Since February 2022, the UN High Commission on Refugees reports that nearly 14 million people have been displaced from their homes in Ukraine—most of them seeking safety and shelter in other countries. More than 9 million of them crossed the border into Poland alone.
Dawid Adach, a co-founder of technology company MDBootstrap and former EO Poland president from 2021-22, partnered with fellow EO members Szymon Boniecki, Jakub Szalaty and many others across Europe and North America to fundraise, collect supplies to make comforting ‘living kits’ for arriving families, and create welcome centers for refugees crossing into Poland.
Embracing the agility of the entrepreneurial spirit and EO’s Purpose: to move the world forward by unlocking the full potential of entrepreneurs, these member-leaders stepped away from their businesses to lead from the front.
We asked Dawid about his experience in the past year, and what he learned while helping refugees from Ukraine. As the world confronts more frequent and compounding disasters, Dawid’s insights can offer learnings for other entrepreneurs who seek to support their communities in times of crisis.
What were your most memorable moments in helping the people of Ukraine?
- Bearing witness. The strongest memories are what I saw with my own eyes. Thousands of refugees queuing at a train station, holding their kids’ hands with just a few belongings they packed moments before leaving. Also, the picture of shelters with 6,000+ occupied beds will stay in my mind forever. Of every 100 refugees, 60 were kids, 35 were women, and only 5 were men. We saw a lot of mothers with two or three kids and sometimes a grandmother. The men stayed to fight for their country, and we had to take care of their families now.
- Random acts of kindness. One example that stands out is when Tomás Champalimaud (EO Portugal) showed up with a rented van and asked, “How can I help?” He explained that when he saw pictures of moms fleeing Ukraine with their kids on TV, he looked at his children and knew that he had to do something, so he took the first flight and came to help. There were thousands of others like Tomás. Many friends from Poland jumped into their cars and went to the border without knowing what to expect. All of them came back with cars filled up with refugees, which they gladly hosted in their houses and offices.
- Flood of support. Since we were frontline workers, people from around the world who couldn’t show up themselves asked us how they could help. My phone was flooded with messages from hundreds of people. We created a working group on WhatsApp, but within a few days, we reached the 250-person group limit and had to switch to another tool. Many wanted to come, some even from other continents. People organized themselves into groups to collect donations. One friend, Dominique Love (EO Atlanta), heard that we were building shelters, so she ordered 50 mattresses online and had them shipped directly to us.
Did the urgency of war and the desperate needs of refugees unlock any entrepreneurial skill or talent that you did not know you possessed?
We learned how to run a charitable organization; we had no experience in it before. We learned that saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to something else, and vice versa. When the war started, we raised $500,000 in a weekend. It’s a lot of money, but when you apply it to a million refugees, you quickly realize that you have to make difficult choices on how to spend it. The needs were overwhelming, from medical care to shelters, food, and transportation.
I had never worked under so much stress before. As an example, many entrepreneurs who couldn’t come and help themselves were willing to donate. We didn’t have time to wait for an attorney’s decision on what paperwork to submit to ensure that we would fall into exemption requirements (similar to 501(c)3 in the US). We had to act quickly and bear the consequences later.
Finally, the surrounding chaos was indescribable. Supplies were sold out on the way to the store. Refugees scheduled to get on a bus to City A decided to take an earlier bus to City B without notice, so no one knew whether the bus should wait for them or pick up other people. “War-time CEO” took on a new, unfortunate meaning.
What has the fallout from the war helped you realize about yourself and other entrepreneurs?
The situation highlighted the dynamics of our response as entrepreneurs. Unlike larger humanitarian organizations, we were able to quickly and flexibly gear up and respond to the crisis. While established organizations may have more significant resources and procedures, we were able to deliver much-needed support where and when it was needed most. Thanks to the trust and support of donors, we could focus on the work at hand without being bogged down by bureaucratic procedures that could hinder our ability to respond swiftly.
As entrepreneurs, we were able to quickly pivot and adapt to the evolving situation, leveraging our networks and resources to mobilize support on the ground. We were not bound by traditional hierarchies and could make decisions on the fly, which proved to be crucial in such time-sensitive situations. Our ability to innovate and find creative solutions also helped us overcome challenges such as the shortage of supplies and the chaotic logistics of moving large numbers of people.
The trust and support of donors were instrumental in allowing us to carry out our mission. It provided us with the financial backing we needed to operate efficiently and respond quickly to the needs of those affected by the crisis. We were able to provide a level of support that was not possible for larger organizations, which are often constrained by bureaucratic processes and red tape.
What will you share with people who are not there to witness the human impact of the war?
The war is not over yet. Civilians are still dying. The lives of millions have changed forever, and Ukrainians still need help from the international community. So our work continues. EO Poland is still accepting donations at: ukraine.eopoland.org
As Dick Winter once said, “War brings out the worst and the best in people.” While we witnessed the worst of war through our TV screens, we were fortunate to witness the best in people—and our fellow entrepreneurs—firsthand.
Impact of EO Members’ Efforts for the People of Ukraine
- Value of cash and goods distributed to people displaced from Ukraine in 2022: US$1+ million
- Establishment of EO Poland Ukraine Fund to centralize EO chapter donations
- Top giving chapters: EO Atlanta (US$65,00), EO Nashville (US$29,000), EO Houston (US$29,000), EO Los Angeles (US$28,000)
- Refugees directly assisted: 1,000 evacuated/relocated to homes throughout Europe
- Materials distributed: hundreds of thousands of necessities (toiletries and hygiene products), blankets, mattresses, sleeping bags
- Food Distributed: 7,200 loaves of bread daily and 700,000 jars of baby food to Ukrainians in Kherson
- Youth relocations supported: 12 orphanages relocated to safe zones, paid school fees for 450 students, 10 teacher salaries and thousands of school supplies
- EO Fundraising Member-Champions: EO Detroit (Vladimir Gendelman, Jenny Feterovich), EO Chicago (Alex Zatvor) and EO Atlanta (Dominique Love)
- Real Help for Ukraine (created by EO Detroit) secured and shipped: US$600,000 in cash and in-kind donations of medical equipment from the US to Ukraine
- Financed emergency generators for use in Ukraine
- Alex Zatvor (EO Chicago) launched Gate to Ukraine, which helped 1,675 families and distributed US$195,470