A year into Russia’s invasion, the education system in Ukraine and the university campuses continue to remain under threat of deadly missile attacks and bombardments by Russian forces. Sophia Opatska on Ukraine’s resilience, innovation and inspiration.
I am writing this article sitting in a cafe in my home town of Lviv with a cup of good coffee and a variety of handmade chocolates produced by a very famous Ukrainian company. Unfortunately, they had to close a couple of such coffee houses in South Ukraine and in the East as it was too dangerous to continue running them. My daughter will join me soon; she is in the movie theatre nearby with her friends where they are watching the Ukrainian cartoon “Mavka”, released a week ago. It has already become very popular and is planned to be shown in more than 80 countries around the world. A moment of normality on a Saturday.
At the same time, I have no idea when the next air raid will sound, making all of us rush into the shelter, how long it will last and how many civilian lives will be lost. And this is the total absurdity of the reality of life in the 21st century in one European country. Ukraine is bleeding. Every Ukrainian heart is bleeding. And we know that the hearts of many of our friends all over the world are aching, and there is a desire to stand with us in solidarity. All Ukrainian people are grateful for compassion and support.
Global challenges for business educators in Ukraine
Over the last few years, we as business educators have had to deal with a new range of global challenges which we need to face together as a community and which have the potential to influence and change things. I assume all business schools have it as part of their mission or vision – to make this world, business communities and organisations a better place. Maybe not specifically in this wording, but the idea of it.
We Ukrainian business educators knew from the 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbass that democracy is fragile, and if you believe in it – you have to be ready to stand up for it – for human dignity, freedom of speech, civil society, and free elections, things which are often taken for granted in many countries. That one day, your business has to be ready to pull out of a market that disgraces human lives if your values are not only written on walls and in annual reports, but are part of your decision-making. Many Ukrainian business people made this decision in 2014 and left the Russian Federation, although from a profit point of view or market share, it was not an easy solution.
“I think it’s important for business to also produce a vision of what kind of Ukraine we are rebuilding. I would hope that that would be a country in which the price, the value of human life and dignity is very high.”
According to B4Ukraine, only 233 international businesses completely exited from the Russian market over the last year. Only 184 companies made the right decision to protect their reputation and capital. The majority decided to learn the hard way. Actions speak louder than words, and not leaving the Russian market after almost nine years of the largest war on the European continent since WWII and one year of it being broadcast throughout the world every single day, almost like a reality show, screams about the moral collapse and lack of strategic thinking and risk management that rules in corporate boardrooms. There is a great space for us as business schools to improve how we help our students to become not only more competent but also to help them to develop leadership characteristics. There is still a lot we can do with our alumni so that they don’t forfeit their humanity over business profit following graduation.
The state of the education system in Ukraine
A year into Russia’s invasion, the education system in Ukraine and the university campuses continue to remain under threat of deadly missile attacks and bombardments by Russian forces. If you go to the website https://saveschools.in.ua you can see 3246 educational institutions have suffered bombing and shelling, and 259 of them have been destroyed completely. Given that one missile costs at least US$3m, you can roughly make calculations on how much money is being spent on destroying instead of creating.
Despite these horrid realities, Ukrainian educators continue to provide education. As a faculty member, I usually have between three and five scenarios for each class. How I teach will depend on whether we can have a normal class or whether an air raid will sound and we have to go to the shelter. There may be normal electricity, but over winter, we were also using generators a lot after airstrikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. At UCU Business School, we are fortunate in that we have safe and normal classrooms underground; however, they are popular and limited in number. When the air raid starts, we rush with students to secure a good corner in the big auditorium; the other corners will be taken by three other groups of students with their faculty. Sometimes people from the park or nearby offices join our classes since they use the university shelter as well. So as an instructor, you always have to be ready to work very creatively in such circumstances. Everyone is patient as they know that in the East or South of Ukraine, even if these conditions are not possible or available, there, students cannot have a normal educational process, which will be a huge loss in human capital for Ukraine in the future.
Adaptations of businesses
Businesses have made huge adaptations as well. It is indeed a great surprise how we as human beings and how organisations can adapt. In the summer of 2022, while being a temporarily displaced person and being hosted as a research fellow at Aarhus University, we decided to conduct research together with Adam Gordon, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Business and Social Science. The main goal of the research was to find out what practices Ukrainian private and state-owned companies have adopted for use during war to navigate geopolitical and contextual challenges. One of the objectives was to investigate how well boards of directors and top managers were involved in contingency planning and how they acted in critical situations. The 20 interviews conducted last year were a very positive experience which produced not only data but also hope for me.
The surveys revealed a number of adaptations – in both practices and perceptions – among Ukrainian business managers, and translation of this into strategic responses, as follows:
- To date, much of Ukrainian business remains in crisis or survival mode, with attendant focus on employee physical and mental welfare, maintaining employment, and company cash flow.
Business and the social contract: a majority of the interviewed companies had participated in volunteer and donor programs. A connection between the business purpose and the future-building of the country is very apparent.
- Discovering resilience: companies that have adapted to the changed circumstances report a new management confidence and optimism based on their newfound proven adaptability, resilience, and speed and efficiency of (successful) decision-making.
- New opportunities nationally: company managers are looking forward to business opportunities in sectors that they expect to grow strongly when recovery and rebuilding start (particularly construction and construction supply; energy, information technology, and agriculture.)
- New opportunities globally: firms have an entirely different global outlook based on (a) considerable international recognition, sympathy and current wartime engagement, and (b) a widely expanded Ukrainian ‘diaspora’. Many respondents are looking to access export markets, relocate production, open offices abroad and pursue international mergers and acquisitions.
- ‘Grand Reset’, sustainability and beyond: with much of the economy to be rebuilt, a greater strategic rethink is in evidence, particularly rebuilding for sustainable production, and pursuing higher-value products (e.g. exporting food products rather than raw grain.)
Business now sees its value not only in keeping the economy running (at least partially, since Ukraine is very much dependent on foreign aid) but also in how Ukraine will develop and recover from the war. “I think it’s important for business to also produce a vision of what kind of Ukraine we are rebuilding. I would hope that that would be a country in which the price, the value of human life and dignity is very high.”, said one of the business leaders participating in the research. Many business people became an example of resilience, commitment to the country and future hope. When you see factories destroyed last year and being rebuilt though war is far from being over, or businesses growing and investing into new projects – it is an example of leadership and good news, which Ukrainian society is in high need of.
In December, “The Economist” named Ukraine as its Country of the Year, honouring the resilience, innovation, inspiration, and courage that the Ukrainian people have been demonstrating every day of their fight for freedom and dignity in the world. With what we are going through, I feel like a Woman of the Year. Every single Ukrainian feels like doing something we would never have expected to be able to do a year ago. We feel like Davids. David who is fighting for his life and for his people. But David is also fighting for every one of you – who love freedom and democracy, believe in creating rather than destroying, and respect human rights and human dignity.