On February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. This dramatic escalation of a conflict that began 2014 sparked an ongoing war that has led to tens of thousands of deaths and the largest European refugee crisis since World War II. It’s been condemned by 141 countries as an unlawful act of aggression.
As the world marks the one-year anniversary of the invasion, we wanted to understand how businesses in Ukraine have navigated the last year. To that end, we conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 10 Ukrainian managers and executives, representing industries including recruiting, IT, education, venture capital, health and fitness, agriculture, and oil and gas.
We asked them about their experiences leading in the midst of war, the challenges they faced, and the lessons they learned. Their stories — translated and edited for clarity — follow and shed light on several common themes.
When the threat of a Russian invasion became real in early 2022, Ukrainian software development company Ralabs began preparing. It created new HR policies in case employees were drafted, developed a detailed relocation plan for employees across eight different countries, and conducted employee trainings on working abroad, first aid, and how to pack an emergency suitcase. As employees were becoming increasingly stressed (especially when global media began predicting that if a war began, Kyiv would fall in a few days), the company made sure to complement its tactical resources with mental health support, co-founder and COO Roman Rodomansky told us.
Of course, the arrival of war shocked even the most prepared organizations. But our interviewees told us that after the Russian army retreated from Kyiv, they were largely able to adapt to their new reality. When Russian attacks targeted Ukraine’s power infrastructure, they quickly set up new workspaces equipped with generators and satellite internet. When employees had to relocate, employers offered support, training, and resources. To stay afloat while clients disappeared and revenues fell, leaders found creative ways to cut operational costs without laying people off. Many also described how they were able to build on the adaptability and resilience, particularly when it came to distributed work, that their teams had already demonstrated during the pandemic.
At 4:30 in the morning on February 24, I woke up to sirens blaring, rockets flying, explosions everywhere. My neighbor’s house was hit, just 700 meters from me. Thank God, his wife was still asleep — the blankets protected her when their bedroom window shattered and covered the room in glass. We all hid in the basement, and when we could escape, we went to stay with relatives in Western Ukraine. Six families stayed in the basement there, food was running out, there were queues, shifts for everything. I mean, you can’t live like that.
Eventually, my family was able to get to Poland, and I went to my hometown near Odesa. But those first few months, there was no work. There were no clients. If someone called, it was to talk about who was alive and who was not, who was in occupied areas, who had relatives in trouble, who was in the basement, and in what condition.
Then, in May, business started happening again. The Russians left Bucha and Irpin, and I returned to Kyiv — though not without incident. A bridge was blown up, and our little train stood there for two hours, waiting for the missile raid to end. I remember Googling the width of the river, and the water temperature, calculating whether I’d be able to make it across if the train fell from the tracks. I even took off my shoes and coat, just in case, so I’d be ready to swim. But luckily, they repaired the tracks, and I made it to Kyiv in one piece.
By now, things are mostly back to normal for my company. We’re a small group, like a guerilla team. We all disbanded, but we’ve all returned. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s to always be prepared. Now I know what to do if there’s an invasion, and I’ve set up everything I can for my business and my family in case I’m not here tomorrow. My list of contingency plans got longer, and I understand better how to react to these risks. We all do. And, well, if a zombie apocalypse comes, I think we’d be a lot more ready for it than before.
— Volodymyr, Kyiv
Founding partner, startup advisory firm
Our conversations made it clear that resilient organizations go hand in hand with resilient leaders. Personal resilience enables the quick decision-making, comfort with short planning horizons, and agility necessary to support a team through rapidly evolving challenges. As Yevhen Tytiuk, president of an oil and gas equipment producer, reflected, “To be honest, I’ve had some terrible thoughts. But now, I’m full of enthusiasm. Of course, we haven’t been able to maintain pre-war levels, and we’ve had to adapt a lot. But based on the volumes we have now, I think we’re going to be okay.”
The leaders we interviewed described a variety of coping mechanisms to help them recover from the trauma wrought by the war and fulfill their responsibilities to their employees, from openly sharing their feelings with their teams to carving out time for hobbies and friends to intentionally focusing on humor and optimism.
Nowadays, we call it “war-life balance” — when missiles are flying overhead; people are working from bomb shelters, basements, and bathrooms; we have no power, no internet; schools are closed, so kids are with us at home…the stress and anxiety are intense.
But still, we have to find moments of joy. We have to find some way to balance work, volunteering, helping the military, and caring for family. We have to find a way to make it all work.
