'I'm in Ukraine, We Are Living in Fear'

Conflict between Ukraine and Russia is not new to me. I was born in the Donetsk region and in 2014, I had just completed my bachelor's degree at Donetsk National University when we began to see Russian separatist troops on the street and hear gunfire near our university dorms.

When you have packed all your belongings under the watch of soldiers, you understand how it feels to have your life in someone else's hands. In this case, I understood what it's like to live in fear like an animal. I was an intelligent and creative woman, but when people are next to you holding guns, you feel as though you are nothing.

I then relocated to Kyiv and completed my master's degree and my family are now located near Donetsk, on Ukrainian territory. Of course, I am pushing for them to relocate, perhaps to Kyiv or to the west of Ukraine, but there has been conflict in the east for eight years now. Tensions, and soldiers, have been present throughout that time. These are people's homes. They are used to living there and living in this fear. Of course, now the situation there is international news again, but to us, it's nothing new.

Though we are seeing no physical changes to the city of Kyiv, there is panic and mental pressure. I have seen many people trying to relocate or taking vacation abroad to relieve the stress of the situation. And, no one can concentrate on their work. Everyone is focused on the news and everyone is afraid.

I started a business in 2016 and it is currently a huge challenge for me, as a leader, to support my team. In our office in Kyiv we have a team of 200 people and their main concern is whether the company will help them if Russia invades Kyiv.

I understand that not every company can do this, but we have an emergency plan to support our team and their families if Russia invades the city; we will relocate to the west of Ukraine. That is "Plan B." Or, we would move our business to another country, as a "Plan C." Of course, "Plan A" is to try to stay calm and work. We want to stay in our country and we don't want to have to leave a city we love.

Fortunately, my business' financial figures haven't changed because BetterMe is primarily digital and focused on U.S. and European markets. From a business perspective, it's an opportunity to test everything I know and have learned as a leader, but really, I feel we're in a pretty terrible situation where an old school politician wants to compete with the power of weapons, not the power of ideas, technology, or products that could make the world better. I don't think it's bad to have healthy competition with other countries in some senses, but not in this toxic way.

This fear stops everything. I felt this fear in 2014 and I don't want anyone in my company or anywhere in Ukraine to be feeling that fear now. But I can't change anything, except to run my business and help by providing money. I'm not a soldier.

Ukranian Business Owner Victoria Repa
Ukrainian business owner Victoria Repa says that herself and her team are living in fear of what will happen in the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Victoria Repa

The biggest tragedy for me was that I could change nothing in Donetsk in 2014. Afterwards, I was determined to foster change and help my country by creating something great in business. I wanted to build a business that in 20 years would be the biggest company in Ukraine; like Nike or Google.

I have recently donated $40,000 to a Ukrainian Charity called the "Return Alive" Foundation and along with other entrepreneurs in Ukraine, I have been able to provide financial support for the army. Now, I want to create a call to other businesses here in Ukraine: "Make Business, Not War." I think the best people can do in our country in the face of this uncertainty is to bolster the economy; continue to work and support business and industry.

The reality for us now is that it's hard to focus on work, but my attitude is that reading news updates every minute creates a level of panic and anxiety and won't change anything. I encountered the same thing when I was living in Donetsk in 2014. We were constantly reading the news, hoping to hear that Russian separatist forces had retreated out of Ukraine, but it never happened.

We are trying to do everything to stay in Kyiv, keep calm and continue working. Under heightened emotions, you can't respond well in a critical situation. But if my team relocates, I relocate.

Ukraine has a new generation that wants to create something better, so my hope is that the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk will at least stay as it has been for the past eight years; that the conflict does not escalate and we can live our lives freely.

Victoria Repa is the founder and CEO of BetterMe based in Kyiv, Ukraine. You can find out more at betterme.world. Find out more about "Return Alive" Foundation here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.