This American Tech Company CEO Had 150 Employees in Ukraine When Russia Invaded. Instead of Losing Hope, He Joined ThemFor Kitrum co-founder Vlad Kytainyk, leading through a crisis meant keeping his employees safe in a war zone.

 (INC) In the fall of 2021, as rumors of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine began to swirl, Vlad Kytainyk knew what he needed to do: make a plan. The 33-year-old CEO of a U.S.-based tech company with offices in Ukraine, Kytainyk had expected a full-scale attack ever since Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea. "That was a clear signal," he says, "that we have a crazy neighbor with nuclear weapons that were willing to take our country."

He was hardly daunted by the challenge, though. Vlad Kytainyk was accustomed to surviving hard times--and those hard times had taught him well.

Growing up in Ukraine, he had never known his father. His mother had struggled to find work. His family had to rely on the government and charities to pay for groceries. They could not afford electricity for more than a few hours each day. As a teen, he'd worked a series of odd jobs--delivering cakes, working security at McDonald's--saving enough money to attend college in Ukraine and earn a degree in computer science before ­ultimately co-founding Kitrum.

"When you eat shit in life, like, tons of it, you under­stand how not to treat people," says Kytainyk. "So when I started my own business, I knew exactly how I wanted to treat people. I wanted to make people's lives better."

"It's the people that matter. without them, your company is nothing."--Vlad Kytainyk
Members of Kitrum's lead generation team in Kharkiv before the war. inline image
Members of Kitrum's lead generation team in Kharkiv before the war.Photo: Courtesy company

Kitrum would come to mean everything to Kytainyk, who had long believed he could build a more efficient and customer-friendly software company and had started Kitrum as a side hustle in 2014. After a road trip across the U.S.--"I wanted to see what was so special," he says--in 2017 he moved to Clearwater, Florida, where he would base the company and hire his first employees. Within four years, the company had added offices in Mexico, Israel, and Ukraine, and was operating as an outsourced software development team, building apps and digital products for other firms. By the end of 2021, Kitrum had amassed more than 60 clients, most of which were based in the U.S., including e-book subscription service Scribd and beauty firm Ziip. Annual revenue had topped $9 million by 2021.

Meanwhile, some 150 of Kitrum's 360 employees were working in four offices in Ukraine, including Kyiv, the capital city, and, near the Russian border, the town of Kharkiv, which would be largely reduced to rubble by early March.

So it was that back in the fall, Kytainyk called a virtual meeting with members of his leadership team, including VP of people Veronika Vorsul, who was based in Kharkiv, and VP of delivery Victoria Nazarenko, who worked in Kyiv. Together, the group forged a six-page plan to relocate workers in the event of invasion, which would become the road map for getting them to safety. They ­decided the company would pay all expenses, including transportation, hotels, first month's rent, and any fees associated with signing a new lease, if employees needed to flee to other parts of Europe. They had estimated this would cost the company about $150,000 but hadn't expected to have to spend it. "Most of us never believed that something like this was going to happen," says Nazarenko. "Even until the day before."

Left: The Kharkiv office in April, serving as a shelter. Right: Kitrum's Eugenia Kuzmenko in her temporary home in Chernivtsi. inline image
Left: The Kharkiv office in April, serving as a shelter. Right: Kitrum's Eugenia Kuzmenko in her temporary home in Chernivtsi.Photos: Courtesy company

When the attack began, Kitrum would turn to that contingency plan and shift focus to the real goal: keeping its workers safe. "Ultimately, yes, we do this for profits, but in all businesses, it's not the things that matter," Kytainyk says. "It's the people that matter. Without them, your company is nothing."

The war in Ukraine would test the resolve of Kitrum's employees. It would force its co-founder into a leadership role far beyond that of the usual CEO. But first, they would all have to simply survive the ordeal.

How Kitrum Saved its Ukrainian Employees From the Russian Invasion

February 18, 2022: President Biden declares the assessment of U.S. intelligence: that Russia will launch an attack in the coming days. In the days after that announcement, having spent six months in Florida after the birth of their daughter, Kytainyk and his wife follow through with a weeks-long scheduled trip to Ukraine, where Kytainyk plans to meet with his staff and give performance reviews. "I told my wife, 'I have more than 100 people who are expecting me,' " says Kytainyk. "They were relying on me. In the end, I'm thankful I was there."

FEBRUARY 23: As news outlets report that Russian troops have mobilized at the Ukrainian border, Kitrum starts preparing for an invasion by creating companywide communication channels in Slack, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Some employees, including Nazarenko, pack suitcases so they can flee at a moment's notice.

