Matt Brown has not been able to sleep for more than two or three hours at a time since the night of Feb. 24, when Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine and began shelling large cities and obliterating small ones.
For Brown, the CEO of the Palo Alto-based company Waverley Software, the conflict is not an abstraction. A large contingent of Waverley's workforce is in Ukraine and when the war began, about 200 were in Kharkiv, a city east Ukraine that has been devastated by Russian bombing over the past three weeks. Most left in the days after, with some saying goodbye to their parents and pets for possibly the last time, he said. About 30 have stayed.
"There are a few people there who can't leave," Brown said during a recent interview at Alice's Restaurant, a community hub in Woodside that is now raising money to support Ukrainian refugees. "They have family or are in an area where they feel it's too dangerous or they don't feel safe getting out of their home or basement. So, they're kind of trapped."
Brown regularly talks to his Ukrainian employees and hears stories about employees taking refuge in bomb shelters or fleeing Kharkiv for safer destinations in west Ukraine or beyond the country's border. He's seen footage of places he had visited destroyed: parks and buildings ravaged by bombing, streets covered in glass and debris, burned cars. He has also seen a photo of an abandoned Russian military vehicle, emblazoned with the ominous letter "Z," next to his company's Kharkiv office.
Despite the carnage of war, as of earlier this week, 86% of the workforce continued to work. Many see it as a valuable distraction and a way for them to contribute, Brown said.
"They care about their jobs and feel fortunate to still have an income," Brown said. "They care. And we're working together with them to try to support them and provide whatever we can do — encouragement, logistical support — anything we can do to help them find safety."
Waverley, which has an office at Town & Country Village but which has been in remote-work mode over the course of the pandemic, is far from the only local company with strong Ukraine connections. Earlier this month, Tatiana Perebynis, chief accountant at Palo Alto company SE Ranking, was killed along with her two children by a Russian mortar bomb while fleeing Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. Photos showing the March 7 attack on the fleeing family, one on the front page of the New York Times, have become among the defining images of the invasion in which Russian forces have bombarded residential areas, hospitals and civilian infrastructure.
Alex Tauber, CEO of Veer Technologies, an artificial intelligence company, said there are many reasons why Silicon Valley looks to Ukraine for employees, including the nation's strong education system. Tauber, a regular at Alice's, had formerly served as director of the company Digital Realty Trust, which he said had about 200 engineers in Ukraine. He said he regularly took business trips to Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities and was struck by the high number of schools and the city's large population of engineers.
He noted that Kharkiv, the nation's second-largest city with a pre-war population of more than 1.5 million people, has dozens of universities.
"What I found amazing about Ukraine was that they are incredibly educated people, incredibly talented people. And what they want is what we take for granted," Tauber said.
Many Ukrainians also share Western values, Tauber said, as became evident during the 2014 "Revolution of Dignity," when many endured violence on Maidan Square in Kyiv to oppose and ultimately overthrow the country's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
"They want to have our values. They are against corruption. This is a generation of folks who really want what's best for their country," he said.
Tauber's current company also has employees in Ukraine: four people in Kharkiv, four in Kyiv and one in Dnipro. His Kharkiv employees quickly left the city in the first few days of the war, he said.
"One of them didn't want to leave Kharkiv because his mother is all alone," he said. "Now, his mother lives in a town that's 20 kilometers from Kharkiv that the Russians have taken over. His mother was very pro-Russian at first but now that Russians took over their town, she's like, 'This is not good.'"
Brown similarly said that the high level of education in Ukraine made it appealing for his company to hire teams there. His teams in Ukraine include software engineers, quality assurance engineers, Unix designers and business analysts.
"They have an easy adaptation to working with Westerners," Brown said. "They think and operate much like we do and they're just very good at what they do. They're very well-educated and well-trained."
When the war began, most Waverley employees expressed shock that the invasion was occurring. Since then, the initial surprise has given way to fear as Russia continues to launch missiles into cities and force people into bomb shelters. Two of Brown's employees have been conscripted into the armed services. One or two others are volunteering. Many are facing separation from their families, he said.
When the war began on Feb. 24, Brown was on a business trip in Romania with a team of Waverley employees from Ukraine. That weekend, one of them took a bus ride west and crossed the border to Lviv to meet her husband and their 14-year-old daughter, he said.
"She was very worried about her daughter and she was really hoping he could find a way across the border but they wouldn't let him, so they're separated," Brown said.
More than 2 million people have already left Ukraine, according to the United Nations. Alice's and its customers are working to raise money to assist them. Earlier this month, Tauber enlisted his team in Ukraine to design T-shirts that Alice's is now selling to raise money for refugees.
The first print of 144 shirts, which feature a red Alice's Restaurant logo surrounding an "I Stand with Ukraine" emblem featuring the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, sold out immediately. On Monday afternoon, Alice's co-owner Andy Kerr was preparing for a drive to Byron in the Central Valley to pick up 700 more.
Some of the proceeds from the sales will go to World Central Kitchen, the global nonprofit that provides meals for residents escaping war or natural disasters. The rest will go to charities inside Ukraine.
One avenue for aid that Tauber is exploring is the local chapter of Save Ukraine, which has already raised about $660,000 to send clothes and food to eastern Ukraine and to help the military with necessities.
Tauber's friend Vitaliy Rodymiuk is a CEO of the company bvblogic, which is based in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano Frankivsk, south of Lviv. Rodymiuk has established a connection between the team at Alice's Restaurant and Save Ukraine so that they can set up a direct link before sending the money, Tauber said. The Save Ukraine chapter has a goal of raising $1.55 million, he said.
Kerr said Alice's is strongly committed to the cause. The restaurant has many customers who are Russian and, much like their Ukrainian counterparts, they have indicated that they are "absolutely disgusted" by what their country is doing.
"I have many engineers here who are Russian and one guy recently said, 'I am embarrassed to say I'm Russian.' I tell them, 'Don't ever say you are embarrassed to be Russian. That's your heritage,'" Kerr said. "Someone who starts a business here or a Russian restaurant here — they left the country for a reason."
on Mar 17, 2022 at 10:48 am
on Mar 17, 2022 at 10:48 am
Alice’s has done so many community projects.
Andy and Jamie Kerr are reaching out ....raising money in support of Ukraine. I love our community minded restaurant❣️ Thank you, Alice’s.