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Despite a Year of Suffering, Some Silicon Valley Companies Tied to Ukraine Remain Optimistic

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grinning white man wearing dark clothing extends his hand towards another smiling white man closer to the camera who is wearing a jacket with the Ukrainian flag on it
Andy Kurtzig (far right), CEO of San Francisco-based online expert platform JustAnswer, is greeted by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi (center) inside the Lviv Mental Health Center, a national mental health center in Lviv, Ukraine. JustAnswer and Kurtzig's nonprofit, the Arizae Foundation, financed the center to provide free or low-cost therapy and treatment for people suffering from PTSD and other mental conditions. (Courtesy of Nazariy Parkhomyk)

A year ago, 80% of the roughly 30 Ukrainians working for San Francisco-based outsourcing company JetBridge fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion. Now, they’re all back in western Ukraine, which is relatively safer. But that’s not to say everything’s normal outside of work.

“Everyone is physically OK, but lack of electricity is a huge problem now,” said CEO John Sung Kim. He’s married to a Ukrainian and his in-laws live in recently liberated Mykolayiv. He worries the city might be shelled again, or his family could be drafted, or both. He worries that might happen to his employees. They worry, too.

“I can see on Zoom that they’re starting to get the 10,000-yard stare, from trauma,” Kim said.

The company’s Belarus-based workforce of five — also displaced following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — is now in Poland.

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For years, Ukraine has been one of Silicon Valley’s favorite offshore outposts for educated, cheap IT labor. Google, Grammarly, Oracle and many other companies employ workers in Ukraine.

“We are proud to be Ukraine-founded and -built, with many team members who call Ukraine home,” Brad Hoover, CEO of San Francisco-based Grammarly, posted recently on the company blog. “I’m inspired by our colleagues in Ukraine who persevere through daily challenges with grit and adaptability. I admire the strength and bravery of team members who volunteer, fundraise, and serve in Ukraine’s armed forces to defend their homeland.”

A recent Google blog post details how the Mountain View-based global tech giant has supported Ukraine, ranging from campaigns to counter Russian disinformation about the invasion to the Google for Startups Ukraine Support Fund, designed to help Ukrainian businesses “maintain liquidity, continue operations and incentivize further investment.”

While many Ukrainians have fled to safer places, including the United States, others have stayed or returned out of patriotism, or because they don’t want to leave family behind. Also, they’ve gotten used to military conflict with Russia stretching back to the invasion of 2014.

Andy Kurtzig, CEO of the San Francisco-based online expert platform JustAnswer, has about 315 employees based in Ukraine. That’s up roughly 65 people from last year, because, like JetBridge, JustAnswer has hired more people from Ukraine over the past year, despite the Russian invasion.

“We’re fairly well-prepared,” Kurtzig said. “We do have generators at our offices. We do have Starlink’s internet at our offices. And so it’s interesting — a lot of our employees, and their families, even, come to our office when the power goes out, because they can take a hot shower and they, you know, charge their devices, and be warm.”

Kurtzig and his company have done a number of things to support Ukraine: set up a nonprofit that’s raised more than $3 million, built a mental health center, and directed employees in updating and upgrading military equipment — JustAnswer engineers based in Ukraine helped upgrade the military's air defense system in cooperation with the Ukraine military via the company’s partnership with a local group known as the Lviv IT Cluster.

Both Kim and Kurtzig say they’re not the only Silicon Valley CEOs doing this kind of thing, and both insist Ukraine will prevail, eventually.

Kurtzig has visited Ukraine twice since the war started, and plans to go again next week. What explains his personal passion for the country? The people.

“These are good, kind, smart, talented, funny people that don’t deserve this. I feel like we’ve been in a position to be able to be helpful because of all of our connections there,” Kurtzig said.

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