Ukraine Tech Startups Pivot From Software Code to Rescue Plans

Anton Kolomyeytsev was waiting at the Romanian border with Ukraine for his mother and families of employees of his technology company, which had been based in Kiev several weeks earlier.

A total of nine people made it, and Mr. Kolomyeytsev drove them to Hungary that night in early March. This task of transporting people across national borders – finding a ride, shelter and food – still occupies him more than a month after he started bringing his employees and data servers from Ukraine and to Poland in anticipation of a Russian invasion

“We understood that we are pretty much on our own to save the company, save our people and human lives,” said Mr. Kolomyeytsev, the 44-year-old chief executive officer of StarWind Software Inc., a data storage company. business.

In an escalating war, business leaders responsible for large Ukrainian workforces have become evacuation coordinators, military strategists, humanitarian aid providers and, in some cases, financiers of the Ukrainian military. Startups like StarWind are using their tech-savvy, dispersed workforce and relative flexibility as smaller and private companies to help mitigate the business trauma and human catastrophe of war.

View from the office in Wroclaw, Poland, recently opened by StarWind.

For the CEOs who run these startups and their deputies, the normal duties of sending codes and ramping up sales have been replaced by mapping out escape routes and paying colleagues who fight with the military.

Their preparations for war began months ago. The startups provided passports and Covid-19 vaccines to employees and their families, convert money into US dollars and transfer staff to safer locations. Now, from offices in Poland, Germany, Israel, Silicon Valley and elsewhere, these startup leaders continue to run their businesses while adding one more task: helping to defend Ukraine.

StarWind doubled the salaries of workers enlisted in the Ukrainian military, Kolomyeytsev said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the US and allied countries have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday takes a closer look at the impact of these sanctions on everyone from President Vladimir Putin to ordinary Russian citizens. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

Ukrainian startup Lemon.io, an online marketplace for software engineers to find jobs, gives all of the company’s profits to the military at the end of each month — about $124,000 so far — and donates to organizations that use drones for the military. army, said CEO Aleksandr Volodarski.

When employees of software company People.ai Inc. decided to enlist, their colleagues raised more than $30,000 to buy the army’s sleeping bags and mats, ham radios and other communications hardware, said CEO Oleg Rogynskyy, a Ukrainian resident who has lived in Silicon Valley for nearly a decade.

These startup leaders and their employees say such efforts alleviate the helplessness of watching the destruction of their home from a distance.

Andrew Tuzov, head of business development at StarWind, at the company’s office in Wroclaw, Poland last week; he went to the border to pick up upcoming colleagues.

“Our plan is to win this war and do everything we can to aid the war effort and ensure that our country can return to a peaceful life,” said Andrew Tuzov, director of business development for StarWind.

Mr. Volodarsky from Lemon.io is one of about 10 people from his company who have come from Ukraine; he fled to Jerusalem with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 3. To escape, they broke the curfew and drove out of Kiev at dawn to the border with Hungary, where they crossed on foot and then flew to Israel. He said he talks daily with 33 workers in Ukraine, three in Russian-occupied cities, and offers to help them move.

They think it’s too late, said Mr. Volodarsky. Men who are fit for military service are not allowed to leave the country, others consider the journey too risky.

“People are just too scared to go out on the streets to leave,” said Mr Volodarsky, 35.

mr. Volodarsky said he had a plan for the war. He prepaid his employees two months’ salary and increased payments to the freelancers who use Lemon.io to find work in case banks went offline. He told his staff that if war breaks out, you should pack your emergency bag and first aid kit and meet at his co-founder’s home in western Ukraine.

“We will support you unless you decide to move to Russia,” Volodarsky wrote to his associates before the invasion.

Things didn’t go as planned, and workers stayed put, some retreating to air raid shelters. “The guilt is in my throat,” said Mr. Volodarsky.

People.ai employees, above, pack emergency supplies for Ukraine; some of the supplies they’ve gathered, below.


Photo:

Mariana Lutska (2)

Mr. Volodarsky said he has rejected the company’s targets for the year; his goal now is to have enough money to pay his workers and help fund the Ukrainian military, and “live through this”.

Lemon.io, People.ai and StarWind say their businesses are continuing, helped in part by early preparations and the habit of working with a globally dispersed workforce.

StarWind is based in Massachusetts, but it was founded by Ukrainians, and three quarters of the staff were based in Kiev. It moved some data servers out of the country in personal cars; the rest of the data was transferred to other servers that the company bought or rented.

People.ai, a Silicon Valley-based company that uses artificial intelligence to help companies improve their sales and operations, has transferred some of the work typically done in Ukraine to San Francisco and Toronto.

People.ai’s Rogynskyy set up a task force and began holding secret meetings in mid-December to play out dozens of scenarios of a Russian invasion, with help from a former US Army platoon leader who had joined as Mr. Rogynskyy’s chief. staff. Nearly a third of its technical team is located in Ukraine.

A month later, Mr. Rogynskyy instructed his team in Kiev: Make sure you and everyone in your family have a passport, convert your money into US dollars and leave Ukraine. The company sent employees screenshots of directions from Google Maps showing the best routes out of the country to a safe meeting point and hotels along the way.

“They thought I was crazy,” said Mr Rogynskyy, 36, who grew up in Dnipro, which has been ravaged by Russian attacks.

At the hostel in Wroclaw, Poland, where StarWind employees arriving from Ukraine have stayed.

Most People.ai employees were from Ukraine in mid-February. The company paid for passports for employees and immediate families, transportation, cell phones and housing.

Kolomyeytsev, of StarWind, said he expects a Russian invasion since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In recent years, he and some associates had practiced shooting most Thursdays — their version of team building, he said. He estimates that seven employees have joined the Ukrainian army.

Mr. Kolomyeytsev sent Mr. Tuzov, StarWind’s head of business development, to Wroclaw, in southwestern Poland, to open a new office. Normally, Mr. Tuzov’s job is to work with StarWind’s partners and customers, including major retailers and the US military. But for more than a month, the 29-year-old has been taking his colleagues and their families arriving at the Polish border to a hostel he prepared.

One of the recent arrivals is Daryna Havrada, a StarWind customer support representative, who made a 33-hour journey to Wroclaw from western Ukraine, leaving behind her parents and younger sister.

Daryna Havrada, an 18-year-old StarWind customer support representative, was hired in January and recently moved to Wroclaw from western Ukraine.

“I really didn’t expect the company to care about me when I’m this young,” said Ms. Havrada, 18, who joined StarWind in January.

About 60 of StarWind’s approximately 180 employees in Kiev have moved to Wroclaw. “It’s also a bit of a survival complex because we’re here,” Mr. Tuzov said.

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Mariana Lutska, Human Resources Director for People.ai’s Ukraine operations, is now tasked with helping employees settle in a new city. This includes securing a legal residence and work permit and enrolling children in school.

On weekends, she and her colleagues go to local pharmacies and buy first aid supplies to send to Ukraine, Ms Lutska said. Many join pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.

But the 31-year-old wonders if she and her husband will ever live in the new Kiev house they nearly finished when the war started.

“We do not know whether we will be able to return,” Ms Lutska said, or “whether Ukraine will be free or not.”

The historic center of Wroclaw, Poland.

write to Heather Somerville at Heather.Somerville@wsj.com

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