Andy Kurtzig would normally be planning a fun family holiday at this time of year. Imagine somewhere sunny with palm trees, ocean waves and colourful drinks with umbrellas in them. That’s normally the kind of place the CEO and founder of JustAnswer, the Q&A platform connecting curious people with experts, takes his family to. However, instead of sun bathing, the Kurtzigs are gearing up to face the grim realities of the war in Ukraine.
“We’re not going to go do something fun when our friends and our colleagues in Ukraine are suffering – we’re going to go help,” Kurtzig tells Verdict.
His family will head to the Ukraine border to support refugees fleeing the warzone in the next few weeks. He doesn’t want to give an exact date as his children will join him. Kurtzig is also raising money to support the 258 members of the JustAnswer staff in Ukraine via the non-profit Arizae Foundation.
“We’ve [raised] over $300,000 so far,” Kurtzig says. “That money is going directly to Ukraine to our partner there that we’ve worked with before on other humanitarian efforts like Covid.”
The funds will be used to buy life-saving supplies. For instance, one JustAnswer worker suffers from diabetes. He is now running low on insulin, which Kurtzig will bring to Ukraine. “The insulin system [is] in short supply there right now,” he explains. “They’re not able to get it. That’s something we can bring to a bunch of our colleagues there.”
Another staff member is volunteering as a paramedic. “As soon as the war hit, she went straight to the east,” Kurtzig says. “Most of our employees went west to safety. But she was a paramedic in her past job and she and a bunch of her paramedic friends went straight to the warzone.”
However, after a month of fighting, she’s running out of tourniquets, blood clotting devices and other supplies to help the wounded. The fundraising operation will also go towards stocking up her medical supplies. The company will also provide drones and body armour to colleagues fighting in the war.
To Kurtzig, the help is about more than supporting his business: it’s about protecting a nation he’s grown to love ever since JustAnswer first set up shop in Ukraine in 2010. In 2019, his family even spent a year living in Ukraine.
JustAnswer in Ukraine: it’s not just business
JustAnswer has been around since 2003. The San Francisco-headquartered company has raised $50.7m to date, according to Crunchbase. The JustAnswer CEO says establishing a presence in Ukraine in 2010 was a simple coincidence.
“We were working on a project here in San Francisco and one of our engineers knew a guy in Ukraine,” Kurtzig recalls. “He did a great job on the project and he knew a guy and they knew a person and they knew a person and the next thing you know we’ve got 258 people in Ukraine.”
That means JustAnswer was present in 2014 when the Kremlin first annexed the Crimean Penninsula. The experience made him acutely aware of how exposed Ukraine was to Russia. It thought him a valuable lesson.
“The punchline is: don’t trust Putin. Whatever he says it’s not true,” Kurtzig says. The JustAnswer CEO notes how Moscow said in March how it would pull back from Kyiv only to start shelling the city even harder within the next 24 hours. Now, the Russian war machine has pulled back from the Ukrainian capital, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
“[Putin has] reminded us over and over and over again for years, but hopefully, this time, it’s loud and clear enough that [the world knows that] Putin cannot be trusted,” Kurtzig says.
Having been in Ukraine for so long, the JustAnswer CEO had put contingencies in place to prepare for another conflict. That meant backing up all the data on US servers, printing out hard copies of things like leases and employment agreements, buying satellite phones and backup power generators. When tensions grew between Moscow and Kyiv at the end of last year, JustAnswer was prepared.
“We started encouraging our employees to get to safety and we paid to move them [and] handled all the logistics to move them to the west and out of the country,” Kurtzig says.
Some 39 of his Ukrainian colleagues and even many more of their family members have taken him up on that offer. The majority, however, have stayed in the country.
“That’s because the men between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country,” he says.
Once these preparations had been put in place, all they could do was to wait and watch as tensions grew, praying that the worst wouldn’t happen.
“By mid to early February, we started seeing a lot more activity around bomb threats at schools and a lot more frequency around that kind of thing,” he says. “It was scary.”
And then, the worst happened.
Kurtizig was having dinner with a friend on February 24. He excused himself and went to the bathroom. He pulled up his phone and checked the news. “It was like holy…,” he recalls.
