Young entrepreneurs pivot to battle on Ukraine’s economic frontline

Unlike Ukraine’s business oligarchs — whose investments tend to be concentrated in heavy industry, which is regularly bombed by Russia — many younger Ukrainian entrepreneurs run digital businesses. They can continue to trade profitably in a global market and contribute to the national economy, whether they are still based in Ukraine or abroad.

Take Victoria Repa, the 29-year-old co-founder of BetterMe, a digital health coaching company that offers services to 500,000 mostly female customers concentrated in the US. Repa’s life was turned upside down in 2014 when Russia first put military pressure on Ukraine and her home region of Donbas in the east was seized by Moscow-backed militias. “They divided us into two camps,” she recalls. “There were those with expectations, craving an education, and those prepared to sell their souls and join Putin’s corrupt system.”

Repa chose to leave. Along with others from Donetsk, she moved to Kyiv, where she studied business and finance at Kyiv School of Economics before securing a role as banking analyst at consumer products multinational Procter & Gamble.

Having struggled with her weight as a teenager, Repa dreamt of starting a business to help organise diets and exercise routines. Her “lightbulb moment” came when visiting the Apple Entrepreneur Camp for female founders in Silicon Valley. “I saw their HQ and realised I want to build a big company just like this in Ukraine,” she says. Now, annual revenues are $80mn.

Other start-up founders have also ended up in Poland. Roman Prokofiev, 36, co-founder of Jooble, an app that amalgamates online job vacancies internationally, was visiting friends in Romania when the invasion began. He decided to take his family out of Ukraine and stay with them in Warsaw, while sending money back to his home country. His still profitable business, boosted by a buoyant European job market, recently donated nearly $1mn to fund humanitarian aid and the Ukrainian army.

Prokofiev’s 500 tech-savvy staff have also become active participants in the information war. Jooble employees, 400 of them still in Ukraine, send targeted messages to 300mn Russian email addresses, including those of soldiers and their parents. “When we tell Russians they are about to experience greater shortages of medicine and food and lose access to payment systems, that’s a reality they take more seriously than their army killing Ukrainians,” says Prokofiev between sips of herbal tea in the hipster-style Etno café in Warsaw’s commercial district.