For more than 10 years, the San Francisco-headquartered app development company WLCM (pronounced "Welcome") has grown at a rapid clip by providing end-to-end development and design for startups. Then, business came a sudden halt.
On February 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, which put all but two of WLCM's 24 full- and part-time employees--the majority of whom worked from an office in Lviv--in peril. As a global hub for technical talent, Ukraine is an attractive place to build a strong team for a startup. In San Francisco, founder and CEO Lindsey Witmer Collins, woke to the news she had been dreading. "I started getting shaky and overwhelmingly sad," she told Inc. "I also knew I was in the most privileged position I could be in. So I got online and immediately started a fund for employees and their families to flee."
While Russia's attack was shocking, it was something that Witmer Collins had been anticipating. She'd had informal conversations with her Ukrainian colleagues since January, as Russian president Vladimir Putin continued to spew threats. Her concerns increased when Russian troops deployed to the Crimean Peninsula, leading to a formal announcement on February 4 via Slack. "I posted to our general channel and had private conversations with everyone to encourage them to get as far west as possible, sooner than later," she says. "I thought the best outcome would be that we had overreacted and over-prepared. At that point, I also notified our clients."
Lviv is the largest city in western Ukraine, so the majority of WLCM's employees were already close to the Polish border. Those who worked in more eastern parts of the country moved closer to Lviv and the more central city of Vinnytsia, and five employees, including COO Lilia Solovey, fled the country. Today, 19 WLCM staffers remain in Ukraine; three are in the eastern part of the country, where Russian shelling has been more concentrated. Early on March 11, bombing expanded to the more western city of Dnipro, where one WLCM employee and Solovey's parents remain.
In the two weeks following the Russian invasion, Witmer Collins put day-to-day operations on hold and focused on the safety of her people. In addition to raising money for employees to leave the country, she also started a Slack channel they workers could share contacts and resources for those trying to reach safety. She instituted immediate paid time off for everyone and gave salary advances.
Solovey worked to make connections through her network, and offered her empty apartment to those in need. She also helped arrange travel for her colleagues. Solovey herself planned to flee to Portugal ahead of the Russian invasion. After going to Lisbon and securing a place to live, she and her husband returned to Lviv to collect their pet cat and the few belongings they could carry. When they woke to the sound of sirens on February 24, they moved fast. In 20 minutes, they packed their lives into backpacks and arranged to drive with a friend to the Ukraine-Poland border. They made it to the city of Przemysl, where they waited in the railway station for about 10 hours, unable to secure train tickets or a rental car. Finally, a man with a rental car company offered them a ride, free of charge, and they continued on about 250 miles to Warsaw. From there, they booked the first flight they could get to Lisbon.
"I was really touched by the people who just wanted to help those in need," Solovey says. "We were lucky because we made fast decisions. We knew what we needed to do."
While she made it to safety, Solovey understandably struggles with the weight of her experience and the terror of the war; her parents and many friends remain in Ukraine. "Your brain doesn't know how to adapt to this kind of situation, knowing that you may never see your home again," she says. "I spent almost 24 hours on my phone, reading the news. I felt like a zombie going to the mall in Lisbon to buy the things we needed because we had no belongings. I can't say that it's gotten easier--I've just managed to continue to live. I feel like the level of hate that I have in my heart is destroying me from inside, and I don't want to feel like that."
Keeping in touch with her team helps, she says. This week, a few of WLCM's employees began working again--at their own pace, with Witmer Collins's understanding that work is not the biggest priority for anyone right now. But she has faith in the resilience of her business, and she also knows that as a leader, running a successful business will help her people to remain financially stable and feel a semblance of normalcy that is much-appreciated in a time of crisis. This week, she also hired a team therapist, which Solovey found, to take care of the team's mental health.
"At some point, we have to go back to work, but I will err on the side of taking better care of my people than my clients, because clients will come and go, but people hopefully won't," Witmer Collins says. While business has been momentarily paused, WLCM is persevering: The company is currently hiring for eight positions, and this week, one of its clients received notable press mentions; another was iTunes's App of the Day.
"We will keep this boat floating, because it can support these families long after the public eye has moved on," Witmer Collins says. "And beyond that, we're a group of friends who love building beautiful software together, and we look forward to getting back to it."