Interview with Taras Dumenko

Meet Taras Dumenko, General Manager of Nova Ukraine in Ukraine

Tell us a little about your background. What were you doing before the war?

Before the war, I was the Director of Innovation at an international auditing and consulting company called “Kreston Ukraine.” In my role, I helped businesses develop and implement innovative strategies.

Prior to that, I worked at Civitta Consulting, assisting small and medium size Ukrainian businesses to obtain grant funding from the European Union. I don’t want to appear immodest, but you could say I was a pioneer here in the development of the first grant program, “Horizon 2020.” Together with some key colleagues, we launched the Ukrainian Startup Fund.

I also assisted the Ministry of Digital Transformation get up and running. I never thought I’d be doing all of this, considering my start pricing pharmaceuticals at Pfizer. Life takes many unexpected turns.

The full-scale invasion “caught” me in Kyiv with my family. At that time, I was a member of the executive committee in the Hostomel village community. Suddenly, I found myself in the official role of coordinator of humanitarian evacuation corridors in Hostomel. I wasn’t prepared for this role, but few people in Kyiv could lead it. Having established the military administration in Hostomel by the decree of the President of Ukraine, I was appointed as its head.

On March 26, 2022, we were surprised by the swift occupation of the region. We built a team and went to work defining our functions. We were the first, so we had to do build a structure from scratch: preparing documents for the Cabinet of Ministers, providing recommendations for changes in legislation, and maintaining close contact with governmental ministries and the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to ensure everything would work as planned.

Thankfully, Hostomel was de-occupied on April 2, and I immersed myself fully in the de-occupation process. This involved restoring power lines, utilities, gas supply, transportation, and communal services. It also included tasks that were not very pleasant, such as the exhumation of the deceased bodies and organizing the work of sappers, among other things.

I held this position for about four months and accomplished everything I set out to do. I had to learn quickly about demining territories and organizing electricity and gas supply. The dynamics of this were challenging, people’s needs changed by the hour. A total of 4,000 homes and structures had been destroyed. Fortunately, we were able to organize a network of humanitarian headquarters: the hero town of Moschun, the hero city of Hostomel, Ozera, and Horenka. The President of Ukraine recognized our leader with the “Golden Heart” award on Volunteer Day. It was deeply gratifying.

After that, I managed the “Drone Army” acceleration program initiated by UNITED24, where we assisted Ukrainian IT specialists and experts in accelerating the development of drones for the needs of the Ukrainian army. And at the end of November 2022, I joined Nova Ukraine as the CEO.

How does the war affect your daily life?

On February 23, I filled my car, stocked up on diapers and baby food (enough for two months), and loaded 53 books onto my e-reader. I thought I had prepared for everything, which I discussed with my loved ones. But everything turned out differently.

After my appointment as the Chief of the military administration of Hostomel, my wife and I decided that it would not be wise for our family to stay in Kyiv at that time. Fortunately, this separation didn’t last long.

This period taught me a lot. I had to absorb a lot of information in a very short time. I never thought I would have to cross the frontline, spend the night in the gray zone in the forest (because we were not allowed back in at first,) or become one of the coordinators for the Kyiv region, accompanying people.

Pure adrenaline kept me going those first few months. Due to the lack of qualified personnel in Kyiv in March 2022 (many had left), my friends from my university days stepped up and started working alongside me. There were tasks that seemed insurmountable, but as in our student years, we felt young and eager to dive in headfirst. During that period, I lost 31 kg in four months. There were few opportunities to eat or sleep more than four hours at a stretch.

I moved back to my house in Hostomel, which had been damaged by a shockwave that blew out the windows. I’d come home every night to a house that was 3-4 degrees Celsius, without water, electricity, or gas. I would crash for a few hours and then start again.

I encountered a lot of sorrow. My friend’s mother was shot dead driving her 10-year-old son. The boy survived but spent four days in a basement with strangers who hid him from Russian soldiers. Can you imagine what this child suffered? It becomes scary when human suffering and death become commonplace. You develop a thick skin so it won’t affect you as much. So you can go on, enduring 130 exhumations, countless funerals of fallen defenders, countless orphans, the death of a classmate or neighbor. It’s gut-wrenching.

Before this, it was hard for me to understand why older people value bread as much as they do. Why they cried or celebrated over a piece of bread. In Kyiv, all the shops closed on the 24 of February and started reopening about 10 days after the full-scale invasion. I remember the joy when a kiosk of Kyiv Bread Factory opened near me. People brought freshly baked loaves that I would never have bought until I understood what bread means to our people. When I ate it again, I tasted life and longevity.

Why did you decide to work at Nova Ukraine?