A building in Kyiv hit by a missile strike in February. inline image
A building in Kyiv hit by a missile strike in February.Photo: Getty Images

February 24, 5 a.m.: Kitrum employees wake to the sound of explosions as Russian attacks begin in several cities, including Kyiv and Kharkiv.

From his hotel in Kyiv, Kytainyk leaves a voice memo for employees on the company's Slack channel. "He told us, 'No panic, guys, no panic,' " says content marketing director Eugenia Kuzmenko. " 'Just try to be cool. Eat something, drink your coffee, get your family, and go to a safe place.' "

Kytainyk isn't as composed as he sounds. Before heading west, he drives to a gas station to load up on supplies--and vomits from stress.

9 a.m.: Kuzmenko arrives at Kitrum's Kharkiv office and finds about 25 other employees collecting their laptops and other belongings. The mood is unexpectedly calm, even as explosions ring out in the distance. At Vorsul's request, Kuzmenko grabs banking information and other sensitive company documents. Many employees take the Kitrum hoodies the company provided as gifts several months before.

10:15 a.m.: Kytainyk emails Kitrum's employees outlining the process to get reimbursed for relocation costs. Staffers who need cash immediately can mark their requests as urgent.

Though some employees choose to stay in Kyiv, Nazarenko and a number of others evacuate. "My grandmother used to tell me stories about Russian troops during World War II," she says. "They would enter a village, shoot people in flocks, rape women. I thought about that and immediately had tremors all over my body that lasted for several hours. But even while I was shaking, I got in the car and drove."

12 p.m.: Vorsul's four-person HR team helps coordinate hotels and temporary housing in western Ukraine for employees, many of whom believe the attacks will last for only a few days. They book extra rooms in case other employees need them and make note of which employees' families have spare beds and couches in their homes.

Evacuating employees relay information about safe routes to the HR team, which passes it along to other staffers. Vorsul's team shares departure times for trains and buses coordinate rides and keeps up-to-the-minute track of employees' locations. "We were like the Red Cross helpline," recalls Vorsul. "It was 24 hours, seven days a week."

4 p.m.: The Ukrainian army begins destroying bridges to hinder the westward movement of Russian troops. In doing so, they make it more challenging for citizens still in the eastern part of the country to escape­--including Nazarenko, who heads from Kyiv toward a relative's home in the west. Roads with two lanes in each direction have become six to eight lanes in one direction, with people driving on shoulders and sidewalks. Nazarenko finds a bridge she can cross and drives for 24 hours straight, stopping only for gas.

"It took a lot of effort and strength to just keep driving," she recalls. "You would hear the explosions and see the glow and realize there's nowhere to go. You're here in this mess, and if they hit here, you're dead. You just have to accept that."

7 p.m.: Kytainyk sends emails to all of Kitrum's clients telling them to expect delays in response times, but stressing that the company is still functioning and expects to be able to complete its projects on schedule. Clients respond by expressing their support and asking how they can help.

FEBRUARY 25: Kitrum cuts ties with a team of contract developers in Belarus, which is aiding the Russian attack, and reassigns the project they'd been working on to an internal team.

FEBRUARY 26: Vorsul leaves Kharkiv, where residential buildings are being destroyed by Russian shells and rockets. She drives west with her two children and Kitrum VP of solutions Julia Stalnaya. Vorsul and Stalnaya respond to employees' housing and transportation requests from the car. At the HR team's urging, many employees turn on their phones' geolocation features so they can be tracked--and so the HR team can check in on anyone they notice not moving.

Kitrum sends computers, monitors, and other equipment to those who left without them. Gas stations in major cities have run out of fuel. The team helps coordinate deliveries of gas between several employees so they can get out of Kyiv and Kharkiv. One of the HR team members loses 10 pounds from stress and lack of sleep in the days following the attack.

"I can't speak enough to the bravery of these four women," Kytainyk says of the HR team.

Adds Nazarenko: "Even when they were under constant shelling themselves, they were helping other people find ways to escape."

A Kitrum developer works from an underground café in Mykolaiv. inline image
A Kitrum developer works from an underground café in Mykolaiv.Photo: Courtesy company

FEBRUARY 28: A new workweek begins, and many displaced employees, astonishingly enough, manage to turn their focus back to their jobs. ­Kytainyk, now in central Ukraine, continues leaving voice and video messages for his team. "They needed to hear my voice," he says. He models his addresses after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's. "I had to show confidence, even though I didn't know for sure what would happen or what needed to be done. Ninety percent of it was me faking it. But whether you're the president or the CEO, part of the job is that at some point, when things are crap, you need to ensure that you can still find the light. If you can't do that, why are you running this business?"

