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How Three Ukrainian Women Survived The War While Running A Startup

How Ukrainian Women Survive The War While Running a Startup — Stories From Headway

After Russia started a full-scale war against Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians had to leave their homes, save their loved ones, relocate their businesses, and volunteer for their country. 

Headway, an EdTech startup with offices in London, Nicosia, Kyiv, and Warsaw, also faced these challenges.

Yet, they evacuated their Ukrainian team to safe places with their relatives, ensured business continuity, and kept on hiring. Here are the stories of three women from Headway who were in charge of these complicated tasks while keeping their families safe and staying resilient. 

1. Anastasia Bondarenko, Head of Content and Communications  

The most challenging thing was accepting reality

Usually, I’m responsible for the content on our app and the company’s communications; my main task is to form, develop and guide teams to follow product strategy and achieve business goals. But on February 24, my usual responsibilities went on hold.

Instead, I joined the Emergency Team and helped everybody at the company stay updated about our next steps.

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At first, I instructed the team on how to pack an alarm backpack and then told everybody about changes in workflow during the war. My responsibilities were to create Headway’s positioning during these terrifying times, share the right messages, and help relocate the women of Headway abroad.

During the first weeks of the war, I was on “autopilot” — I had a cold mind and a clear plan for the next couple of days.

The most challenging thing for me was to accept reality

That acceptance came later in March when my family and the team evacuated to relatively safe places.

We have created two social projects to support Ukraine

As Headway is an educational app, we created a selection of summaries during the first few weeks to teach people about Russia’s war in Ukraine, its causes, and its course. We wanted to spread reliable information about the war as quickly and widely as possible, making this content free for everybody.

Our next social project was a range of infographics on security during the war. We compiled recommendations from official sources on health, psychological assistance, nuclear and chemical hazards, and behavior during hostilities. We hope that this content will be helpful for all Ukrainians, but we still wish that our readers would never need to use it, ever.

I’m proud that our company has managed to balance our patriotic spirit with our business goals to maintain continuity, support Ukraine’s economy, and donate to Ukrainians. 

My self-care tips 

Before the war, taking care of myself required the most significant effort and discipline. But now, I’m learning to find joy in this process. I follow my most effective tips — sleep, nutrition, exercise, and psychotherapy — by focusing on swimming, working, and taking walks.

Swimming literally and figuratively keeps me afloat. I’m learning to relax my body, do less movement and enjoy swimming. It has no less therapeutic effect on me than psychotherapy itself.

I continue with my psychotherapy. I’ve reached points where I can dive deeper than in previous years of therapy when I just didn’t want to. All those issues have become more vivid during the war, so now, I face them fully and try harder to cope.

Before the war, I couldn’t just walk, and my friends joked that I wasn’t walking but moving from point A to B. I am still learning to walk slower, appreciate the time and opportunity to walk without air raid sirens, and contemplate life, movement, and free breathing.

RELATED: Video Shows Ukrainian Mother Embracing A Stranger Who Brought Her Children Across The Border To Safety

I’m recovering on my own, which is why walking around the city with music is among my top three self-care tips.

2. Olha Shapovalova, Head of B2B Department 

I worked day and night to evacuate our team to safe places

I’m in charge of the B2B Department at Headway. We offer corporate programs for the Headway app subscription for various companies worldwide. We want to help them take care of their employees’ learning and development, and prevent burnout. We launched the B2B Department only three months ago, so we are still in the process of hiring a team and testing hypotheses. However, we have already got the clients onboard. 

After the war started, I had to focus entirely on the team’s evacuation. In addition to the team from London and Cyprus, we have a pretty large unit in Ukraine — about 90 people — who had to be evacuated with their families.

The most challenging thing was considering every personal story and resolving individual issues.

Some of our teammates have small children, some have elderly grandparents, and some have several animals that need special attention. We found a place where we could stay with our pets, and that also had a large bomb shelter where we could hide in case of air-raid alarms.

When most of our team was safe in the west of Ukraine, I started relocating women with children and elderly relatives abroad.

We quickly found an office in Warsaw because the Polish tenants there understood our situation and fully supported us. They gave us a discount and helped organize everything as soon as possible. 

My family didn’t want to leave, and I couldn’t sleep because of it

At the same time, I needed to take care of my family’s safety. I asked my parents to leave, but they didn’t want to.

I couldn’t sleep, realizing they were in danger. I set my alarm clock to go off every two hours each night to check the news, and at 5 and 7 am, I wrote to my parents to ensure they were alright;  if they didn’t answer me, I would have a panic attack.

After three weeks of a full-scale war, my mother and sister agreed to go to Poland, while my other relatives stayed in Kyiv. We keep in touch every day, and I follow the war situation. I miss everyone very much, but I believe that we will be able to go back home soon.