I had dedicated myself to working in the innovation and startup market, and so I knew about Nova Ukraine. It’s very highly regarded, and prominent venture investors are among the board members. I was particularly impressed by the work Nova Ukraine was doing in the medical arena, as I grew up in a family of doctors.

I was also acquainted with Katya Kovalenko, General Manager in the U.S. We had been mentors together at Hackathons “Synhroprostir” a few years prior. It was suggested that I apply for my position due to my relevant experience and the work I’d been doing at the start of the invasion. The application for the position was a very rigorous process. After many lengthy interviews, I became the General Manager of Nova Ukraine in Ukraine in November 2022.

What’s your typical day at the office like? Please describe your daily activities and tasks.

I don’t divide work into office and non-office. In reality, my job is around the clock but it’s so meaningful I don’t mind.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday, my day starts at 5 a.m. meeting with my American colleagues. Then I drop off my child at daycare before I look in on my team. I have weekly meetings with each team member to assess how things are going, how they are changing, how we are planning and operationalizing projects.

In other words, throughout the day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., I dedicate myself entirely to the Ukrainian team. In the evenings, and sometimes until midnight, I check in again with the American team, resolve issues, participate in discussions, interviews, what each country is doing, and how we are coordinating.

But in a way, my task is singular: to clear the way for others to do what they need to do to help Ukraine.

 Can you share with us a particular story that struck you?

I was struck by the Resilience Hub we opened in Izium after it was de-occupied. The city had suffered greatly during the occupation.

As had been the case in Hostomel, where I live, you could clearly see the frontline running the city. Half the city was occupied by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, while the Russian forces occupied the other half. The part occupied by the Russians was almost entirely destroyed.

My house had no gates because the Russians parked their armored vehicles in the yard. They chose houses where civilians lived nearby and used them as cover.

Our Resilience Hub in Izium was located in a Cultural Center. The windows had been blown out, boarded up, and the roof, barely repaired, was leaking. It was located in a remote district that used to be lively the year before. The post office buildings, kindergarten, and cafes were in ruins… all we had was a makeshift field kitchen.

I remember many discussions with the team, who wanted us to be in a more vibrant district with high-rise buildings. However, my instinct and experience told me that people would come to our hub, not only for electricity and warmth, but for communication, connections, community. It was important for us to be where we were needed most. We hired people who had lost their jobs in the war to work at our hub (one had been a technician and chief engineer at the Izium Bread Factory).

I‘m proud of how we revitalized that district. We currently have around 600 people coming in per day. From nothing, it has become a place where people can come and connect to the internet. They can have a chat and enjoy a cup of hot tea. A library has also opened nearby, becoming a point of interest. These things are not nothing. They are bits of humanity when so much has been lost.

What do you think Ukrainians need the most right now? (Besides victory.)

It’s a challenging question, but my personal opinion is that Ukrainians need targeted and intelligent support. In other words, they need fishing rods, not just fish.

Yes, many Ukrainians are currently below the poverty line, and many people lack access to basic necessities. But they want to be able to acquire these things for themselves. They need only the opportunity, the apparatus, the fishing rods.

What is the most challenging part of your work at Nova Ukraine?

I am drawn to challenges. My previous life is a testament to that. I launched the first grant program in Ukraine that provided funding to entrepreneurs. We built a transparent selection system and independent expert evaluation that operates within the framework of existing legislation. We also created educational materials for new startups so that you can learn and gain experience. We were the first to implement such projects in Ukraine. It’s all about development. I see nothing as static.

Currently, the biggest challenge for me is protecting my team of exceptional individuals so they don’t burn out. We are all volunteers who want to help our country. I want each team member to do what they consider necessary, so our organization can sustain itself and grow. The dynamics are positive. I see how people are growing into new roles, acquiring new skills, and adapting to ever-changing circumstances. It’s fantastic. There is no other word.

What is the most rewarding aspect?

That’s easy, the people. We are an organization about each other and about our country. It’s gratifying to see when individuals in our team bring about change. It’s heartwarming to witness transformation in the lives of those who receive assistance from our partners. They have the opportunity to plant gardens, feed their families, educate their children, take their children to a library or a park, and receive medical help.

When you witness how the work you are doing is directly impacting people in need, that in of itself, is the reward.

What else would you like our donors and readers to know about you and what you do at NU?

I would like to say “thank you” for all the help donors, volunteers and followers are providing to Ukraine today. I also invite them to visit us, whether it’s now or when we celebrate our victory, so they can see with their own eyes the changes that are happening thanks to their contributions. They can witness their impact on the lives of the people they have helped. They will not be disappointed.

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