Four Ukrainian women entrepreneurs on building businesses in times of war 

By: Oleksandra Brashovetska, Innovation Unit, UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub 

“I cannot afford weakness. Here and now, I must do everything that depends on me.” 

Olena Liashenko, Founder, Apps Makers

As a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, over 7.6 million Ukrainians have fled their home country since the start of the war (UNHCR 2022), having to pause their education, quit their jobs, or separate from their families and relatives. Women and children comprise the majority of refugees – an estimated 90%, fleeing the threats of war. But despite finding safety and shelter in new places, it remains a struggle for women to restart their lives – to find decent work and suitable employment.

In the plight for safety, not only have women’s homes and everyday lives been uprooted, but also their hopes and dreams for their own professional development, such as launching businesses and initiatives. One of the Ukrainian entrepreneurs in UNDP’s BOOST Women Innovators acceleration programme says: “Launching a business is challenging enough and doing it in the midst of a war is even more so. The scarcest resources are time and money. Along with that, there is a lack of contacts, knowledge and simply lack of support.” 

To understand the difficulties that come with forced relocation and resettling, and navigating the destructive effects of the war, we spoke with four Ukrainian women entrepreneurs that successfully completed BOOST Women Innovators. They shared their experiences about their innovations and projects, as well as the challenges they overcame, possibilities that revealed themselves, and the new horizons they are striving for.  

These are their stories. 

Olena Liashenko, Apps Makers 

For six years, Olena Liashenko worked with a number of digital startups and social initiatives, however, with the start of the war, she fled to Austria. “I came to a social center in Vienna and saw a huge queue with women with children: tired, confused, and worried about the future. I started thinking: how could I help?” Olena came to know these women and learned that many of them now work in the cleaning services field, despite having a broad range of educational backgrounds or work histories. To understand further, she joined local refugee groups on social media, where she noticed that Ukrainian women mostly offered services or sought advice. Many of the women provided beauty services via these groups at reduced rates, allowing them to find part time employment and provide for their families. “On the one hand,” – Olena explains – “it is frightening to arrive and be helpless. It’s less difficult psychologically if you can at least style your hair.”

Putting her entrepreneurial mindset to work, Olena quickly realized how to connect supply and demand based on her prior experience – this is how her idea of developing a marketplace of services for and by Ukrainian refugees initially emerged. 

Olena developed a mobile app on her own using low-code tech via which one can offer or find beauty and household services. In addition to helping refugees and locals access the resources they require, the app also gives Ukrainian refugees a space where they can offer services and provide for their families.  

“One must be brave and strong,” says Olena, addressing Ukrainian women entrepreneurs. “ Everything will work out resource-wise if you sense that the truth is with you and if you really need it.” 

Olena says that the opportunity to work with experts and participants from other countries in BOOST allowed her to think more thoroughly about the project, see its impact and scale, and considerably broaden her horizons. Olena adds that as she looks to the future, she hopes to broaden the project’s geographic scope and develop it into an independent business. It’ll not only support economic growth and provide decent work, but it will contribute to new business possibilities for Ukrainian entrepreneurs and locals.  

Khrystyna Didukh, ArrowStone Flowers 

On February 23, Khrystyna was in Poland to accept yet another delivery – a truck filled with tulips – for her customers in Ukraine. With the outbreak of the war, she was unable to return home. 

Khrystyna worked as an auditor in the past, but she decided to change her career path: “Back in the 90s my mother owned a flower shop and I have been fascinated with flowers ever since I was a child. At a certain point in life, I decided to go with my intuition and passion – flowers.” So, she co-founded a B2B company, based in Lviv, to help smaller Ukrainian flower shops order directly from the Dutch flower market. Despite having more than ten years of experience in the flower industry and a large partner network in Ukraine, Khrystyna had to start from scratch.  

“I conducted a ton of research, attended sales and auctions, and gathered experience. I observed a market trend toward unequal income distribution. Due to intermediaries and auction price setting, flower growers typically earn the lowest payouts. In addition, small cultivation volumes also frequently prevent local producers from entering the market, explains Khrystyna. What is more, the flowers themselves travel across the globe further than we can imagine, which increases CO2 emissions and their cost, and often results in the throwing away of a quarter of the flowers, without ever reaching the customer.  

Having realized the challenges, Khrystyna developed the idea of LYSTVA (ed. meaning ‘leaves’) – a startup linking all players in the flower marketplace, anchored in the buy local principle. The marketplace would enable small-scale farmers to sell their flowers to flower shops or to consumers directly. Additionally, acquiring freshly cut flowers locally will extend their “vase life” and cut down on shipping costs, which will minimize emissions and contribute to sustainability.  

Khrystyna stepped into the BOOST acceleration programme with this idea in mind, delving deeply into the impact of innovations, working with mentors, and consistently pushing herself to grow as a professional. She describes BOOST as a challenging environment where you are always striving for improvement. 

