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Why Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Is Personal for Silicon Valley

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group shot of dozens of people holding protest signs and yellow and blue Ukrainian flags
Demonstrators wrapped in Ukrainian flags gather in San Francisco Civic Center on Feb. 24, 2022.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For years, Ukraine has been one of Silicon Valley’s favorite offshore outposts for educated, cheap IT labor. There are now roughly 20,000 people of Ukrainian descent living in the Bay Area, according to the Ukrainian consulate in San Francisco.

The connections between the two regions are not simply economic. Strong cultural affinities have developed. People move between the Bay Area and Ukraine and work together on projects. They get married to each other.

"My wife is Ukrainian," said John Sung Kim, CEO of the Bay Area-based outsourcing company JetBridge. He’s married to a Ukrainian woman, with in-laws in one of the disputed regions.

They told him tanks have arrived in their town as Russia's long-feared assault on Ukraine began Thursday, and they've relocated to their basement. "So we need evacuation plans for them," Kim said.

JetBridge employs more than 20 people in Ukraine, and the company has been working on contingency plans to get them out: to western Ukraine, to Poland, or even to the Bay Area.

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"If we have to evacuate them, we also have to evacuate their families. And so this could be 100 people," Kim said. But it's an open question when that might happen. "Airports have been bombed and traffic is a no go. People are stuck."

Then there’s the JetBridge team in Belarus, dependent, like their co-workers in Ukraine, on international money transfers for their salaries. Kim fears financial sanctions on Russia could be extended to include Belarus, a Russian ally. Should that happen, it could become difficult to pay his employees there. "So now we have questions, like, do we need to extract people out of Belarus?" he said.

cyclist carrying bright yellow and blue ukrainian flag rides under series of metal hoops under a blue sky
A bicyclist waves the Ukrainian flag over his head as he rides through the Sonic Runway, an art installation outside San Jose City Hall. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

While many companies big and small employ Ukrainians here or in Ukraine, those contacted by KQED declined to identify specific employees out of concern for their safety.

JustAnswer, a San Francisco-based tech company that employs 252 people in Ukraine, also has been working on contingency plans to keep its workers safe, make sure they get paid — and handle workers who want to serve in Ukraine's military, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Google, Oracle, Snap, Grammarly and Ring also employ workers in Ukraine.

A spokesperson for Ring said the company is in close contact with the people it does business with in Ukraine, and that “we’re of course monitoring their well-being with great care.”

"This is not the first time that our team members in Ukraine have experienced heightened uncertainty," said a spokesperson for Grammarly, a company founded by Ukrainians.

"Grammarly also supports all of our team members, including those who call Ukraine home, with various mental health benefits and frequent internal communication updates that aim to provide clarity in a time of uncertainty," the spokesperson said. "Our contingency plans also account for ensuring Grammarly’s services will not be disrupted. This includes backup communication methods and temporary transfer of business-critical responsibilities to team members outside of Ukraine to ensure our Ukraine-based team members can focus on the immediate safety of themselves and their families."

In 2014, after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, the nonprofit humanitarian aid organization Nova Ukraine was born in the Bay Area. It's one of several groups raising funds for causes ranging from helping underserved children in Ukraine with educational aid, to COVID relief, to a letter-writing campaign directed at U.S. lawmakers regarding the Russian invasion.

"I have fewer connections now than before," said Igor Markov, a research scientist for a prominent Silicon Valley company who volunteers for Nova Ukraine in his spare time.

He came to the U.S. in 1993 to study mathematics in graduate school. He estimates that a third of his high school class from Kyiv now lives in the U.S., reflecting how enmeshed the two countries have become in the last three decades.

"Putin and his subservient government and parliament — they have gone way too far," Markov said. "It's not a matter of Russians versus Ukrainians at all. It's a matter of Putin versus the world."

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