The last word: Ukraine’s entrepreneurial women

A new initiative from the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) wants to recognise the innovation of female-run Ukrainian businesses.

For the last few months, I have spoken with dozens of Ukrainian women – the number approaches one hundred by now — living both in Ukraine and all over Europe.  

Since February 2022, many of them have had to suddenly find a new home, build a new life, and leave behind their loved ones on the front line fighting for their country. Most of them have also lost friends and some family members to the war.  

These conversations are part of the research for a book I am working on, which has working title Ordinarily Unusual — voices of 100 Ukrainian women in wartime

The stories I have heard so far are heartbreaking. But they are also stories revealing enormous invincibility, strength and stamina.  

‘We will not lose the core’ 

“I had to build everything again from scratch, reinvent myself and start a new career at my age. I had some properties in Kyiv and now my house, which is in the northern part of the city, is fully destroyed. My two apartments are still there, as far as I know,” says 47-year-old Nadiia, who previously held an executive position in a tech company and is now based in London.  

Alyona, a start-up founder and CEO, who is in her early thirties, said her primary goal at the start of the war was the safety of her team.  

“Our company is normally located in Kyiv. We have 23 employees, all in Ukraine, although some have left the country. Others are serving in the armed forces. Fortunately, all of them are safe. That was the first challenge. After that, we are renewing our work. We started in the second week of the war. It was complicated because team members were in the process of relocating or they didn’t have WiFi, or they were in bomb shelters,” she adds. 

“I know women who fled not only with their kids but also with their parents and with their husband’s parents. And they became breadwinners,” 41-year-old Alexandra says. 

Nataliya, who is the CEO of an IT company, moved to Poland after spending time in Turkey with her female family members and their children. 

“And then school began last September. I was thinking whether we should go back to Ukraine for good, but then it would be rather difficult for me to travel across Europe each time I need to. And for the business, which is the livelihood of 700 people, I need to travel a lot.” 

Before the invasion, Nataliya’s company employed about 500 people. 

“We will take time to rest. Of course, it will all take time, but we will adapt. We will cry out, we will sleep. We will learn languages, but we will not, we will not lose the core as this experience will remain with us,” another woman, Tatiana, tells me. 

I constantly hear the echo of the women’s words — we might not have a chance to do anything tomorrow, and that is why we need to do it today. We must go for it now. Waiting makes absolutely no sense. We have nothing to lose. We have lots to gain. 

Red Kalyna 

These stories, and a lot more that I have come across at various international events, prove that female entrepreneurship in Ukraine has grown exponentially over the last 18 months with a lot of women, both young and more senior, having to reinvent themselves, taking matters into their own hands and embarking on an entrepreneurial path. They have developed innovative products or solutions or have made their businesses more innovative. These courageous women need all the support possible. 

When I was invited to support Red Kalyna, an EIT Community initiative recognising outstanding Ukrainian female entrepreneurs, I could not say no. 

“In the face of an unprecedented crisis, we stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and its people, offering steadfast support,” says Marta Kaczmarek, director, Cross-KIC Strategic Regional Innovations at EIT Health InnoStars.  

“We want to spotlight role models from start-ups, businesses, academia, NGOs or governmental bodies, who develop innovative projects in Ukraine and can inspire other Ukrainian women and Europeans in general. Ukrainian women can be an engine for rebuilding the country’s economy. Ukraine has one of the highest rates of women in science. We see more and more female innovators in our programmes, who are eager to grow their businesses and transform their ideas into marketable solutions and products.  

“By highlighting the stories of female innovators, we can increase the visibility of their successes and encourage other Ukrainian women to pursue their dreams of making a positive impact in their country’s economy,” Kaczmarek tells me. 
So, I invite female entrepreneurs from Ukraine to apply, for Red Kalyna, and those who know of outstanding female innovators from can nominate them for the competition.  

Each year, ten role models from Ukraine will be inducted into the Red Kalyna Hall of Fame. They will receive the ‘Red Kalyna by EIT Community’ label to symbolise their strength and endurance. 

I also invite organisations who want to support the initiative to join us in supporting Ukraine’s women. 

And finally, if you would like to tell me your story, whether you have left the country or are still in Ukraine, you can do so here.  

“Before the war, I once wrote that there are two million more women in Ukraine than men,” Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, wrote in Instagram in early March 2022. “Statistics are just like that. And now it takes on a whole new meaning because this means that our current resistance also has a particularly female face.” 

Let’s have that face seen and those voices heard.

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