This former Uber executive traveled to Ukraine to help Zelensky. His parents still think he’s in San Francisco

Ukrainian-born Silicon Valley executive Andrey Liscovich tells Rachel Sharp how he swapped the Bay Area for the war zone so he can use his startup skills to source and route supplies to the volunteers fighting for his country’s freedom

Wednesday 23 March 2022 18:17 GMT
Andrey Liscovich speaks to The Independent from his home town Zaporizhzhia in between air raids
Andrey Liscovich speaks to The Independent from his home town Zaporizhzhia in between air raids (The Independent)

There was a moment during his 70-hour journey from San Francisco to Ukraine where the magnitude of the situation really struck Andrey Liscovich.

“My parents were making their way west through Ukraine as they evacuated and at the exact same time I was passing through the same city on a train going the other way,” he says.

“We were literally a couple of miles away from each other and I couldn’t tell them.

“I remember looking out of the train window at that exact moment. It was an emotional moment for me personally.”

As far as his mother is aware, Mr Liscovich is still in the Bay Area working on his new startup.

The truth is the 37-year-old is now hunkered down in their hometown of Zaporizhzhia, speaking to The Independent in a late-night video call in between air raids.

Born and raised in Ukraine, Mr Liscovich went to college in Moscow, did his PHD at Harvard University and then moved to San Francisco where he has spent his career to date in the tech industry.

Up until May 2020, he was CEO of Uber Works - Uber’s ​​former offshoot matching gig workers with jobs in various industries - and, since then, has been working as an adviser to startup businesses while also developing his own startup.

But, when Russia declared war on his home country last month, the Silicon Valley executive swapped the Bay Area for the war zone and is now using those same startup skills to support his fellow Ukrainians as they defend the country from Russian attack.

Under his newly-created operation Ukraine Defense Fund, he sources much-needed supplies including boots, clothing, food, phones, portable chargers and first aid kits and distributes them to the thousands of Ukrainian volunteer fighters on the frontline.

Ukrainian-born Silicon Valley exec tells The Independent how Zelensky inspired him to help

“My parents don’t know that I’m here. They think I’m in San Francisco but I know I just cannot tell them,” he says.

“If my mom were to find out she would be so distraught. She didn’t want to leave herself.

“She felt that she was deserting her country in a time of need but she’s elderly so it would be difficult for her to make a material difference and she would actually be in grave danger as the support infrastructure here that she needs has been disrupted.”

As they don’t speak English, Mr Liscovich says he has so far managed to avoid his parents discovering what he is doing.

But, he accepts that it is likely only a matter of time before they find out where he is.

“At some point they may find out but I am trying to postpone that moment for as long as possible as I don’t want to put additional pressure on their emotions,” he says.

“My mom is already incredibly distraught by what is happening to her home.”

Just a bluff

Prior to Vladimir Putin’s invasion, he had prepared his family for a possible evacuation from Ukraine but, like most people he spoke to, they never really believed they would need to put these plans into action.

“We didn’t know that it would happen and it was shocking as virtually no one among the people I talked to - not in Russia or in Ukraine - believed it would happen. Everyone thought it  was a bluff,” he says.

However, knowing that it was “a possibility”, he planned the logistics for evacuating his elderly parents from the country.

He set them up in an apartment on the other side of the Dnieper River in case bridges were targeted and escape routes cut off.

They gathered what they needed for their emergency evacuation bags and staged a mock evacuation one week before the war began.

Meanwhile, Mr Liscovich spent the first three weeks of February in Russia visiting his closest friends from his college days and going on a trip to the Caucasus.

As a Russian speaker from Ukraine who spent his “formative years” in Moscow where his best friends still live and he loves to visit, he feels his very existence counters Mr Putin’s world view.

Some of the supplies for Ukrainian fighters (Ukraine Defense Fund )

“I am the poster boy for someone who [in Putin’s view] should be welcoming Putin’s tanks with flowers and yet I am here doing everything possible to stop Putin taking over my country,” he says.

“I went there on purpose knowing that, should the war start, I would probably never be able to go to Russia again.”

“But I also wanted to see the atmosphere in Russia on the potential eve of the war.”

After two dates predicted for the invasion came and went, he flew back from Moscow to San Francisco.

“Nothing happened and I thought well hopefully that’s that over,” he says.

Then, just days after returning to California on 20 February, he watched on TV as Mr Putin announced he was declaring war on Ukraine.

“I called my dad and said: ‘It’s happening. Get mom and evacuate’,” he recalls.

After they crossed paths on their way out and his way in, his parents passed the border into Poland and traveled west to Germany where they are now safely staying in shelter.

A ship worth defending

At first, Mr Liscovich says he explored how he could help the efforts in Ukraine remotely from his home in California.

But, at the “flip of a switch” he decided to head to Ukraine after being inspired by the bravery of President Volodyrmr Zelensky.