Of course, our leadership team had a business continuity plan. But we never believed that we would need to activate it. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, our first challenge was ensuring the physical safety of our employees. We managed to relocate many to Lviv, where the war was still painful, but business could continue to operate. Priority number two was making sure we could keep paying our people.
And amazingly, just a few days after the invasion, 90% of our employees were already back to work. Their commitment was extraordinary, and it meant we were able to keep the majority of our clients, because ultimately, they also need to get their jobs done.
Of course, there were moments that were emotionally devastating. I had a colleague who lost her father in the war. Others had close relatives who were captured in the occupied territories. One has a brother who’s been imprisoned for six months with no word on where he is or when he may be released.
When we hear these stories, or when we see the photos of the brutalities committed in the liberated territories, we all feel great suffering, and we can’t expect to be as productive as usual. But as a leader, I find that sharing my vulnerabilities openly and joining volunteer efforts helps me and my team to move forward. I know I can’t fully protect everyone, and I know that some uncertainty is inescapable, but we do our best to provide whatever support we can.
— Lidiya Dats, Lviv
Co-founder and head of HR, TechMagic (software engineering company)
The leaders we spoke with found a shared sense of purpose in continuing business operations that were supporting the war effort by employing people and paying taxes; in volunteering and donating to medical relief efforts, refugee resettlement programs, and military support funds; and in developing products that could help everyday Ukrainians.
For example, CEO of ed-tech platform GIOS, Nataliia Limonova, shared that she started including a call for donations to a Ukraine relief fund when pitching her business to investors, enabling her to fundraise for her company while building international support for her country. Her emotion was palpable when she described seeing donations from fellow business leaders start to pour in.
GIOS was also one of several Ukrainian companies that chose to offer their products and services to Ukrainians for free. These leaders shared that despite substantial hurdles, a strong sense of purpose helped motivate and unite their people — even in their darkest hours.
According to recent estimates, 90% of Ukrainians today exhibit symptoms of PTSD. And you know, this mental health stuff, it’s not as popular here as it is in the U.S. and Europe. A lot of people are reluctant to admit they need help. So, when we’re able to make a difference, when we get feedback that a customer was finally able to get a good night’s sleep after completing one of our programs, when we’re able to offer free access to resources that help with stress, anxiety, and depression, that helps our team really feel the importance of our mission.
Still, when the war started, I had to find and articulate a new vision for the company, for why we should move forward even as bombs fell all around us. We know that our army fights for military victory on the front line, but we fight on the economic front line. This isn’t just a business, it’s a way to support our country. When our company is stable and successful, we of course improve our customers’ lives, but we also donate to the army, pay taxes and salaries, and create jobs that make it possible for the brilliant minds of Ukraine to stay here, rather than leaving to find work abroad. I’m more useful to my country with a laptop than with a weapon.
My title might be CEO, but recently, I’m more like chief energy officer. My job is to keep morale up, keep the team’s batteries charged, and inspire everyone to help each other, our business, and our country — in whatever ways we can.
— Victoria Repa, Kyiv
CEO, BetterMe (health and fitness platform)
The leaders we spoke with also described finding purpose in helping build the country’s future by retaining and developing talent, rebuilding the economy, and fostering new industries to fill the gaps left by parts of Ukraine’s economy, such as the agriculture sector, that have been severely damaged.
This is a huge tragedy for the for the Ukrainian people, for the nation. But it’s also a unique opportunity, because the nation has never been so united. It’s a chance to push our country forward, to invest in our country, to make sure that when this war ends, we’re poised to join the ranks of truly developed nations.
We all understand that we have a professional army, and they’re doing their job. So we have to do our job, here. Once my team and I understood this, we became more focused, more driven to find creative ways to help the founders we work with and adapt our programs to meet new demand. After the war, we’re going to need a lot of smart people here in Ukraine, and I see our work as helping to prepare the next generation of young entrepreneurs to lead our country forward.
— Ivan Petrenko, Lviv
Managing partner, Angel One Venture Fund and CEO, CfE Accelerator
The leaders we interviewed consistently emphasized how empathy had become central to their approach, whether by offering financial support to struggling employees, insisting burned-out workers take time off, or simply listening to employees. One executive, who described regularly taking time to listen to his driver talk about his son, who was serving on the front line in Eastern Ukraine, joked that his role was similar to that of that a priest.
At the same time, the leaders we spoke with also noted the limits of empathy. Many reflected that unless they went through a similar experience themselves, they could never fully understand someone who had lost a home or a loved one.
