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A Russian CEO has spent the last month evacuating employees out of Eastern Europe

March 31, 2022, 3:52 PM UTC

Ksenia Yudina had been working around the clock the first time we spoke. About a month ago, 12 of her employees at UNest, a North Hollywood, Calif.-based digital brokerage for parents to invest and save for their children’s education, were scattered across Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. As of February 24, they were in a warzone.

“I can’t even tell you what it feels like emotionally,” she told me the second week of March.

UNest had begun discussing an evacuation strategy for its Eastern European developers in mid-February, when news outlets first warned that Russia planned to invade Ukraine. But employees had been in denial, Yudina says, and they hadn’t wanted to pre-emptively leave their homes. By the end of February, when Russian troops invaded Kyiv and Ukraine had declared martial law, it was too late. Three developers in Ukraine were no longer able to leave. Some of UNest’s seven Russian employees—all who do not support the war—were struggling to flee.

“A few days were very hectic,” Yudina says. ”We were trying to book different flights day by day. [Flights] were canceling, and some planes were being rerouted back to Russia.”

UNest is one of at least 126 startups with employees in Ukraine—companies that have been rushing to move their staffers to safety and maintain operations. More than 1,200 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, while homes, theaters, hospitals, and churches have been destroyed.

The UNest brokerage app officially launched two years ago on Android and IOS, a way for parents to save funds for their children’s schooling. The company has raised nearly $39 million in funding, per Pitchbook, and has hired 40 employees to serve its 450,000 customers. 

One of UNest’s developers, who the company asked not be identified, is currently residing in a shelter in central Ukraine. Alarms go off nearly every two hours and people must go to a common area or hide in a basement. Power and internet connections will flicker off. Access to some U.S.-based software has been limited or unpredictable, according to UNest.

Yudina and I have spoken three times over the course of this month as she worked to move employees, issue $2,000 cash payments to developers and their families, and worked to maintain normal operations at the business. 

The first week of March, Yudina helped move six developers from Russia and Belarus into Georgia and Turkey—her team working nights and weekends to stay abreast of the situation and find routes to make it happen. The second week of that month, UNest had its pre-scheduled board meeting and decided to evacuate the rest of its developers out of Russia and no longer have an employee footprint in the region (two more developers have since been evacuated from Russia, and one left the company as a result). Two of UNest’s three developers in Ukraine haven’t been able to leave. UNest staffers speak daily with these employees, communicating via Google Hangouts, Slack, and Telegram—avoiding WhatsApp in case it is blocked. 

“They are still attempting to work, just to distract themselves,” Yudina says, noting that the internet connection can be unstable at times. “People are just terrified for the lives of their families, their loved ones,” she says.

UNest CEO Ksenia Yudina fled to the United States from Russia at the age of 18.
UNest CEO Ksenia Yudina fled to the United States from Russia at the age of 18.
Courtesy of UNest

For Yudina, the war is very personal. She, herself, is Russian—born in the U.S.S.R. when Ukraine and Russia were still one nation. Yudina fled to the United States at the age of 18, and worked as a hotel housekeeper in Key West, Fla. before moving to the West Coast and eventually starting her own company. Yudina’s mother arrived in the U.S. earlier this week, and the rest of her family is still in Russia.

UNest had been in the process of rolling out cryptocurrency investing on its website, which has been delayed due to the international crisis (the company isn’t requiring its Ukrainian staffers to work and is giving Russian employees a month to relocate). Since all of its customer support team is based in the U.S., nothing has changed in day-to-day operations for its user base, Yudina says, and she points out that many of UNest’s Eastern European employees are still choosing to work when they can.

“It speaks highly of the motivation of our people and their commitment to work, even under the bombs for those who stayed in Ukraine,” Yudina says. UNest is exploring whether to start paying its employees in Ukraine via cryptocurrency, Yudina says, in case there are any disruptions with bank transfers.

Over the course of this month, Yudina says she’s emotionally in a better place. “Our brains adapt and adjust to anything, right?” she says. And the crisis has brought the team closer together—an opportunity for the management team to show they are committed to their employees’ wellbeing and safety, and for colleagues to emotionally support one another.

And there has been some good news. The company applied for several H-1B visas for its employees, prior to the war. “We just got the announcement today that one of them actually got selected,” Yudina told me Monday. 

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
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