By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
In recent years, Ukraine has increasingly positioned itself as a tech hub, with a number of global companies leveraging its formidable IT outsourcing industry or setting up their own operations in the country. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced companies to scramble to get workers out.
Some tech firms have offered financial support to workers, set up hotlines and arranged for travel or housing for those fleeing the escalating conflict, according to interviews and company statements. One global tech company, Wix, planned for weeks for worst case scenarios for its 900 employees in the country.
Roughly two weeks ago, with news that Russia had amassed troops along the Ukrainian border, Wix asked dozens of its employees if they would relocate to Krakow, Poland, where it has an office. For the rest, it offered chartered flights and hotel accommodations in Antalya, Turkey.
Nir Zohar, Wix’s president and chief operating officer, told CNN Business that 45 employees, and another 45 family members, took the Krakow offer. Another 350 people, of which 200 are employees and the others family members, went to Antalya. Wix, a publicly traded Israeli company that provides tools for people to build their own websites, employs roughly 6,000 people globally.
“A small number wanted to leave on their own to other locations, the rest preferred to stay in Ukraine for various reasons,” said Zohar. “These people are very patriotic and they didn’t want to leave their home country … I think no one believed it was going to be a full-blown invasion so fast.”
More than 350 civilians have been killed since the start of the invasion, and more than 1,600 have been injured, Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior said Sunday. More than half a million refugees have fled Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing invasion, the United Nations Refugee Agency said Monday.
The conflict has upended what was previously a robust tech sector. The IT services industry in Ukraine has more than 100 of the Fortune 500 companies working with vendors in the country, according to the Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Amazon and Microsoft. The IT industry accounted for 8.3% of Ukraine’s total exports in 2020, according to the National Bank of Ukraine, making it increasingly significant to the country’s economy.
Ukraine also has a growing startup scene, with 126 startups having raised venture capital funding since the beginning of 2021, according to Pitchbook. And a number of well-known international companies have workforces in Ukraine, including Apple, Uber and Snapchat’s parent company, Snap.
In recent days, CNN Business has reached out to more than a dozen large tech companies with presences in the country. Uber, which paused its car service in Ukraine in response to the war, said it was offering logistical and financial support to impacted employees and their immediate family members should they voluntarily choose to relocate. Lyft said it was providing financial support for “emergency preparedness and for those who wish to temporarily relocate, increased time off and additional mental health resources.”
Ubisoft, a video game company, said it recommended to employees the week before the invasion that they take shelter in a place they consider safe and that it is providing housing in neighboring countries for employees and their families as an option. It said it paid salaries in advance in case banking systems are disrupted, as well as offered additional funds to help cover costs, such as those related to travel and relocation.
“We have set up hotlines … and have put in place an emergency communication system should infrastructures grow unstable,” the company said in a statement.
Microsoft said in a blog post Monday that it’s “devoted to the protection of its employees.” Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “We’re doing all we can for our teams there and will be supporting local humanitarian efforts. I am thinking of the people who are right now in harm’s way and joining all those calling for peace.” (Apple did not respond to a request for more information about its efforts in the region.)
For Wix, Russia’s escalation meant acting on another part of the plan it had begun discussing roughly a month ago: moving as many employees, and their families, as possible toward the western part of Ukraine, which it anticipated would be safer. In preparation, Wix contracted some bus companies in advance and some employees have taken the chartered buses from Kyiv or Dnipro, while others have driven on their own. At the border, they have been met by Wix staffers.
“We had over 30 volunteers from our offices in Lithuania who took their cars and drove down to the Polish borders … to help them [get] a hot meal, supplies, blankets, diapers, anything they might need. Set them up for a night’s sleep somewhere close to the border,” said Zohar.
Right before speaking with CNN Monday morning, Zohar said he received confirmation that another chartered bus, carrying roughly 40 people, had crossed the border to Poland. “There are still quite a few who are in the border area waiting because there are very, very, very long lines there,” he said. “Sadly, there’s a bunch stuck in the more dangerous zones in Ukraine, which we’re really, really hoping we’re able to get out at some point.”
As the situation evolves, so do Wix’s plans. For instance, the company initially planned to keep employees in Turkey for two weeks — but two weeks came and went this weekend. “Obviously we extended it because they cannot go back,” Zohar said.
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