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A Ukrainian VC with employees in Russia surveys the damage of Putin’s war

March 11, 2022, 5:30 PM UTC

Over the last few months, my friends and colleagues have been asking about the situation in Ukraine. Each time, I calmly explained that Russia President Vladimir Putin was just saber rattling, likening the situation to North and South Korea or Taiwan and China. But on February 24, as we were wrapping up a general partner meeting at NZVC, the venture capital firm I run in New Zealand, my partner Ajay informed us that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun. At first, I thought he was joking. Surely this was an exaggeration of the Western media. I started to feverishly text friends and family in Ukraine and Russia and began scrolling local Telegram channels. That’s when I saw videos of air raid sirens, explosions, and Russian columns moving across the border in Kiev and Kharkiv. I froze, and a feeling of loss came over me. 

Though I currently live in New Zealand, I was born and raised in Ukraine, and I have family, friends, and colleagues there. I’m proud of the country Ukraine has become over the last 30 years.

Born nine months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, my life trajectory has closely mirrored that of the new nation. The early years of my life were unstable—my mother and I came to the U.S., and moved so frequently I would never spend more than two years at a single school. As Ukraine developed new infrastructure, social programs, and jobs, I was attending Princeton and starting my first company. After exiting my first company, Piper, I founded Learn With Mochi, an edtech startup to teach kids ages 3-6 coding without resorting to addictive screens. We decided to go remote-first (in what turned out to be a wise pre-COVID decision), hiring more than half of our designers and developers in Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Their standard of living was high. When I sent my mom photos of one team member’s home renovation, she thought it was somewhere in New York or San Francisco—rather than a block away from where she used to work. 

Mark Pavlyukovskyy (center) with his friend Alex Vilchinskiy (right) in kindergarten in Kharkiv. Age 6
Mark Pavlyukovskyy (center) with his friend Alex Vilchinskiy (right) in kindergarten in Kharkiv at age 6
Courtesy of Mark Pavlyukovskyy

The war has thrown away everything that people in both countries have worked so hard for. In Ukraine, our Learn With Mochi engineers and designers have been hiding in bomb shelters and basements, others evacuating to Europe and Turkey, and some, like my best friend from kindergarten, Alex Vilchinskiy, (pictured) decided to take up arms and defend the country. It’s the same across a few of our portfolio companies, like Deck Robot, which recently closed a funding round and had to evacuate most Ukrainian employees. I have been calling friends and family every night, trying to help evacuate them and connecting them with friends across Europe who have offered their homes. 

In Russia, none of our employees can be paid now: nearly every payment service provider has cut off ties with the country. No educated person I know supports the war, and many who can are leaving the country in fear of a mass military mobilization and draft. Unfortunately, Ukraine has stopped allowing men to leave the country, and very few countries continue to have flights and issue visas for Russians. Most people who didn’t leave in the first few days of the invasion are stuck. Most of our Learn With Mochi team still has an internet connection and are working with the rest of the team. They say that staying in touch with us and continuing to work helps to soothe and distract them from the insanity outside their homes. 

At some point, you realize that no matter how much you analyze the situation and weigh how destructive and pointless it is, you can personally do very little. But here’s what I can do: Evacuate friends who are in a position to leave, and want to; motivate my team; and continue hitting our company goals. This may seem small and insignificant in light of everything, but I’m afraid that, without these actions, we will all lose hope given how helpless we feel in the face of a terrible reality.

Looking back, my friends were right to be worried in the days leading up to the invasion. Being too close to the situation made me biased towards predictions of peace. The same is true for everyone I spoke with in Ukraine and Russia; no one could fathom that Putin would instigate a full-scale invasion. To date, this madness has completely destroyed Kharkiv, the city in which I was born, and it is only just beginning. Putin is threatening nuclear war, and it has become the most dangerous situation that the European continent—and possibly the world—has experienced in the last 30 years. 

Mark’s friend Alex (right) 26 years later at a military training center getting ready for combat.
Mark’s friend Alex (right) 26 years later at a military training center getting ready for combat.
Courtesy of Mark Pavlyukovskyy

Those who also want to offer support can hire Ukrainian and Russian citizens and sponsor their move to the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of the best talent is fleeing amid the humanitarian crisis, and they are looking for stability abroad. For many, this unplanned relocation is scary and traumatic. Hiring, relocating, and integrating Ukrainian and Russian talent into Western companies is one way the rest of us could help in a small way. I’ve partnered with colleagues here in New Zealand to help companies recruit, hire, and relocate talent by connecting them to companies in New Zealand, US, Canada, and Australia. If you or your company would like to register your interest and find candidates across different sectors please leave your details here.

A situation like this will usher an even larger exodus from both countries of people who can work remotely. If all you need to work is a computer and an internet connection, you have the freedom to choose a place that is least likely to experience war, conflict, and instability. In our digital world, a country’s strength will be measured not by how many tanks or nuclear missiles it has, but by the number of wifi hotspots, the location of its beaches, and the quality of its schools and universities. Putin is fighting yesterday’s ideology-based war, and I believe he will lose—and the rest of the free world will win—because of this fundamental miscalculation.

In the meantime, we can continue to create value for our fellow human beings and hope that human resilience and ingenuity in the face of utmost adversity continues to be what defines our character. As a founder and venture investor, I am trained to look for the upside scenarios—everything that can go right, rather than everything that can go wrong. So while the world appears bleak now, I am making a bet that we will emerge stronger than before, and that our character will prevail. 

Mark Pavlyukovskyy, a partner at NZVC and founder of companies Learn with Mochi and Piper, was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He gives special thanks to Ajay Gupta, Daria Zhao, Iryna Pentina, Maxim Manakov, Sara Li, Jared Griffin, Sukriti Chadha and Conor Myhrvold for their suggestions and edits.

This guest essay appeared in Friday’s edition of Term Sheet, a daily newsletter on the biggest deals and dealmakers. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.