As Khrystyna imagines the future of ArrowStone, she adds, “Knowledge that is more accessible provides a stronger competitive advantage.” She intends to support other businesses in launching their own flower projects while also advancing the growth of her startup and the LYSTVA marketplace. This autumn one of Khrystyna’s dreams is coming true – the launch of an international flower conference in Tallinn, Estonia at the end of November, which anyone interested in the flower world is invited to join!

Olena Kasian, OK TOWN 

Olena loves exploring new places in Ukraine and scouting out local entertainment spots, especially when it involves outdoor activities. However, Ukraine’s tourism infrastructure is not evenly developed and is currently heavily impacted by the war. “You’ve recently moved to a new city or are just visiting and know nothing about it. You realize that you’ll probably need a local guide while looking for things to do in Ukrainian cities, and even more so in villages,” shares Olena. “What if there was a digital guide that you could consult: OK TOWN [the name of her app], what’s local today?” 

While services are available, they are difficult to find. There is isn’t one all-encompassing platform available to businesses where they can advertise offers for locals, newcomers or tourists. In the middle of 2021, Olena and the team started working on developing a smartphone app for promoting tourism in Ukraine. Launching the web version was their first project milestone, along with building trustworthy partnerships. The entire team works on a volunteer basis, which slows down the development process significantly. But this has not stopped the team, who wants to build up the tourist digital infrastructure in Ukraine. The breakout of the war has stalled their development in Ukraine, but they continue to work behind-the-scenes, preparing the platform for promoting tourism in Ukraine once the war is over.

A recent BOOST graduate, Olena focused on developing her crowdfunding skills and analyzing her innovation’s impact. She shares one of her insights: “Crowdfunding is not just about the funds; it’s about building community.” To promote the culture of shared ownership and involve people in the growth of tourism, the team intends to engage with local communities. Olena points out that the project will have an immense effect on neighborhoods as well as small and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, it offers a chance for nearby museums, galleries, and non-profit organizations to promote their services and draw tourists to different city areas. The team intends to debut the app in Ukrainian and follow up with integrating a translation function. Then, the OK TOWN team plans to expand their services and build partnerships in Slovakia and Romania. Olena believes that the app will help people find events, sites and activities that suit them personally, and promote local and regional tourism. 

“Be patient,” Olena advises women innovators, “the idea can be cool, but constructive feedback can make you revise and revise, and eventually the idea will transform.” Don’t be afraid of change.    

Ilona Varavva, Film-U-Box  

Ilona is an experienced journalist, with a career in television. In 2018, she was invited by a filmmaking studio to shoot film templates, which are used as a “living background” for videos. Soon after, she joined their team because she saw an opportunity to implement her idea to give people a chance to be movie actors and act.

However, how can one ensure that such filming is quick, accessible and not costly? The studio found a technical solution that enabled immediate automated video recording and editing within seconds. Within a year, together with colleagues from Israel, the Ukrainian team created Film-U-Box – the first robot to shoot and immediately edit movies. For the user, it’s “a movie you can take part in, with a leading role”. The user chooses a prerecorded movie project, enters the filming area, follows video and audio instructions, rehearses and plays scene by scene. The film box instantly shoots and edits a short video clip and sends it to the user’s smartphone. 

The startup is focused on B2B: the film box can be purchased by any company interested in attracting and entertaining its customers, while the Film-U-Box team handles hardware, software and service support. Today, only one of their film robots has survived the airstrikes in Kyiv. Ilona says that the most valuable thing that has been preserved is the coding programme that allows Film-U-Box to operate. Continuing forward, Ilona believes that anyone anywhere can set up their own Film-U-Box, as long as they have access to a space of 3 m2 and an internet connection.  

“Our operations were interrupted by the war. We used this time to reconsider our startup with UNDP’s BOOST programme. We have carefully examined our competitive advantage, learned about other markets, updated the product’s pricing and are willing to form new strong meaningful partnerships,” shares Ilona.  “I spent a lot of time considering the project’s social impact and how we could assist Ukrainians who have fled the country. In addition to providing entertainment, our box offers the chance to relieve stress, overcome camera phobia, and capture a happy moment.” 

Ilona imagines that in the future, their product can be used in galleries and museums for educational purposes:Just imagine, you are literally ‘entering’ a museum exhibition or could ‘walk into the picture’”. 

BOOST’s graduates believe that doing business should be enjoyable, and have meaning and impact. Never give up, they say, and don’t be afraid to try, try, and try again. They also encourage people to practice care and kindness towards ourselves and others. Every day, an innovation transforms the world, and by empowering women, we can accomplish more together. 

About BOOST 

BOOST, powered by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is a regional acceleration programme for social impact innovators in Europe and Central Asia and beyond, funded and supported by the Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic and Koç Holding. 

BOOST: Women Innovators was launched in February 2022. It aimed to engage women innovators across the Europe and Central Asia region, harnessing innovation and technology, to advance gender equality and bridge the gender digital divide. Participants learned how to reimagine and implement impact-driven innovations, increase reach and visibility, attract alternative financing and other resources, and establish and nurture long-lasting partnerships. 

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