Meet the Entrepreneur Who Left Silicon Valley to Create a Makeshift Supply Chain in Ukraine

It wasn’t long after the February 24 bombing began that Andrey Liscovich decided to leave 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 CEO of the now-defunct staffing firm Uber Works, was inspired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s sober assessment of the situation in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He thought that if the Ukrainian president was willing to stay behind and defend the country, despite numerous assassinations, he should do what he could to help.

“It was a pretty easy decision after seeing his personal willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice,” says Liscovich, who advised several startups while working on a new fintech startup of his own. Now, in his hometown of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, he and former colleagues lead a volunteer supply chain team that procures drones, trucks and other essential supplies for those defending their homeland.

“It’s a business problem,” says Liscovich. “It’s very similar to running a startup.”

He did not inform his parents about his plan to go to Ukraine as he knew his mother would have refused to go Zaporizhzhia, where they still live together with Liscovich’s brother. His parents are now in East Germany. After originally joining them, Liscovich’s brother is now back in Ukraine.

“We rehearsed an evacuation,” says Liscovich, explaining that the first rehearsal took place in 2014, in the early stages of the Russo-Ukrainian war. “I rented an apartment for them – still in Zaporizhia but across the Dnieper so they have an escape route if the bridges across the river are blown up in a Russian attack. As soon as I saw Putin on TV it was clear , that the [invasion had] started, and I called my dad and told him to wake mom and go.”

And so began Liscovich’s 70-hour journey, which consisted of three flights, a missed bus, another bus, two trains, five taxis, a fire engine, and finally crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border on foot. Forecasts in the early days of the invasion were bleak, with many believing that Ukraine would fall quickly. Liscovich himself shared this line of thinking and expected Zaporizhia to be on the verge of being taken by Russian forces.

But that was not the case. Russian soldiers have seized a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia, but Ukrainian forces have fought back Russian attacks in the region. When Liscovich arrived on March 2, he went to the draft office and asked how he could be of service. Given his background as an entrepreneur, it was decided that his skills would be well suited to sourcing materials.

Liscovich previously co-founded BigEd, an academic start-up, and he also founded Popper, a behavioral experimentation platform for social scientists – both of which he worked on while he was an undergraduate at Harvard University. BigEd was discontinued after Harvard launched edX and made it the exclusive channel for publishing Harvard course materials. As for Popper, Liscovich explains that he used the software for his dissertation but didn’t pursue it after grad school because the academic market was too small. He says 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.

At Uber he worked as Head of Data Science and Head of Special Projects before joining Uber Works

Drawing on his previous expertise, Liscovich founded the Ukraine Defense Fund, a volunteer supply chain network he works on with seven of his former Uber colleagues and other Ukrainian volunteers. The group procures essential items for Ukrainian volunteers fighting in the war, including first aid kits, food, clothing, phones, chargers and personal protective equipment. Liscovich compares his work building the supply chain to some of the problems he has 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 influenced his current efforts to move items from point A to point B.

For one thing, managing the supply chain requires a lot of problem-solving skills. And the effort is an uphill battle. Liscovich says his team didn’t see a single shipment go according to plan because there was no reliable, repeatable process. They are constantly experimenting with different modes of transport and different routes.

“This is where you start appreciating Amazon,” says Liscovich, adding that American consumers don’t care about how their shipment gets to them as long as they just have to push a button. “It’s not the luxury that people have here — the logistics that people in America take for granted is an absolutely incredible luxury.”

Liscovich and his team initially focused on shopping locally so they could quickly transport supplies to the soldiers at the front lines. While this is the preferred option, Ukraine does not produce most of the supplies needed. And of the things that the country produces, there are only limited stocks. For example, Ukraine has oil and gas, but it has never produced enough to meet its own needs, giving Russia a stranglehold on energy in that part of the world. That has led to tertiary problems like ambulance lines waiting for fuel:

The biggest lesson Liscovich has learned so far is how difficult it is to replace the market system, especially in the context of war. And despite the best intentions donors have when offering supplies, there is no guarantee that those supplies will get to their intended destination.

Liscovich explains that Lviv, a city seven to eight hours’ drive from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, is a major hub for humanitarian aid. At one point, Liscovich and his team came across thousands of unmarked donations in boxes, and no one knew what was inside, Liscovich says. When his team opened some boxes, they found shipments of baby formula and menstrual products.

“We got things that the army certainly doesn’t need,” he says, adding, “at the same time, the refugees on the Polish side of the border would probably have had a much better use for these products.” According to the United Nations, more than 4.2 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

Now Liscovich and the rest of the Ukrainian Defense Fund are changing their approach. Because it’s less about the bare essentials, Liscovich wants to draw on the unique expertise of himself and his team given the relationships with Silicon Valley and other manufacturers. Your current focus is on the procurement and rapid deployment of high-tech products such as drones:

You also try to get more transportation to provide vehicles, pickups and vans to move cargo and drive on roads that are in bad condition. “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 when they are in the right place at the right time.”

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