In Kyiv, a group of small business owners are busy at work.
There’s a war raging around them and they’re reminded how close the danger is whenever the warning sirens go off in the Ukrainian capital.
They describe it as a jarring sound, yet they push through the fear because they say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began nearly 50 days ago, on February 24, has given them a new purpose — to serve their community and country in a different way.
Before the invasion, these entrepreneurs ran growing startups or family-owned businesses passed down for generations. Their companies sold products like custom shoes, baked goods and pizza in Kyiv’s historic district and e-learning tools for students, teachers and professionals.
In the midst of war, they’ve pivoted their missions and are now utilizing their resources to provide badly needed necessities such as food, first aid, even combat boots for Ukraine’s military.
Pizza restaurant making boxed meals in basement kitchen
It took just four days for T.C. Pizza, located in downtown Kyiv, to transform from a local pizza joint to a staging center for a revolving group of volunteers preparing hundreds of boxed meals.
Anton Fursa, a Ukrainian cinematographer who co-owns the business, said he closed the pizza shop on February 24 when Russia began its assault in Ukraine.
“Four days later we were open and preparing meals for anyone who needed food,” Fursa said.
Russia’s intensifying attacks in eastern Ukraine in recent days have exacerbated the need for food, he added.
“We’ve been making 500 to 600 boxed meals a day,” he said.
The meals are simple — salad, potatoes and some meat. Volunteer drivers deliver them to hospitals for patients, to the military and to families and the elderly in need.
Fursa sometimes accompanies the drivers. The team has to carefully watch for hidden landmines along the roads. This past weekend, Fursa returned from areas near Kyiv that were heavily bombed.
He wants to keep helping for as long as he can.
“I do feel the worst is yet to come but it’s way easier to get through what’s happening to our country when we are doing something to help the people,” he said.
Custom shoemaker making combat boots
Ukrainian shoe brand Kachorovska has been crafting women’s footwear since 1957.
“One special story for us is that we have also made a pair of custom shoes for Olena Zelenska, wife of our president Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Alina Kachorovska, the third-generation co-owner and CEO of the company who runs the business with her husband and mother.
In its portfolio of leather and textile shoes, there is one specific item the Kyiv-based company has never made before — combat boots.
Like other local businesses, Kachorovska didn’t know how Russia’s attack would impact her family company and its 117 employees.
“Our entire market is in Ukraine,” she said. The family was finally preparing to expand the brand to other countries when war started.
“Everything came to a stop. I couldn’t believe we were at war,” Kachorovska said. As more Ukrainians were joining the armed forces, her mother spotted a request on Facebook for combat boots and other items that soldiers needed.
It galvanized the family to jump into action. Kachorovska said a few factories joined forces to pool supplies for the boots.
“We already had the leather at our warehouse,” she said. “We used all the supplies and made 1,393 combat boots and gave them for free to our soldiers all over Ukraine,” she said. The company also made and donated belts for soldiers.
Staying busy and keeping her business alive despite the turmoil is personally and professionally important to Kachorovska.
“If I don’t keep working and helping, I will be broken” she said. “I need to be strong, support my employees and hold on to a vision of the future.”
Baking bread for war-time need
Vladyslav Malashchenko opened Good Bread from Good People in Kyiv in 2017. The bakery employs workers with special needs and provides them with skills training.
“Before the war we were doing very well,” said Alijona Martynenko, who handles communications for the business. The bakery sold cupcakes, cookies and pies to both commercial and individual customers.
“But when the war started we didn’t see how we could continue,” Martynenko said.
On March 10, the bakery came back to life. She said volunteers and some employees came together to address a growing need by baking bread.
“We transformed from a bakery that didn’t make bread before to now making lots of bread,” she said. The business is making as many as 700 loaves a day. Last week it donated over 3,000 loaves to Ukrainian soldiers, police, hospital patients, the elderly and families with children who’ve stayed in Kyiv throughout the Russian invasion.
“The community has been donating flour and money for us to buy what we need,” she said, adding that the baking will continue until ingredients run out.
Educating about safety
EdEra, an online remote education platform, wants to teach people, whether it’s in time of peace or war, said co-founder and CEO Ilia Filipov.
Before the war, the Kyiv startup developed online courses and textbooks for students, teachers and professionals.
The business had 42 employees and over 400,000 customers in Ukraine. The war abruptly halted its operations.
“Our employees moved to other parts of Ukraine and we now have about 10 of them back,” said Filipov. “Everyone wants to return and we are optimistic that will happen.”
EdEra also pivoted the content on its platform to war-time education, Filipov said. “We’re creating information about how to administer first aid, how to find bomb shelters, how to prepare for evacuation. This education could save lives.”
Helping businesses stay alive
Alyona Mysko, cofounder and CEO of Ukrainian fintech startup FuelFinance, wants to ensure that businesses like T.C. Pizza and Kachorovska shoes stay viable and are able to do the essential humanitarian work that’s becoming increasingly critical in Ukraine.
“We’re providing small businesses in Ukraine our services for free to help them,” she said.
FuelFinance has created a “first aid” resource kit for Ukrainian entrepreneurs with information on how to reorganize and keep working during the war. The company has created a platform to aggregate donations for small businesses that are fighting back.
“We’re also advising them on how to temporarily relocate outside of Ukraine to Poland and other places so they can keep their business going,” Mysko said. She also wants to keep FuelFinance active and growing through the war by adding more clients in Europe and the United States.
Russia’s invasion has only strengthened the resolve of Ukrainians, she said.
“The first week of the war we were scared. Now Ukrainians feel like fighters,” Mysko said. “There’s no time to be afraid.”