Ukrainian entrepreneurs struggle to save their employees as war threatens to crush their businesses
“There is a popular saying in Ukraine,” says Alex Medovoy, owner of three businesses in the war-torn city of Kharkiv. “The Ukrainian night is very quiet, but at the quietest time of the night you have to hide what is most valuable,” he says. For Medovoy, these are its employees. The 36-year-old says he spent $300,000 to evacuate around 85% of them from Ukraine’s second-largest city as it was battered by a brutal Russian assault.
Medovoy says he doesn’t know the state of the offices he left behind from his travel technology consultancy, AltexSoft, or his children’s food business or children’s education centers, which brought in a total of $15 million in 2021. “For our businesses that have focused on the local market, there is no business because there is no market,” Medovoy says.
Entrepreneurs across Ukraine like Medovoy have been fighting to take care of their employees and protect their businesses amid a full-scale Russian invasion. Saddened by their losses but hopeful for victory, they continue to help Ukrainian civilians, police and military by delivering basic necessities like food, medicine, diapers and blankets.
Andrey Zdesenko, the founder of Biosphere Corporation, idled its four factories in Ukraine that produced diapers, wet wipes and other basic household products. He says he is still paying his Ukrainian suppliers and his 2,500 employees, many of whom he says have taken refuge in bomb shelters. “They have trusted the company for many years,” he says.
Zdesenko, one of the 100 richest Ukrainians, according to Forbes Ukraine, at has also set up five centers where his company’s volunteers distribute food and sanitary products from the company’s inventory.
After founding Biosphere Corporation in 1997 in his hometown of Dnipro in central Ukraine, Zdesenko grew the company into Ukraine’s largest manufacturer of household and personal care products, exporting to 30 countries and generating around 250 million dollars in revenue in 2021.
“It’s really, really sad because we’ve spent 10 years telling them that Ukrainian products are good products, reliable quality, good price, use them, they’re made in Ukraine,” says Zdesenko, 52 years. “We put a lot of passion and heart into our product.” He predicts that the war will lead to poverty and that it will take around five years for the country’s economy and infrastructure to rebuild after the damage.
The Fozzy Group, which operates 900 supermarkets and convenience stores across Ukraine, is struggling to keep as many stores as it can open and stock. The group, which includes supermarket chains Le Silpo and Fora, made around $3 billion in revenue in 2020 and employs 68,000 people in Ukraine.
“We are working day and night under Russian bombardment to provide all the necessary goods for our civilians,” said Ivan Palchevskyi, spokesman for the Fozzy group.
The company has turned warehouses into makeshift humanitarian aid centers, distributing food and medicine. But they are about to run out of a long list of basic necessities, including water, pasta, cereal, canned goods, toilet paper and diapers.
For small businesses, the war has created an existential crisis.
Peter Souslenskii, CEO of a Kharkiv-based nanoparticle manufacturing company, NVKF Universal, sent his wife and children to safety in Dubai as he fled into the Carpathian Mountains. Its 70-year-old chief technologist, Volodymyr Koltsov, is trapped in a village surrounded by Russian tanks. At this point, Souslenskii doubts his business will survive.
“I mean, it’s total desperation. Something we have spent years of our lives building. Just, you know, gone within days,” says Souslenskii, 39, whose company produces patented silver, copper and bismuth nanoparticles that only a dozen other companies in the world can make. It had only recently launched international sales after more than two decades of development.
Its workers left Kharkiv after the attack on the city. “We couldn’t even ship products that we had already made.”
In southwestern Kiev, Vlad Bazarov sits in his bedroom in his family’s home, the curtains drawn as Russian missile fire rocks the city. For the young entrepreneur, the war stifled a business that was just beginning to take off.
The 24-year-old startup, LoveYouHome, had sales of around $300,000 worth of blankets, sheets and kitchenware last year, 90% of which it says it made with a staff of five. in a sublet factory in Kharkiv. He says he has no idea about her current condition.
Bazarov says Ukraine was a good place to set up a manufacturing and export business due to a free trade agreement with European countries including the UK, Germany, Spain, Poland, France, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. “And the infrastructure is pretty good. I mean roads, railways and airports,” he says. He stops and corrects himself. “Well, it was.”
As his friends picked up weapons to join the voluntary territorial defense force, Basarov says he wanted to help defend his country in “non-lethal ways”. He donated about 100 of his wool quilts and blankets to the Ukrainian army, along with his own blood and money.
Amid the chaos of war, some entrepreneurs say they cling to their vision for the future of their business. Zdesenko sees the war as an opportunity to set an example as a leader and looks forward to reconstruction. For Medovoy, the war is another reason to dub AltexSoft as a location-agnostic IT consultancy.
Bazarov says: “We are all stressed and tired from shelling and sirens at night. At the same time, I see that people feel very united. In this moment, the whole nation has united against one great enemy.