When the war in Ukraine hit in late February, Ukrainian-American entrepreneur Allan Grant and his team sprung to action. As the cofounder and CEO of Talkablea referral marketing company, Grant has offices in San Francisco and Kyiv—where the wellbeing of about 60 Ukrainian employees was top of mind.
“When this started, we said, ‘What are our priorities?’” recalls Grant, who was born in Ukraine and moved to the US when he was 10 years old with his family, fleeing Soviet communism. “And priority number one is that we want to keep and support everybody on the team.”
Talkable was prepared, having set up salary advances for their Ukrainian employees prior to the attack, just in case. After the war broke out, they turned those advances into bonuses. “We expedited their next payments as well,” says Grant, “and we also set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for direct-aid packages”—raising over $40,000 to date.
His team dove into evacuation and relief efforts as well, helping to crowdsource solutions for relocation, food and lodging needs. Some of Talkable’s Ukrainian employees relocated to safe areas or left the country, but many chose to stay in what was a deeply personal decision.
“We stay in contact every day, and we do find that people are keen to keep working when they can and have some regularity, although we don’t enforce this at all,” says Hana Wilson, Talkable’s chief of staff, who says the team feels like a family. “We have given people unlimited time to not work and still receive paychecks and have their jobs be safe.”
Supporting Ukraine With Open Roles
As the atrocities in Ukraine continue to unfold, no one knows what will happen next. But Talkable is sure about one thing: The company will not reduce its current headcount in Ukraine, which has long been considered a hotbed of talent in technology and other sectors. In fact, they’ve vowed to tap into a new pipeline of candidates for open jobs: refugee talent.
“We’re actively looking for displaced talent out of Ukraine,” says Grant. “For example, we’re always hiring engineers, and it’s hard to find them at the quality level that we’re looking for, though you can find them from Ukraine. We’re bringing them into the interview process.”
Like many companies today, Talkable made the shift to a remote-first culture after the Covid-19 hit. Untethered from hiring based on geographic location, the team has people in the US, Ukraine, Europe and Asia these days. Even though some companies are reopening their brick-and-mortar offices, many are retaining a remote-first model. That opens the door to consider displaced and refugee talent for any company that’s interested in supporting Ukraine and finding experienced talent in one swoop.
“I think the remote-first trend is going to continue,” says Grant. “What’s interesting now is that when you add the geopolitical aspect to it, there’s going to be a lot of relocated talent. A lot of people have left both Ukraine and Russia, and it will be interesting to see what’s going to happen with this new pool of refugee talent that companies can tap into.”
A Culture Of Outsourcing
Kyiv’s transition to an epicenter of tech talent stretches back a couple of decades. “When I started my first company, Webmasters International, around 2003, there were a lot of web development and professional outsourcing services firms starting up in Ukraine,” says Grant. “Some of them got to be very big, multi-thousand person companies that were primarily doing client work.”
Next came a wave of product companies, followed by an influx of venture capital, which only came into Ukraine in the last five years or so. “All of this has created multiple waves of talent,” says Grant—including a culture of outsourcing work for the West, which continues to this day. This could become a lifeline for legions of displaced talent out of Kyiv, which was experiencing a renaissance before the war.
Grant himself moved to Kyiv in 2021. “I felt like I discovered this secret place,” he says. “It had become this modern, amazing European city—very diverse, very tolerant, with an incredible techno music scene. The middle class was continuing to grow, with more people driving cars and eating in restaurants every year. It’s really sad to know that it probably won’t be like that for a while. A lot of the people who could leave have left, and many won’t have places to come back to. It’s devastating.”
What Companies Can Do
For entrepreneurs and founders, hiring refugee talent is one way to help. European startup accelerator Startup Wise Guys has started the job position database jobs4ukraine, which connects companies to tech and knowledge workers. (The database includes blue-collar workers too—and encourages tech companies to think creatively about positions that could be filled by people without a tech background.)
For those who do decide to hire displaced talent—whether it’s Ukrainian refugees or Russians who left Russia in protest of the war—it’s key to remember the psychological toll that falls on this group. “If you’re hiring in this talent population, be prepared to offer psychological support and resettlement support,” says Wilson, Talkable’s chief of staff. “It’s a long game, and you have to be invested in your people.”
But the desire for work—and normalcy—is strong. “During the first two weeks of the war, every call started with, ‘How are you doing?’” recalls Grant. “Then by the end of the third week, it became, ‘Don’t ask me how I’m doing. I’m here, I’m alive. Let’s talk about what’s on the agenda.”’”
It will be interesting to see how the refugee hiring pipeline will evolve over the next few years, and what will change in terms of talent distribution. In the meantime, hiring displaced workers is one way that entrepreneurs and businesses can support a country desperately in need of humanitarian and economic help.
“The longer this goes on, the more collateral damage is being done, and the more people’s lives and livelihoods are being affected—so we should not become desensitized,” says Grant. “We should become even more outraged the longer this goes on.”