The Atlas

Ukrainian Super Powers

Don't let the Russian last name fool you. The stamp that appears most in my passport is Ukrainian. Kyiv is one of my favorite cities in the world and the European city -- bar none -- in which I have spent the most time, have the most friends and have watched with the most delight as it has transformed its geopolitical ambitions over the past decade.

Less that two weeks ago, I was talking to one of my colleagues about how -- despite all of the rest of my disappointments in the evolution of the technology space -- the one thing I take pride in as I enter the second half of my career, is that tech helped provide a potential for upward mobility and the opportunity for a middle class in places that we never imagined growing up. While the American middle class is imperiled, two of my favorite cities -- Kyiv and Medellin -- are bastions of transformation which no one in 1985 would have ever been able to imagine. And tech's role in that cannot be discounted.

I can rail against the big tech firms abusing their power, but those two cities, and their countries, have been the most glorious and unexpected benefits I've been privileged to have witnessed over the past 25 years of my career.

In a world where big tech has become the icon for everything wrong with unchecked capitalism, I find solace in knowing that the thing I find most meaningful in my day-to-day career -- helping people discover their own super powers and create a life beyond what they had previously imagined for themselves -- has been largely facilitated because places like Ukraine have been part of my daily life since 2010.

I met amazing individuals like Arturas, who while Lithuanian by birth and very capable of leaving Ukraine, has chosen to stay because he has more than 500 employees that he could not imagine abandoning in their time of need. And Dasha, who started off as an admin and who has grown into a glorious and sophisticated professional young woman who has defied the pressure to get married and make babies, and travels the globe routinely, enjoying a life and a career that would not have been possible for her a couple of decades earlier. There is Sasha, who taught me to drink beer in Germany and then made me sit in a beautiful park in Kyiv, enjoy the view and relax without looking at my phone or catching up on email. There is my other Dasha who is an amazing mom, to all of us who need her.

And my former business partners, Vlad and Yana, brilliant, talented, funny and charming. I've fed them BBQ in Austin, I met her for a pitch contest in NYC where we drank Illy coffee and I introduced them to my new husband and canines in California. They drove for 29 hours to get out of Kyiv with a friend and are now sleeping in shifts in a very small, temporary space. The men can't leave the country, and Yana won't leave without her husband.

As of last Wednesday, February 23rd, they were all middle class professionals who were part of a new Ukraine that was different than the Soviet satellite those of us over 40 grew up seeing on the news.

And the reality is that modern Ukraine is reason Putin attacked. Because this incarnation of Ukraine doesn't need Russia the way previous ones did, and its growth is moving so far out of the sphere of influence Putin wants to maintain that his only remaining acceptable option was to simply kill it off. Perverse logic to be sure, but hardly a surprise given his character. Ukraine was finding a way on its own, in a new world, moving closer to Europe and the Western Hemisphere, and providing new opportunities to Ukrainians that allowed them an upward mobility that Putin can't offer most of his own people, much less a vassal state in a new Russian Empire.

Yes, there is plenty of corruption challenges in the Ukrainian political and economic system. But since the Maidan Revolution in 2014, it was moving forward and away from the historical sphere of influence rooted in the Kremlin. And it was moving in a way that granted individuals more opportunity to find their own super powers. And not just the brilliant, funny, irreverent ones in my life, but so many others. And that hope is precisely what Putin is trying to quash.

Americans tend to worship at the altar of capitalism more than I'd like, but when democracy and capitalism are working together, they can have real benefits. They aren't perfect, and they rarely go long without leaving carnage in their wake, but they can be beneficial. Sometimes it's so easy to get caught up in the excitement of the potential that we lose sight of the resentment of those left behind. Those who have not found their wings and therefore curse anyone else who does.

Watching the Ukrainian army and civilians rise up and defy expectations of the Russian military has been a glorious, heartwarming sight. After all, the only thing Americans tend to love more than capitalism is the under dog. And right now, the Ukrainian underdog is giving the Russian bully an unexpected run for his deflated ruble.

That's what happens when you tell someone who has discovered their super power that they need to set it aside and go back to being a serf.


P.S. For those who want to help the Ukrainian military and civilians continue to fight the Russian onslaught, there are a number of ways to help. If none of those work, there is always (my employer) OSF Digital's foundation that is collecting funds and getting them to Ukrainians through our offices in Romania.

P.P.S For the animal lovers, domesticated pets are in dreadful danger as their owners have had to evacuate, often to places they aren't allowed/able to bring animals. There are two animal rescue groups on the ground that are in desperate need of donations, Network for Animals and PETA Germany.

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