Growing up under a communist dictatorship in Romania, New York entrepreneur Alina Vandenberghe was no stranger to the threat of violence, nor to her freedom of speech being taken away. She remembers “moles” who would bug her family’s house to make sure they didn’t say anything bad about the government, and she remembers going to bed with the fear of bullets flying overhead.
“I was very aware of how my words could have a really big impact on my safety,” she told Built In.
Eventually Vandenberghe earned a master’s degree in computer science, and went on to work at major companies like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before co-founding a sales scheduling startup called Chili Piper with her husband. When Vandenberghe first learned about the humanitarian crisis occurring amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine — a neighbor to her native Romania — she immediately knew she had to do something.
Through its global nonprofit arm called Citizens of our Planet (COOP), Chili Piper has made donations to the Romanian United Fund and raised nearly $200,000 in donations for local NGOs, with plans to raise at least $1 million total to help provide basic necessities to refugees, establish shelters for them along borders, and to pay for buses to safely evacuate Ukrainians. The company has also created an exhaustive relocation document that provides critical information about procedures for entering new countries, methods of applying for asylum, and lots of other information refugees might need. As of this writing, more than 10,000 Ukrainians have used Chili Piper’s guide, which was created in collaboration with NGOs in Ukraine and bordering countries to ensure all the information is correct and up to date.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Chili Piper has partnered with several local NGOs in Ukraine and the surrounding area that are helping refugees get access to basic necessities, such as food, hygiene supplies and medicines. It even created a separate tech platform that connects NGOs that need supplies with those looking to help provide them.
Nearly two million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the invasion, making it the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, according to experts. In partnership with global nonprofit Techfugees Foundation, Chili Piper claims it has helped more than 100,000 Ukrainians who have been displaced by the conflict so far, which means there’s still a lot of work to do.
Vandenberghe says that by working with local NGOs as opposed to the larger, more popular nonprofits like the American Red Cross or the United Nations, Chili Piper has been able to make an “immediate impact” for the folks who need it most, calling local NGOs the “first line of defense.” And Chili Piper is using its ability as a tech company to “optimize processes” in order to help these organizations deploy the cash they raise more efficiently — coordinating who orders, handles, ships and distributes things like diapers, or blankets, or aspirin according to where it is needed most.
“It’s very scary. The trauma that’s happening right now in Ukraine is at a massive scale.”
“The crisis is horrible once they cross the border, but within the borders of Ukraine the situation is a lot worse because all these regions are getting bombarded,” Vandenberghe said. “It’s very scary. The trauma that’s happening right now in Ukraine is at a massive scale.”
The horrors of the situation in Ukraine are especially acute for Chili Piper because about eight of its more than 200 global employees are based there. Vandenberghe says it has been “very, very tough” for them. “It’s heartbreaking to hear their stories. They have to find different shelters, they keep hearing aerial raids, they’ve had some of their friends captured by the Russians. It’s madness,” she added.
Chili Piper is not alone. Many tech companies (including Built In) have workers based in Ukraine, posing yet another humanitarian and logistical challenge brought on by this war. The safety and security of their Ukrainian employees has been an urgent concern for many C-suite executives of companies around the world. Some are keeping the Biden administration updated of the situations their workers are facing in regions ravaged by the war, others are working to evacuate and assist the employees they can.
Meanwhile, Vandenberghe says Chili Piper communicates with its Ukrainian team daily, as many of them have decided to stay in the country and fight. “They have their guns and they’re ready to fight for their country,” she said.
Instability Breeds Responsibility
This news from Chili Piper is coming amid a worldwide movement to support Ukraine. Some of the world’s largest companies have publicly severed ties with Russia, ushering in a new wave of private sanctions on the country. Tech giants like Apple, Netflix, Microsoft, Google and Meta are just a handful of them, and the list grows longer every day. Many are also making hefty donations to various relief efforts, and are matching employee contributions.
Tech companies are getting creative in other ways to show their support, too. Grammarly, a popular AI-enabled typing assistant that was actually founded in Ukraine, is donating its Russian profits to help support the Ukrainian effort. And Airbnb recently announced it was offering free, short-term housing to up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, encouraging hosts on its site to open their own homes to those fleeing the war. Since then, thousands of people have taken it upon themselves to book Airbnbs in Ukraine as a way to donate money quickly rather than actually stay there — a grassroots effort resulting in about $2 million in donations so far.
June Homes, another NYC startup that emerged from stealth last year, is also taking steps to support both its Ukrainian employees and other refugees over there. The proptech company has created 10 new sales trainee jobs at its office in Athens, Greece, which will be immediately available to Ukrainian refugees and anyone otherwise impacted by the war, with an opportunity to be moved into a sales agent role. June Homes says it is working directly with an immigration attorney to assist these new hires with any logistics needed to safely relocate to Greece. Once their visa is issued, they with receive health insurance, and June Homes will cover six months of their housing costs in addition to their salary pay.
“Ukraine is my home country. Though it’s not just a place I was born, but a place that remains a strong part of my identity today — many of our June Homes coworkers and their families are on the ground there or have had to evacuate to safety in neighboring countries,” founder and CEO Dan Mishin said in an email to Built In, adding that the company is providing financial support to its Ukrainian employees trying to leave the country, and is in the process of becoming a housing provider in the U.S. for Ukrainian refugees coming to America. “Millions of people are in desperate need of help in Ukraine right now and we hope to help as many people as we possibly can through our program, housing and donations.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has activated the company’s Starlink satellite to provide Ukrainians with reliable internet service, popular phone carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon have either lowered or waived charges for calls to Ukraine, and Uber is offering unlimited free rides between the Ukrainian-Polish border to nearby cities for refugees seeking shelter.
“In general, the world has been very pro Ukraine and helping Ukraine, which has been very helpful,” Vandenberghe said. “Businesses have a strong social impact. And it’s very helpful to see that most tech companies, with a few exceptions, are against this humanitarian disaster. It’s really encouraging.”
“Companies do have more and more of a social responsibility because of the shift in stability of the political system.”
Indeed, this collective effort among the tech and business community harkens back to the widespread humanitarianism and activism seen in 2020. From free computers for low-income students, to free meals and mental health services for frontline healthcare workers, companies around the world made an effort to combat the economic and health repercussions of Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic. Then they turned around and came together again to support the Black Lives Matter movement that surged later that summer, launching various apprenticeships, accelerators and funding networks to promote Black tech workers and entrepreneurs.
Now, companies are coming together once more to support the Ukrainian people — and lines between politics and the private sector are continuing to blur.
“Companies do have more and more of a social responsibility because of the shift in stability of the political system. That’s not necessarily just tied to the U.S., it’s in other countries as well,” Vandenberghe explained. “Because of political instability, a lot of employees look at their own company for having some safety of some kind because that’s where their salaries come from, that’s where their healthcare is coming from. So, if you see that your company cares, you feel better taken care of.”
As the head of a successful, freshly funded tech startup herself, Vandenberghe wants to do the same through Chili Piper. In fact this isn’t the first humanitarian effort her company has been a part of recently. Just a few months ago it committed $1 million to supporting displaced people around the world, starting with Afghan refugees affected by the United States’ recent withdrawal of its troops and the Taliban’s consequent ascent into power. And it likely won’t be the last time Chili Piper does work like this, as Vandenberghe continues to be fueled by her past, and her hunger to make a difference.
“For me, it’s very important to set up a platform and a company that allows me to have a direct impact,” Vandenberghe said. “I’m not motivated by possessions, personally. I’ve learned to live, because of my Romanian background, with very little. ... I’m a lot more motivated by making sure that I have an impact on the things that I know I can have an impact on.”