The headlines all said the same thing: Russia had invaded Ukraine. He rushed home and got into contact with his team. The plans that they had made snapped into action. The JustAnswer CEO spent the next days in a haze, coordinating with his Ukraine, trying to keep his business going and them safe.
“It was really scary and upsetting and awful and just, you know, sad,” he says. “The part that that makes me the most emotional is that they were so close to [achieving their dreams].”
He cites how Ukraine had ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych in the Maidan revolution in 2014. Yanukovych is now living in exile in Russia. In his absence, the country has moved closer to the West. The EU and Ukraine have slowly grown closer. In March 2014, the two parties signed an association agreement. Since then, they have gradually integrated their economies and deepened their political co-operation.
“It felt like that was a real tangible possibility now and then, just in one night, Putin took all of that away from them,” Kurtzig says.
Since then, the JustAnswer CEO has been busy. When he hasn’t coordinated the safety of his colleagues in Ukraine, he has been in interviews. When asked how he’s feeling, he sighs. Then he says that he wants to keep the focus on the crisis, fearing that people will forget it.
“We’re in that next chapter of this war, where the initial shock and awe and horror is over, and now it’s about sustaining and continuing the pressure to help the Ukrainian people,” he says.
“It’s a little bit like when you have a baby and the family and everybody else comes in. They give you food, and they’re all there to help you. And then, about a month later, they all go home and you’re left with this baby and not sleeping. That’s kind of the phase we’re entering now with this war. Our employees are tired and exhausted and are starting to run out of supplies.”
That is why he keeps doing the interviews and encouraging western companies to do more than to just pull out of Russia.
JustAnswer is not alone in Ukraine
JustAnswer isn’t alone in having a presence in Ukraine. Over 100 Fortune 500 companies outsource to Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s Office of Foreign Affairs. The list of companies outsourcing or having offices in Ukraine includes online shopping giant Amazon, iPhone maker Apple and neobank Revolut.
This is a testament to growing importance of Ukraine’s tech industry. In 2019, 4% of Ukraine’s GDP was attributed to the IT industry. Its IT export volume increased 36% to $6.8bn in 2021, up from $5bn in 2020 and $4.2bn in 2019, according to a report from IT Ukraine Association, a trade group.
Like JustAnswer, many of these companies have shown their support to Ukrainians. Microsoft has offered its cybersecurity expertise to help the nation fight back cyberattacks. SpaceX has sent Starlink discs to ensure Ukraine has access to internet despite the Russians shelling the country’s infrastructure. Others have, just like JustAnswer, funded their employees and their families’ relocation efforts.
Sanctions aren’t enough
The West has slammed unprecedented financial sanctions against Russia, as outlined in research firm GlobalData’s most recent Executive Briefing of the Ukraine conflict. Several companies – such as Apple, Nike and Visa – have pulled out of Russia, adding to the financial squeeze felt by Russia. However, Kurtzig believes that this is not enough.
“For business leaders, the main message is: ‘buy Ukraine,'” he says. “Don’t just boycott Russia, buy Ukraine. That means that if you’re thinking about doing business in Ukraine, do it. If you’re in Ukraine, keep going. We’re seeing lots of people unfortunately, pulling out and getting afraid and running away and that’s not helpful.”
Kurtizg says he understands that companies may be hesitant to set up shop or keep operations running in Ukraine. Corporate chieftains hate uncertainty and things don’t get more uncertain than an all-out war. However, that is the point. To him, demonstrating democracies’ commitment to the future of Ukraine means investing in it.
While Moscow generals have unrelentingly shelled Ukraine and allegedly had their troops commit horrible atrocities, the JustAnswer workers have been hard at work. Despite having their productivity slump over the first few weeks of the invasion, it is now back to pre-war levels. Moreover, the company has hired six more people in the nation during the conflict, cementing JustAnswer’s commitment to Ukraine.
“This war is not only about bombs and tanks, it’s also about business and sanctions,” Kurtzig concludes. “And so, they’re proud to be able to work for their country and make money for their country.”
If you and your business want to help the people of Ukraine during these terrible times, you can find information on how to do so here.
GlobalData is the parent company of Verdict and its sister publications.