B2B challenges during the war

As I took over the evacuation process, I had to put my B2B tasks aside. It was a full-time job (I was doing it day and night), taking all my time and energy. As a result, I had no more than 20% of my time for general work. Fortunately, my team picked up all current tasks and made it 120%.

As for now, I’m also fully involved in B2B development. However, in the new war reality, we have unique challenges. 

Before the war, we all worked in the office. I think it’s important for a new business unit like ours to test new hypotheses and solve problems quickly.

RELATED: Videos Show Nurses In Ukraine Moving Babies Into Makeshift Bomb Shelter As Families Flee Russian Invasion

But distance work sometimes hinders communication and slows process setups. Moreover, as head of the team, I try to do everything to avoid employee burnout, but it’s pretty hard to notice alarm bells during remote work. 

We gathered all of Headway’s team in several locations — Warsaw, Poland, and the west of Ukraine — so that we could stick together in small groups, have live communication, support each other, and feel secure. 

My self-care tips 

Before the war, I started doing Thai boxing, and now it is my best supporter.

As the training is very intense, I give full rein to all my negative emotions and allow my brain to rest from daily tasks. Along with boxing, I run and exercise to help me stay fit and reduce my physical aches.

Studies show that reading at least 20 minutes a day helps to reduce stress. I read every day; it works.

I also work with a psychologist. Therapy was a part of my life before the war, but now it’s even more critical. My life goals before the war are not relevant anymore, and my psychologist helps me understand how to organize my life and what to do next.

It’s crucial for me to see my family and close friends and have heart-to-heart talks. So, I meet with them as soon as they come to Warsaw. After all, meeting close people is a part of everyday life that we, Ukrainians, lack so much at the moment.

3. Mariana Boloban, Head of Recruiting

I worked for a month without days off because work supported me

For about six months, I have not only led the Recruitment team but also been involved in HR processes. I interviewed candidates, developed our team strategically, and kept in touch with managers to help them grow with people management.

But as the war started, I had to dive deeper into internal communications to help our entire team of 130+ people stay in touch remotely and cope with stress. Also, together with the Emergency Team, I helped our team move to safe places in Ukraine and abroad.

During the first month of the war, we met with the Recruitment team online at 11 am every day, even on weekends, to stay in touch and support each other, either psychologically or with concrete actions. I remember working without days off because my work gave me a sense of control and helped me cope mentally. 

A rocket hit my neighbor’s home, and I had to leave

Immediately after the war started, I went from Kyiv to the small town of Bila Tserkva to my parents’ home. My colleague’s family also lives there, so we came together to volunteer in our spare time. The feeling that I could be helpful to our military and other people supported me and gave me extra strength.

I stayed with my parents in Bila Tserkva for a while until a rocket hit a private house near my parents’ home.

After that, I realized it was no longer safe there, so I decided to move to Lviv — a relatively safe city in the west of Ukraine. My mother and nephew went with me, but my father and brother decided to stay to protect our home. I am very worried about them because my dad is over 60 years old, and I couldn’t convince them to leave.

Part of our work and have time together, gathering for coffee and pizza, as we did in peacetime. I’m pleased to be together during these challenging times.

It’s hard to assess candidates who are under the constant stress of bombing

I think that the head of a team should take on the role of armor and become a support for their team. I try to do this though it’s quite challenging, as I also have emotional distress because of the war and anxiety for my relatives and my future. In the first few days of the war, my team was uncertain because we had stopped hiring, and it was unclear when we would recruit people again.

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After a few weeks, my team started hiring again, looking for Ukrainian specialists to support our talents and our country’s economy.

But hiring has changed and brought new challenges, like assessing the skills of candidates in the hotspots that are under constant stress from explosions and shelling and matching those skills with our company.

During the first three months of the war, 21 newcomers joined the Headway team. Onboarding is much harder now for new people and our managers, but we manage to cope due to massive support from the team. 

My challenge is just to relax. I work a lot, help the country with donations, and support other people. And I have a feeling that now is not the time to rest, but I’ve started taking some days off.  

My team is incredible support for me

I’ve had psychotherapy sessions for two years now, and I’m sure they have helped me stabilize quickly after the war started. Therefore, I continue my therapy, which is my most significant support.

My recruitment team and the entire Headway team are also an incredible source of support for me. Our people are very empathetic and ready to pick up each other’s tasks at any time or help with words or deeds. Besides, my work gives me a great sense of stability. I feel in my place and among my people.

I was lucky to be evacuated to Lviv, a city where I’ve lived for eight years and which I consider my second home. If I went to a completely unfamiliar city, it would be even more emotionally challenging.

Meet the women of Headway: Anastasia Bondarenko, Content & Communications, Olha Shapovalova, Head of B2B, Mariana Boloban, Head of Recruitment. They're in charge of these complicated tasks while keeping their families safe and staying resilient.