-calibre weapons [File: Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters]By Angelica MariPublished On 2 Feb 20242 Feb 2024
As Dmytro Suslov walked his dog on February 24, 2022, just before five in the morning, he spotted the first missile strikes overhead marking the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. His heart pounded with fear, as he contacted family and friends to learn their whereabouts.
Since that day, “continuous explosions, air raid sirens, the sounds of missiles flying over the city, the gunfire of heavy-calibre weapons, the whistling of mines and horrifying news” have become part of the tech entrepreneur’s everyday life. However, leaving his home and family behind has never been an option – and that remains the case despite the war’s current escalation.
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“With the intensification of Russian attacks on our cities, my stance on staying in Ukraine remains unchanged,” Suslov told Al Jazeera. “Of course, it puts pressure on each of us, but personally, I have no fear.”
For the last decade up until the war, Suslov had been selling software from a Russian firm to Ukrainian businesses. The decision to no longer work with that company was made instantly, as the products suddenly became associated with the attacking country.
“It was a values-based decision, and I made it without hesitation,” he said.
Given his tech industry expertise and MBA-level education, Suslov considered his professional options. “I don’t think I aspired to become an entrepreneur, but given the circumstances, I immersed myself [in starting a business] alongside new business partners,” Suslov said, referring to the process leading up to Uspacy, the developer of a corporate digital workspace, founded with Spartak Polishchuk and Volodymyr Pimakhov in the year the war began.
Companies such as Uspacy and others, like Grammarly and MacPaw, are part of a thriving technology sector, which was the country’s most significant service export in 2023, according to a study conducted by the Lviv IT Cluster and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
This is a bright spot in an otherwise challenging economic landscape: According to the Ukrainian economy minister Yulia Svyrydenko, the country’s overall export value fell by 18.7 percent last year in relation to 2022, the lowest figure in a decade.
Uspacy has benefitted from the Ukrainian government’s support through tax incentives, connections from the Ukrainian Startup Fund, and international exposure via the USAID programme. The company has also devised new ways of working, but the war’s complexities can take their toll.
“I lost power and internet, and mobile communication was unstable for some time. Most employees at the time of the attack were hiding in bomb shelters or staying away from windows between two walls,” Suslov recalled about the attacks at the start of January.
“Of course, under such conditions, work was impossible. But as soon as we heard the air raid alarm stop and did a roll call to ensure everyone was OK, we immediately returned to work tasks,” he added.
While tech founders like Suslov have chosen to stay and navigate turbulent times, the industry has also seen significant levels of migration. The number of Ukrainian tech experts living abroad increased by 20 percent last year and reached 65,000 professionals in 2023, according to the Lviv IT Cluster study.
This is part of a larger trend impacting the country, as noted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which records over 6.3 million people out of the country’s population of 36.7 million having left Ukraine as of January.
Victoria Repa, CEO and founder of BetterMe, a wellness startup founded in 2016, fled after waking up to explosions in her Kyiv apartment the day the war started. “[The decision to leave was due to] uncertainty about tomorrow and the near future,” said Repa, who crisscrossed Europe before heading to Poland.
Despite being plunged into ambivalence and fear and going through war-related turmoil for the second time – Repa was a student at Donetsk University when the Donbas invasion began in 2014 – she sought to protect her growing business and its workforce of over 500 staff, of which 80 percent remained in Ukraine.
“I managed difficult moments by defining a mission and moving forward. I realised that business is essential in supporting the economic frontier, and Ukraine needs it like never before,” Repa says.
This involved investing in items such as generators, batteries and Starlink internet to keep the company going. “There were no guarantees that infrastructure attacks wouldn’t affect the ability to do business: Electricity, internet, water, and gas supplies are all vulnerable to attacks,” she told Al Jazeera.
Other concerns included introducing emergency measures to move team members to safer places alongside technical equipment, as well as ensuring a stable service to the firm’s 150 million users worldwide.
But leading a business in a war scenario is far from simple, and a particular episode ahead of a BetterMe product showcase at a business conference illustrates the ongoing struggle.
“My presentation was being prepared when massive missile attacks began throughout Ukraine, leaving half the country without electricity or internet access,” Repa said.
The mindset in these situations has been to find ways to get things done despite scenarios of “uncontrollable stress and chaos”, according to the entrepreneur. “Our experience shows that creativity and innovation can thrive even in the darkest of times,” she said.
Sustaining her own mental stability and energy levels has also been key, the founder noted. “[My priority is to] bring stability and control back to the team. Meet fear in its face, create and communicate all the worst scenarios to prevent total system failure. The [focus] is to meet and manage all fear-inducing situations,” she added.
Ensuring business continuity
The mindset among Ukrainian founders is not only about coping but also strategically planning for the future. For Oleg Panchenko, founder of software development agency FreySoft, relocating to Poland after a brief stay in the UK was about personal safety, but also a measure for business continuity.
“We couldn’t offer Ukrainian developers for new project work – [companies] said they would be happy to work with them if they were based elsewhere in the European Union, but wouldn’t take risks if [contractors] were based in Ukraine,” he said.
The shift resulted in a gradual globalisation process for FreySoft, which was entirely Ukrainian in 2022. Now, half of the company’s 80-strong workforce hail from other countries, and Panchenko diversified his ventures with MakeDeal, an HR productivity tool and FreyStaff, a hiring system supported by artificial intelligence.
Even though Panchenko and his family were forced to leave their home country, they have chosen not to view life in Warsaw as a mere stopgap. “We live life ‘now’ rather than deferring it to the future, and I hope that those who left our country and are living abroad will also accept their current lives,” the founder said, adding he is still unsure as to whether he would return.
“A lot has changed for me, personally and in Ukraine, since I left. I would be happy to move back into my home once it is possible to do so, but so far, I don’t see any options in that regard,” Panchenko said.
Despite their different approaches to life and business and their unique challenges, Ukrainian founders converge on their optimism about what lies ahead. For BetterMe’s Repa, moving back to Kyiv after the war ends is a priority. “The tech sector will be the base for rebuilding Ukraine,” she says.
For FreySoft’s Panchenko, there is an ongoing shift in the sector, with many businesses, including his own, transitioning from offering technology services to developing products. “This change leverages Ukraine’s existing talent pool, and I believe our products will bloom globally,” he says.
The initiatives led by government and nongovernmental organisations focused on Ukraine’s future and its image in the world will be instrumental in steering the tech scene and its founders to a brighter future, says Uspacy’s Suslov. “I am happy that despite the war, Ukraine is taking fundamental steps to build a startup ecosystem that the world should know,” he said.