You know, most of the time, when I talk to my colleagues, I don’t just talk about work. I talk to them as people. And I think they can see that the conversation isn’t just about business, that I’m also thinking about them on a personal level, and so they just naturally open up a little more. It inspires a kind of hope, a kind of positivity.
For example, before the war, I had sold my car to one of my employees on credit. She was going to pay me back in installments, but once the war started, I told her it wasn’t necessary to pay me back. And it turned out that the car ended up helping her and her husband a great deal, because it was a four-wheel drive, and without it, they might not have been able to escape Kyiv. Things like this bring people together around you.
I was constantly in touch with my colleagues, my partners. I knew what everyone was facing, and because I knew about their lives, I was always mostly concerned with their safety — questions of business might have been there somewhere, but they were in the background.
— Yevhen, Kyiv
Founder and general manager, grain and oil seeds trading company
You just need to listen to your people. You need to really listen — don’t just hear what they say, but tune in to how they’re really doing.
I had a team lead with two small children, and her mother lived near Mykolaiv, in an area that was occupied by Russia. She was a great woman, a really strong manager, but I could see that with everything going on, she was increasingly stressed. But sometimes people aren’t always able to take their own temperature. At first, she insisted that she was okay, but we talked more, and I just listened, and eventually she realized just how taxing it had all been for her. From there, we were able to work together to figure out how the company could help and how we could move forward as a team.
No matter what, that’s my approach: We are all one team. I don’t believe in treating people differently, whether they’re a freelancer or full time, junior or senior, marketer or engineer. Sometimes, when there were blackouts, some of our freelancers couldn’t find a place to do their work, since all the cafes and free spaces were totally full, so I asked my team to organize some workspaces for them. One of my clients was surprised, because he thought it wasn’t our responsibility to do all that. But I don’t believe you can start splitting the team, as if some people are more important than others. We’re all people, we all care about each other, and we’re all facing these challenges together.
— Natalia Tkachova, Odesa
Project manager and team lead, TechMagic
The leaders we interviewed almost universally shared moments of deep gratitude in the midst of tragedy. They described how they would take just a brief pause to acknowledge the positives in their lives, giving them the energy, motivation, and optimism to carry on. Indeed, research has shown that simple expressions of gratitude can reduce stress, improve interpersonal relationships, and even boost physical health.
I run a recruiting agency that helps international companies hire tech talent in Ukraine. Before the war, our pitch was essentially, “Hey, Americans, we know what you pay for developers — come to Ukraine and you can get the same quality for half the price.”
But when the war started, many of our customers felt it was too risky to hire Ukrainian developers, or open Ukrainian offices, so we lost a lot of business. It was a really hard time, there was a lot of uncertainty, but it also showed me how much I have to be grateful for. My team was incredible, willing to do whatever needed to be done to keep the company afloat. And of course, I’m really grateful for the folks protecting our country on the front lines, giving us the opportunity to keep working and creating value for our customers. We’ve faced some tough times, but really, I’m so fortunate to be where I am. For me to complain just wouldn’t make sense, not when there are people who are actually giving up their lives for our country every day.
Even small things, I learned to appreciate to a new level. For the first few days, for instance, the whole economy stopped, supermarket shelves were empty, I couldn’t even buy diapers for my one-year-old. Then one day, I was able to get some, and I felt such joy at being able to get something I used to take for granted.
I remember another time, I was going to bed after a long, 16-hour workday, and I said to my wife, “I feel really happy right now.” I was spent, exhausted, but I felt that I had given my work and my family everything I could that day, no more, no less. And I remember thinking, if I could live my whole life that way, I would die happy.
— Bogdan, Lviv
CEO, tech talent recruitment agency
I lead an ed-tech startup, and both our in-house team and the teachers on our platform were amazing. Everyone adapted to the challenges, some even teaching from their basements during the blackouts.
But we were supposed to receive our next tranche of investment on February 28, and of course, that didn’t turn out to be in the cards. Plus, we gave students free access to our platform as soon as the war started, to help families who may be displaced. So, well, cash flow has been a challenge.
Yet some days, I’m still just overwhelmed with gratitude. Take this morning: I’m in my house, and a beautiful winter day is all around me. I’m with my husband, we just finished breakfast, and the morning feels like a small holiday, just because we are alive, and we can see these beautiful surroundings, and I have my team and my family with me. And we have the opportunity to help so many people through our work, to inspire people and support students and teachers all around the world. Sometimes, I have days like that: amazing days.
— Nataliia Limonova, Kyiv
Founder and CEO, GIOS (interactive math platform for students and teachers)
Leave a Reply