“The real decision came - it was a flip of a switch, I remember the precise moment - I made the decision when I saw Zelensky take a courageous stand to refuse evacuation and stay with his country,” he says.

“When you have a captain of a ship willing to go down with the ship then it’s a ship that’s worth defending.”

And so on 26 February - two days after the invasion began - Mr Liscovich boarded a flight from San Francisco and began the three-day journey to his hometown.

He flew to Chicago then on to Warsaw and Rzeszow in Poland, where he took a train to a border town, hitched a ride onwards with some firefighters and walked across the Ukrainian border.

Andrey Liscovich back in his home town after making the 70-hour journey from San Francisco (Ukraine Defense Fund)

There, he hitchhiked and took trains to reach Zaporizhzhia, where he walked into the local conscription office to volunteer his services.

Mr Liscovich says it quickly became apparent that his professional background and skillset would be best put to use building a supply chain to get supplies to the military - rather than joining the fight himself.

“It became clear that, given the very large number of volunteers who have stepped forward to defend the country, the biggest issue was not the number of people available, it was the supplies for them,” he says.

“At the staging area where guys were waiting to be enlisted, you would see the line of folks wearing sneakers, tracksuits, jeans, very plain civilian clothes and they were just given an AK-47 and a few spare magazines of ammo and that’s nowhere near enough for somebody to be productive on the battlefield.

“They need to be converted from a civilian into a soldier.”

Converting civilians into soldiers

The Ukrainian military has limited funding for the volume of volunteers who have joined in the fight to defend their country and so - rather than a lack of fighters, there is a distinct lack of supplies to help them resist Russian attack.

Much of the foreign aid being sent to Ukraine is also being used to buy weapons that are then shipped to troops on the ground, Mr Liscovich explains.

“Weapons are only part of the equation,” he says.

“If soldiers only have weapons but not the rest of the equipment they need, they will have a hard time making progress on the battlefield.”

Using his tech and logistics background, Mr Liscovich began sourcing everything “non lethal” that soldiers need and distributing them to troops on the frontline.

This includes socks, shoes, underwear, clothes, power banks, boots, tactical gear, body armour, helmets, binoculars, cellphones as well as food: essentially “all the things that soldiers need besides a weapon”.

Initially, Mr Liscovich was maxing out his personal credit card buying the items himself.

But, as word spread about what he was doing, he started receiving money from friends and strangers alike.

Now, the Ukraine Defense Fund has received more than $410,000 in donations.

But, even with funds pouring in, getting supplies to fighters on the frontline of the warzone is becoming increasingly challenging, with issues with both a shortage of essential goods and difficulties transporting items into areas under siege.

At first, Mr Liscovich says a lot of the supplies needed were available in local stores.

But, after around a week, the local inventory had been largely depleted.

Ukraine Defense Fund is sourcing everything but weapons for Ukrainian fighters (Ukraine Defense Fund)

Last week, Mr Liscovich posted a TikTok showing empty shelves in the food aisles of Zaporizhzhia’s biggest supermarket.

“Things are getting noticeably worse. It’s not that supplies are non-existent. Right now people are able to get enough food and stock is being reshelved but there is less and less variety by the day and it’s only small units of items,” he says.

Dairy products, canned foods and chocolates are in short supply while necessities like flour and sugar are being prioritised, he says.

With local supplies dwindling, Ukraine must increasingly rely on the procurement of items from other parts of Europe.

Building a supply chain

“We had to pivot to building a supply chain that involves buying goods from Western countries and then transporting them to the frontline,” he says, adding that this instantly slows down the process of getting goods to soldiers quickly.

“The first problem is we need to find these things in other parts of the world. There is now an elevated demand for everything that is needed on the battlefield so it’s even becoming hard to find some of these things in Europe,” he says.

“So then we have to bring some of these things in from other parts of the world to Poland and then take them by land into Ukraine.

“And some of these ways are quite gnarly but it’s the only option.”

This is where a no-fly zone would significantly help to get the right gear to Ukrainian fighters on the ground quickly, he explains.

“Ukraine can have an advantage in the long term if the sky is closed as the west could continue resupplying the military,” says Mr Liscovich.

“But the problem is Russia now controls the space. They have bombed all major airports and made it impossible to resupply by air - cargo planes can’t fly to the frontline.

“Instead supplies land in Poland and then take multi-day journeys through terrain where the cargo can still be bombed from the air.”

Traveling by land is also slow because of the need to pass through checkpoints and several areas being under curfews for extended periods of time.

“So we can’t move supplies at night. It’s much slower than normal,” he says.

“It’s a question of being able to drive the right cargo to the right place at the right time using the right route.”

Shelves in local supermarkets lie empty as supplies dwindle (Ukraine Defense Fund)

Deciding how the funds should be prioritised can also be challenging.

“Asking the soldiers what they need they will always tell you ‘bring everything’. We can’t bring everything when we have a limited amount of money,” he says.

