I’m a Ukrainian-American refugee and VC. This is why investors are well positioned to act during crises

By Semyon Dukach, Founding Partner, One Way Ventures, United States

September 25, 2023

Twelve years ago, my wife and I met in Ukraine, and we’ve always maintained close connections to the country. When the war broke out, we were outraged, and we wanted to act.

Within the first few hours of the conflict, we were booking AirBnB apartments across the border for people fleeing Ukraine. But it was difficult to make it work logistically. So, by the second day, my wife decided she was going to fly to the Romania–Ukraine border and I joined. When we arrived, we saw streams of people fleeing the war with whatever they had on them. That was the beginning of a fund that has since helped over 30,000 people affected by the war.

I was 9 years old when my family and I left the Soviet Union, eventually settling as refugees in the United States. After studying at Columbia and MIT and building and selling my own startup, I became an angel investor and led Techstars in Boston, eventually launching my own VC firm, One Way Ventures. We pledged to support exceptional immigrant founders, not only because they make some of the best entrepreneurs, but because I believe that people have a right to live and work wherever they want.

The Russian invasion was a direct affront to that belief. To me, offering support to Ukrainians wasn’t a hard decision – it would have been harder not to act at all. As VCs, we have access to capital, we have learned the scrappiness of startups, and we are able to snap into action when a moment could benefit from our values and expertise. 

I’m not saying all VCs should work on problems in Ukraine, but I think that there’s a place in anyone’s life for philanthropy. This was my journey, and I hope it resonates with other investors, too.

We are able to act quickly

Once we arrived in Romania, there was a lot of confusion, and the non-profits who were already there, rightly didn’t have time to tell us how we could help.

We had some cash on us, and had the idea to give Ukrainian refugees money in hand as they crossed the border. We hoped that it could help give them some agency and time to figure out what to do next. Though we initially gave them $100 in US dollars, we quickly figured that they needed local currency, so we started taking out cash at ATMs until we couldn’t withdraw more.

People in our world work with early-stage founders. We can move very fast. In moments of unexpected and violent crisis, refugees can benefit from the assistance of an organization with zero overhead that can move, pivot and scale very quickly. 

The same can be said of any number of situations that require immediate attention with as few barriers to assistance as possible. People who can help build for-profit businesses, can also help build a non-profit that can build quickly in an active situation. 

We can be scrappy and adaptable

Our journey took multiple turns. After our first trip, we decided that directly giving cash to Ukrainian refugees was the best contribution we could make. Our fund started out on Facebook. People were soon sending money and signing up to volunteer – from then on we had 10 to 15 volunteers at Ukraine’s borders 24/7 for several weeks.

A month and a half after the invasion began, the Russians started retreating from Kyiv, and people started returning to Ukraine. At that point, we opened our official non-profit Cash for Refugees, and started doing tax-deductible donations.

As well as being fast, VCs can also be scrappy – building networks from nothing, pivoting until you find the most beneficial and efficient process. Over a few weeks, we tried multiple approaches depending on the needs we were seeing on the ground. At times, people in our position can be far more agile than larger non-profits, who are by nature slow and bureaucratic.

Last April, once the Russian invaders withdrew from Kyiv, our approach changed, and we started working with internally displaced persons (IPDs). We’ve been going to small villages where people are resettling, and whom larger organizations might not be able to reach. We send money directly to their accounts, hopefully empowering them to decide what they need most to get back on their feet.

We are able to apply our unique expertise 

I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to create a nonprofit if I hadn’t been well-versed in building from the ground up, and my experience of serving on many company boards over the years enabled me to help scale the organization.

As VCs, we have a lot of skills that are conducive to helping people. If you are in a position to make an impact and are mission-driven, then to me, it’s a simple case of applying your existing skills to a new project.

My wife Natasha Dukach dropped everything to work on Cash for Refugees fulltime as the Executive Director, and I’m still helping as much as I can at the board level and by occasionally joining on the ground as a volunteer. But I’ve also taken a step back to think more about things we can do as a fund to help in Ukraine (Our charitable work in Ukraine has no association with my VC fund).

I know a lot about running accelerators, as the former Managing Director of Techstars in Boston. So, I recently started working on setting up an early-stage accelerator for entrepreneurs in Kyiv. This is one of the best ways I can use my unique expertise working with founders as an angel investor, VC and accelerator manager – and it is deeply relevant to my mission as an investor. Me and some other funds I’m in discussions with have decided not to wait until the war is over to begin working.

We must act on our mission

If you also have a mission-driven fund, you want to act when you see something happening that goes against your values. Many world events call for motivated and capable builders, like tech investors, to drive change. From immigration to the US, to homelessness, to mental health among youths. Investors have cultivated skills that enable us to rapidly scale these actions to be able to impact the most people.

Once the war is over, there’s a strong chance that Kyiv will become the top center for R&D and innovation in Europe, attracting tremendous reconstruction capital, and new immigrants from other parts of Europe and beyond. For right now, it will be good for Ukraine to receive assistance beyond sending weapons, so those in the country can see that there are people outside who believe in them. 

Ukraine, and other countries currently fighting crises, will become stronger. If we can help them do so, we should.

Semyon Dukach is Founding Partner of One Way Ventures, a VC firm funding exceptional immigrant founders. A Ukrainian-American, he came to the US as a child refugee in 1979. He is the former Managing Director of Techstars (Boston), and an angel investor in over 100 companies.