MARCH 1-4: Some clients send Kitrum money and ask the company to route it to developers working on their projects. Kitrum sends its clients a list of charities and other groups in need, including the Ukrainian army and organizations that help displaced or orphaned children. Nearly 90 percent of the company's clients donate to a cause.

Kitrum employees raise $5,000 in a matter of minutes for a staffer's uncle, who needs to buy a car to drive to the frontlines.

Some employees temporarily relocate to safer areas in western Ukraine or to countries including Poland, Italy, and Spain. Many leases in Europe require tenants to pay six months' rent in advance, so Kitrum offers to pay for the first month and extend interest-free loans for the rest. Odesa-based software engineer Dmytro Suvorov and some other staffers stay put. He's been taking target practice with his shotgun at the tactical shooting range and traversing an obstacle course. "If they attack, I will just put my computer aside and go and shoot," he says. "This is my hometown, and I will protect it anyway I can."

Veronika Vorsul and Julia Stalnaya reunite in Croatia. inline image
Veronika Vorsul and Julia Stalnaya reunite in Croatia.Photo: Courtesy company

MARCH 5: After a week of trying unsuccessfully to escape Kyiv, account manager Mariya Kanifolska locates a temporary bridge across the Dnipro River installed by the Ukrainian army. Troops tell her she can't pass while the air raid sirens are sounding. While she waits, she receives an inquiry from a client asking about a project. "I'm like, OK, so I will be exploded now, and who will know about it?" says Kanifolska with a laugh. She works on the issue while waiting in her car for the sirens to stop. When they do, she crosses the bridge and heads west.

Centralizing all of Kitrum's client information--a practice the company put into place long before the war--has made it easier for teammates to step in for one another. Kanifolska recalls a fellow ­account manager based in Kharkiv asking if she could join her for a client video call. The sounds of artillery would be booming in the background, the colleague said, but she could mute her microphone.

"I was like, 'Oh, God, please just go to the shelter,' " Kanifolska recalls. "She said, 'No, the fighting is still far away. When it gets closer, I will escape.' I was scared for her, but maybe that's why we are winning this war--because we have people like this."

APRIL: Kitrum hires nannies for employees who are forced to work from home. The company calculates that its employees have worked 95 percent of their total possible hours since February 24. In mid-April, speaking to his staff from Florida, Kytainyk announces that the company has gained four clients since the war began.

Kitrum’s Masha Kuchuhurna with her family after relocating to the Netherlands. inline image
Kitrum’s Masha Kuchuhurna with her family after relocating to the Netherlands.Photo: Courtesy company

MAY: Kitrum begins offering free therapy sessions for its employees. By now, many of them have found more permanent housing--which has created new challenges, as members of the same team now live all over the world. Customer success manager Vitalii Lebediev, who oversees 16 teams of Ukrainian-based developers, now lives with his brother in California. The nine-hour time difference from his colleagues back home means he some­times has to work through the night. "It takes additional energy," says Lebediev. "But it's honoring your word that you gave to your client, your team, and your employer."

"If they attack, I will just put my computer aside and go and shoot."--Dmytro Suvorov

JUNE: With Russian troops forced out of the city, Kitrum's Kyiv office reopens. Dozens of employees return.

In late June, members of Kitrum's HR team take their first vacation days since the war began. They travel to Italy, where they drink wine and eat gelato. Vorsul is living in Croatia but hopes to return to Ukraine soon. "The Kharkiv office is my place of strength, where I get my energy," she says. "I want to come back home and see all our team together. To have big meetings, to have a party of victory for Ukraine--I need it very much."

In the meantime--and for the foreseeable future--Kitrum's work remains a testament to the resilience of a company facing the ultimate test of its systems and its people. Amazingly, during the four months that followed the invasion, only one Kitrum employee quit, and no clients cut ties with the company. Kytainyk projects that Kitrum's revenue will double to $19 million in 2022. The new state of affairs isn't ideal, and the war is far from over, but Kytainyk remains hopeful about what comes next.

"It's hard to run a business as a pessimist. How can you inspire people if you yourself don't believe?" he says. "I'm optimistic about the future of Kitrum. I believe that Ukraine will win. I believe that everything will be OK."

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