Contributed by Dr. Carrie Santos, CEO of Entrepreneurs’ Organization
In late March, Entrepreneurs’ Organization CEO, Dr. Carrie Santos, traveled to Poland and Romania, along with EO’s Chairman of the Board, David Anderson, to support the selfless volunteer efforts of EO members from Poland, Romania and greater Europe, who are sharing their time and resources with thousands of Ukrainian families displaced from their homes. They met with some of these members, as well as other compassionate, agile entrepreneurs from around the world, who are—together—stepping up to support people in this time of great stress and need. Here is what Carrie shared upon their return:
Although my professional background is largely in humanitarian and refugee relief work, in these times when we see so much suffering and growing need displayed in heart-aching color across our television and computer screens, I have to remind myself that the Entrepreneurs’ Organization is not in the business of disaster response and relief. Yet, we are a global fellowship of leaders trying to move the world forward by unlocking the full potential of entrepreneurs. We are bound by a set of shared values and an impulse to act.
It was so moving to see the many members of EO taking time away from their own businesses and using their problem-solving skills to create solutions for the refugees who are fleeing the violence in Ukraine. This agility and innovation is exactly what’s needed right now and will be essential to alleviate the human suffering, while governments mobilize (often more slowly).
As I walked through the makeshift shelters in Bucharest and Warsaw, spoke with some of the women, children and elderly people whose lives have been so upended, and watched the truckloads of supplies coming in to lend comfort, I was struck by the unique talents of entrepreneurs to create solutions in chaos. Here are 10 of those entrepreneurial superpowers at work in Eastern Europe to benefit refugees from Ukraine.
1. Value autonomy, freedom and self-control
We used our voices to remind the world that refugees are people. And we don’t just put people in camps without options to move forward. We want them ready for recovery. That’s the goal.
I noticed striking parallels between how both displaced people and entrepreneurs strive for freedom, autonomy, and control in their lives. Even in the face of extreme tragedy, this is what people need most. It’s fitting that entrepreneurs are helping to empower these strong people.
2. Do it because you can
Across Eastern Europe, entrepreneurs are transforming their privately owned and operated trade expo spaces into shelters. They’re utilizing these expo buildings to house refugees while they could be running their businesses and organizing trade events.
They’re taking bold actions like this because the human suffering is overwhelming. I got the sense that their feeling is, “What’s the point of running a business if you’re not completely involved in what’s happening in your community?”
3. Not afraid to fail
I’ve been through many disasters with different professional organizations, but when Covid hit, and I found myself going through a disaster with entrepreneurs, I realized: These are the people with whom you want to go through a disaster.
Entrepreneurs are completely undaunted by a negative turn of events. I’ve heard EO members say, “Well, my business tanked in 2001, and I figured it out, so I can figure it out again,” or “I’ve been bankrupt four times. I’m not afraid.”
Entrepreneurs display an innate confidence that they can turn the situation around, solve the challenges at hand, and everything will be alright.
That’s the mindset of the entrepreneurs operating on the ground in Eastern Europe.
4. Do what others say is impossible
One of the entrepreneurs that we met on the ground in Romania isn’t an EO member—yet! But, Max Caradja Johnson is filled with a quintessential entrepreneurial spirit. For three weeks in March, he worked at the border, helping displaced people find shelter and transportation. Now that other people are managing that situation, Max has moved on to the next challenge: Getting supplies into Ukraine.
He’s not working from an existing playbook. But he figured out how to get passes from both the Romanian and Ukrainian armies to bring supplies into a warehouse in Ukraine. And that warehouse got connected with cities under siege, so people from these cities can go to the warehouse and get much-needed supplies.
Max started this effort because everyone else said, “We don’t know how to solve this.” So he’s just doing it, figuring it out step by step as he goes. First, he hired a truck, then realized he needed a refrigerator truck. And after that, he’ll find the next piece of the puzzle. He just wants the people in Ukraine not to go hungry.
That’s what entrepreneurs are doing on the ground in Eastern Europe: Solving crises as they spike, by trial and error, using their connections and experience.
5. Focus on core values
Most of the EO members we met with aren’t working in their businesses. They’re working on the refugee crisis around the clock, tackling both small and big issues.
They’re staying true to their values of helping people in need and serving their community, country and region. Their customers don’t seem to mind.
There’s a sense of, “I may not be delivering fully for my customers, but my customers will understand—because I’m delivering on my values. It will come back around.”
We saw EO core values at work, including Together We Grow; Think Big, Be Bold; and Trust and Respect.
6. Recognize when it’s time to pivot
A group of EO members was planning to open a refugee shelter without prior knowledge or experience. As they identified a space to rent and got closer to opening, other organizations stepped in and began opening shelters.
Seeing this, these members made a classic business pivot: Knowing that people with experience were able to open shelters effectively, they stepped back to focus on supporting those shelters with their well-honed skills in logistics and supplies. As a result, the shelters run better.
7. Find the need and fill it
We’re seeing first-hand the speed at which entrepreneurs can make a difference versus established governmental agencies.
It became clear that the Ministries of Education in Poland and Romania would not be able to open schools for Ukrainian kids quickly and needed time to integrate them into public schools. So entrepreneurs stepped in to make it happen.
EO members are tapping their networks to outfit Ukrainian classrooms with equipment, supplies and laptops. It’s all about knowing people who can get supplies delivered—fast.
As a result, displaced kids will start to feel more normalized. School can be very, very grounding for children. And entrepreneurs are making it happen.
8. Work your network
EO members have connected internationally via WhatsApp for years. Now, those networks have become a way to help people impacted by the conflict in Ukraine.
Members on the ground reach out to solve urgent needs: laptops for school children, personal hygiene items for shelters, or even legal help to get a displaced family to Spain. And someone in the network responds and delivers.
Entrepreneurs are using the legal frameworks, supply chains and customs logistics once used for business to solve the refugee problem, because many of the needs are similar. It’s impressive. The speed and person-to-person connections within EO are incredibly useful in solving very, very specific problems.
9. Build trust
One of the most difficult challenges in Eastern Europe is established interests responding to an unprecedented crisis. Charities and governmental entities don’t always view business as a trusted partner. Different sectors of society don’t typically work together to solve challenges.
But from what we saw, EO members’ attitudes seem to be, “We’re just going to work together anyway. We’ll be the glue, the grease, the connective tissue that helps get things done.”
Entrepreneurs in the region are making progress without getting caught up in who did what or who’s getting the credit—as long as people in need get what they need.
10. Never give up
Entrepreneurs see solutions where other people see overwhelming problems. Part of their brain lights up when they see situational constraints and know that there must be a solution. So they just keep hammering until they find it.
It’s a skill set. It’s an endurance.
EO members often share that the reason they are successful is not being smarter or having superior products—it’s that they just don’t ever give up.
That tenacity is massively important in a crisis like this where it would be very easy to give up and just accept that nothing can be done.
We stand with—and in awe of—these exceptional entrepreneurs whose efforts embody our values: Trust and Respect. Think Big and Be Bold. Thirst for Learning. Together We Grow. We applaud you all.