The Ukraine Crisis Hits Close to Home for Silicon Valley, and Tech Execs Aren't Wasting Time: 'They're Thinking Like a Startup, Which Allows Them to Move Faster'
Ukrainian-American venture capitalist and Worklife founder Brianne Kimmel discusses her company's involvement with relief efforts, including an offer to evacuate thousands of Ukrainian engineers, and how other companies can make the most of their resources to help those in need.
Some might be surprised to learn of the close relationship that exists between Silicon Valley and Ukraine, but considering each region is a tech hub in its own right, it's a natural one. According to Amsterdam-based software-development company Daxx, there were 200,000 Ukrainian developers in the country in 2020, and 20% of Fortune 500 companies have their remote development teams in Ukraine. The ties between the two regions extend beyond pure economics too: People move from one place to the other, collaborating on projects, even getting married.
It's an economic and cultural exchange with which venture capitalist Brianne Kimmel is deeply familiar. As the Ukrainian-American founder of Worklife Ventures, one of the fastest-growing early stage VCs in the U.S., she's been directly involved with startups' hiring processes in Ukraine, helping them establish great places to work and strong company cultures. For Kimmel, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine hits close to home. A few months ago, when it started to look like a Russian invasion was imminent, she decided to take action.
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"Once we started to get some signals that there were concerns in Ukraine, I got really actively involved with these companies as far as posting office hours and speaking company-wide about the stability of the company and the fact that everyone's jobs would be safe, if and when something were to happen," Kimmel says. Early on, Worklife also offered employees the option of relocating at the company's expense.
"We were using Airbnbs at portfolio companies to help, specifically finding Airbnbs in Poland and nearby regions that we could use company money to relocate employees to," Kimmel says. But the response to Worklife's gesture was somewhat unexpected. Despite offering relocation assistance to thousands of Ukrainian engineers, only 7% took the company up on it — while the remaining 93% elected to stay in the country. According to Kimmel, there were a couple of reasons behind why such a high percentage chose not to leave.
Why didn't more people take the offer and leave Ukraine?
"In certain cities, it wasn't clear that Russia would make as big of a move nationwide, so some folks who were in cities that weren't occupied wanted to wait it out," Kimmel says. "By the time they wanted to make the move, Ukraine had implemented the rule that men couldn't leave, so a lot of women chose to stay because they didn't want to separate their family."
Today, Worklife's portfolio companies are operating at 95% capacity. It's indicative of a larger trend company leaders in the U.S. and Europe are seeing across Ukraine. As brutal attacks on their cities persist, many Ukrainian professionals have continued working — with hundreds of thousands in IT-related fields even using their skills to form a so-called "IT army" to launch cyberattacks against the Russian government.
"Culturally, there is a sense of loyalty," Kimmel says, citing the higher employee retention rate among professionals in Ukraine compared to those in the U.S. She adds that some companies might have an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality when it comes to their employees who don't make the trip into the office every day, and she doesn't want Ukrainian professionals to get lost in the shuffle. "I want to make sure that companies are treating them equally as important as H2 employees, because they've been loyal and working during this time," she says. As supporting Ukrainian employees becomes increasingly necessary, Kimmel strives to stay one step ahead with Worklife. She says the company is being proactive on the mental-health front, which is more important than ever before as Ukrainians continue to work in a war-torn country.
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Tech companies step in with Ukrainian relief efforts
Many other companies have also risen to the occasion, helping Ukrainians on a large scale. Housing rental giant Airbnb has partnered with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency, to provide people fleeing Ukraine with free, short-term housing in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, and logistics startup Flexport is organizing the shipment of goods to refugees. Ukrainian-American actress Mila Kunis and her husband Ashton Kutcher have raised more than $34 million to be divided between Airbnb and Flexport's philanthropic projects. Additionally, Meta has lent its support to a Stanford University group of Ukrainian students and allies who have created a fundraising campaign for Nova Ukraine, a nonprofit providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid.
Nova Ukraine itself is run by a volunteer group of tech executives and investors, and has received a $1 million donation from Twitter co-founder and Block, Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey, along with other large individual donations from several Silicon Valley executives and founders. The organization ran one of the most successful viral fundraising campaigns on Facebook at the start of the war, bringing in $2 million in roughly 10 days with several thousand individual contributions via the platform. Meta and Google have given Nova Ukraine ad credits to help the organization scale and combat scam accounts, and Nova Ukraine has also partnered with engineers who are developing a platform that builds heat maps to show where necessities are most needed on the ground.
Worklife has invested in several companies that are making major contributions as well. OpenPhone provides a secure way to send text messages and make phone calls, and it's offering its service for free, allowing Ukrainians to have private phone calls with friends and family. Deel, a payroll and compliance provider that helps companies set up remote offices, has given its employees the option to be paid in Bitcoin in the face of currency volatility. Additionally, no-code development platform Webflow is committed to helping refugees across the globe — including those often excluded from the mainstream press — and, to that end, has expanded its relief efforts to Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan and Colombia.
"The U.S. government has been a little bit more quiet and guarded in how we're approaching support for Ukraine broadly, but tech companies, as private companies, have the opportunity to be very vocal and to take a stand and to move faster," Kimmel says. "So we're seeing Elon Musk, Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, and then the CEO of Flexport really step up very quickly. They're thinking like a startup, which allows them to move faster."
Related: UPDATE: How Elon Musk Is Getting Involved With the Ukraine Crisis
How smaller companies can help Ukrainians
When it comes to smaller companies that might not have the resources for such large-scale efforts, starting a GoFundMe page is one way to show Ukrainian employees support, Kimmel says. What's more, anyone looking to hire some extra help might consider hiring displaced Ukrainians on places like Upwork, Kimmel notes, as it's "a good way to not only donate to a nonprofit, but also to actually build a direct relationship and create jobs for people that are left in the region."
Finally, Kimmel also suggests giving employees the power of choice where donations are concerned. "Some people will want to donate medical supplies. Some people want to be more involved in education," she says. "Allowing employees to choose their own type of relief is really important during this time."