It wasn’t long after the bombing began on February 24 that Andrey Liscovich decided to leave behind his home in San Francisco and make the three-day trek to his native Ukraine to help with the war effort.
Liscovich, a 37-year-old entrepreneur and most recently the CEO of Uber Works, a now-defunct staffing firm subsidiary of Uber, was inspired by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s grave assessment of the situation during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He thought, if Ukraine’s president was willing to stay behind and defend the country despite numerous assassination attempts, he should do what he could help too.
“It was a fairly simple decision after I saw his personal willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice,” says Liscovich, who was advising several startups while working on a new fintech startup of his own. Now he’s running a volunteer supply-chain team in his hometown of Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine with former colleagues, procuring drones, cargo trucks, and other essentials for those defending their homeland.
“It’s an entrepreneurial problem,” says Liscovich. “It’s very similar to running a startup.”
He didn’t inform his parents of his plan to go to Ukraine, as he knew his mother would have refused to leave Zaporizhzhia, where they still reside along with Liscovich’s brother. His parents are now in eastern Germany. After originally joining them, Liscovich’s brother is now back in Ukraine.
“We rehearsed an evacuation,” Liscovich says, explaining that the first rehearsal took place in the early stages of the Russo-Ukrainian War, in 2014. For the second rehearsal, “I rented an apartment for them–still in Zaporizhzhia, but on the other side of the Dnieper River–so that they could have an escape route in case the bridges over the river were blown up in a Russian attack. [invasion had] started, and I called my dad and told him to wake up mom and leave.”
And so Liscovich’s 70-hour journey began, which consisted of three flights, a missed bus, another bus, two trains, five taxis, a fire truck, and, finally, crossing over the Polish-Ukrainian border by foot. Forecasts in the early days of the invasion were grim, with many thinking that Ukraine would quickly fall. Liscovich himself shared that mindset, expecting to find Zaporizhzhia on the verge of being taken by Russian forces.
But that was not the case. Russian soldiers did seize a nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia, but Ukrainian forces have held steady against Russian attacks in the region. When Liscovich arrived on March 2, he went to the conscription office and inquired how he could be of service. Given his background as an entrepreneur, it was decided that his skills would be a good fit for sourcing supplies.
Liscovich had previously co-founded BigEd, an academic startup, and he’d also founded Popper, a behavioral experiments platform for social scientists–both of which he worked on while in grad school at Harvard University. BigEd shut down after Harvard launched edX and made it the exclusive channel for releasing Harvard course materials. As for Popper, Liscovich explains that he used the software for his dissertation, but ended up not pursuing it after grad school because the academic market was too small. He says that he licensed the technology to the Yale Institute for Network Science and moved to Silicon Valley. He currently has an apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
While at Uber, he worked as the head of data science and the head of special projects, before he segued into Uber Works.
Drawing on his past expertise, Liscovich created the Ukraine Defense Fund, a voluntary supply chain network that he works on with seven of his former Uber colleagues and other Ukrainian volunteers. The group sources key items for Ukrainian volunteers fighting in the war, including first-aid kits, food, clothing, phones, chargers, and personal protective equipment. Liscovich compares his work of creating the supply chain with some of the problems that he solved in his role at Uber Works and as an entrepreneur. He points to Uber and Uber Works, describing them as logistics companies that have informed his current efforts to transport items from point A to point B.
For one, managing the supply chain requires a lot of problem-solving skills. And the effort is an uphill battle. Liscovich says his team hasn’t seen a single shipment that’s gone according to plan, since there is no reliable, repeatable process available. They constantly experiment with different methods of transportation and different routes.
“This is where you start to appreciate Amazon,” Liscovich says, adding that American consumers aren’t preoccupied with how their shipment reaches them as long as all they have to do is push a button. “That’s not the luxury people have here–the logistics that people in America take for granted is an absolutely unbelievable luxury.”
Liscovich and his team initially focused on buying locally so that they’d be able to transport supplies to soldiers on the frontlines quickly. Though that’s the preferred option, Ukraine doesn’t produce most of the supplies that are needed. And of the things that the country does produce, there’s limited inventory. Ukraine has oil and gas, for example, but it has never produced enough to satisfy its own needs, giving Russia a stranglehold on energy in that part of the world. Then, of course, much of what is there has been bombed. The collective factors have led to tertiary issues like lines of ambulances waiting for fuel:
So far, the biggest lesson Liscovich has learned is how difficult it is to replace the market system, especially against the backdrop of war. And despite the best intentions that donors have in offering supplies, there’s no guarantee those supplies will end up at their intended destinations.
Liscovich explains that Lviv, a city that’s a seven- to eight-hour drive from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, is a major hub for humanitarian aid. At one point, Liscovich and his team came across thousands of unmarked boxed donations and nobody knew what was inside them, Liscovich says. When his team opened some of the boxes, they found shipments of baby food and menstrual products.
“We got stuff that the army certainly does not need,” he says, adding that “at the same time, the refugees on the Polish side of the border probably would have had a much better application for these products.” More than 4.2 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, according to the United Nations.
Now, Liscovich and the rest of the Ukraine Defense Fund are shifting their approach. Since there’s less of a crunch for the bare essentials, Liscovich is looking to draw on his and his team’s unique expertise given the relationships they have with Silicon Valley and other manufacturers. Their current focus is on procuring and swiftly deploying high-tech products such as drones:
They’re also looking to source more transportation, to provide vehicles, pickup trucks, and vans to help move around cargo and drive on roads that are in poor conditions. “Our goal is to provide more help in areas where we have a unique advantage,” he explains. “A single person can make an incredible impact if they are at the right place at the right time.”