“We have to decide: would they rather have socks or something to eat? It’s a trade-off we have to make for them.”

This is partly why Mr Liscovich says people outside of Ukraine can best help by sending money to organisations on the ground rather than donating items that might not necessarily be what is most needed and that can also take a long time to reach the frontline.

In the most streamlined of supply chains, he says the time taken from a donation being made from anywhere in the world to the funds being used to buy essential supplies and the items reaching soldiers on the frontline can be as little as two hours.

Due to the benefits of speed and shorter supply chains, sourcing directly from local suppliers is still the preferred choice where possible.

While it’s becoming more challenging, Mr Liscovich says there are still several local manufacturers supplying the war effort on the ground in Zaporizhzhia.

At one local supplier of military clothes and shoes, the Ukraine Defense Fund has bought out the store’s entire supplies around six times already.

As soon as the items are bought, they can then be loaded straight onto a military van and driven in a convoy to Ukrainians fighting on the frontline.

The manufacturer is then able to produce more in a matter of days using the money directly paid for the inventory.

“They can use this money to buy raw materials and then make these items locally in days,” he says.

Similarly, local farmers’ markets are proving to have more supplies than large grocery chains because of the local supply chain, he says.

A startup mentality

Mr Liscovich also puts this difference down to “entrepreneurial ingenuity” that smaller, local businesses have to “find efficient wars to meet consumer needs”.

He says his own role helping his fellow Ukrainians defend the country from Mr Putin’s war is very similar to his entrepreneurial and startup work back in Silicon Valley.

“It’s very similar to running a startup company as you’re trying to figure out the product market fit and the user needs,” he says.

“You have to find the problem and come up with the solution that they might not even know that they wanted until you present it to them.

“It’s a very entrepreneurial problem to solve. And like all entrepreneurial journeys it’s important to have skin in the game.”

Mr Liscovich says the fact that he is on the ground in Ukraine and has been using his own money to buy supplies shows people he is “willing to take personal risks to advance the cause”.

“It’s not just me sitting there telling someone else what to do. I’m here sharing in the possible consequences of my decisions and my calls to action,” he says.

“This isn’t using bleeding heart photos on Facebook to get emotional responses from people.”

Ukrainian soldiers walk next to the military school hit by Russian rockets in Mykolaiv (AFP via Getty Images)

He likens the logistical challenges to those he was tasked with at Uber Works.

“I’d say the work itself is very similar in many ways,” he says.

“Uber Works was a logistics company and the problem we are trying to solve now is a problem of logistics to get stuff from a to b, to get the right supplies to an area of the country to use as they fight the Russian army.

He recalls one particular time that the Silicon Valley firm needed to take on 150 security guards for a Drake concert in Chicago at one days’ notice and also needed specific uniforms for them that day.

“We provided surge staffing to businesses and what is happening in Ukraine is a surge staffing problem, as we have 100,000 extra workers in arms and we need to provide them with uniform and supplies they need,” he says.

“It’s the exact same problem… it’s different but it’s a similar problem.”

Given his experience, he says he felt he couldn’t just “sit idly by” and not use his position to try to “solve the problems that need to be solved”.

“Imposing your regime by force on people has to be stopped and I believe Putin can only be stopped by force,” he says.

Which is why he says he is focusing on the military effort rather than the humanitarian effort to give them a “fighting chance”.

“Humanitarian work doesn’t win wars. And right now the only thing that can win wars is the Ukrainian army that has been augmented by the large number of volunteers who have stepped forward to fight for the country,” he says.

“It’s the military outcome that will determine the future fate of Ukraine.”

While he also describes running a startup as an “emotional rollercoaster”, there’s no escaping the fact that the stakes are far higher now he is dealing with life and death on the frontline of an unprovoked war compared with planning for a Drake concert.

Andrey Liscovich says seeing the Ukrainian flag flying is a visible sign to him of how his home town is faring (Ukraine Defense Fund)

But, Mr Liscovich says there’s no time to let his emotions get in the way.

“There will be years to grieve - maybe decades - but we only have days to make an actual difference so I’m trying not to focus on feelings at this stage,” he says.

“There will be plenty of time after the war to think and reflect and come to terms with what has happened but I cannot devote my focus to that now. I have to focus on the work.”

Keeping the flag flying

In the month since the war started, Russian forces have captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant - the largest in Europe - and explosions have been heard at the plant since.

On Monday, four children were hospitalised in the region when Russian forces opened fire on cars carrying families trying to leave along so-called “green corridors”.

But, for Mr Liscovich, there is a very visible symbol for how his hometown is faring.

“I look out of my window at the building we call the White House here - like a state assembly or city hall essentially - and there is a Ukrainian flag flying over it,” he says.

“It’s a very visceral representation of the current state of where Ukraine is. As if Russian forces enter, the first thing they will do is take the Ukrainian flag down.

He adds: “My goal is to make sure that never goes down.”

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