At Kiwi.com we continue to feel the reverberations of the war in Ukraine across the business. We spoke to Chief Operations Officer, Juraj Strieženec, to understand how an organization can adapt from business as usual operations in the morning into supporting those affected by the invasion as the key priority by the afternoon and how you move from running the operations of a travel-tech business to running a Daycare Center.
What was the trigger point for Kiwi.com to offer support?
For Kiwi.com it was not a case of deciding should we or shouldn’t we help, or should we make a donation to a recognised charity and walk away, or should we roll our sleeves up – it was a little more personal than that. Given that our headquarters are geographically close, that we have friends and colleagues in the region, that some of our employees have family there, and that a small part of our operations are run out of Ukraine, it was more personal than that.
The tipping point to move from business as usual with our priorities to making our priority how we can best support those affected was immediate, as soon as we heard of the invasion. We have seen the biggest crisis you can imagine in the travel industry with the pandemic, but this is a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep and we knew immediately we wanted to help as much as we could. As a business we wanted to do something on top of making a monetary donation and use the assets we have, our employees are passionate and were immediately volunteering and looking at driving to the borders and other activities. Helping those in need is embedded in our organization, it is part of the Kiwi.com culture, we have an open door for ideas and it is easy to step up and ask, no matter what your role in the company.
How did you go about forming an action team and how far did it extend across the business?
We already have a working group focused on Corporate & Social Responsibility (CSR), the Care Crew. This team is made up from volunteers across the business, working in many different departments and at many different levels. This helped as we could immediately, after the first news, get together, start discussing and start to understand what actions we could take and how we could use our assets to truly help those people in need.
Firstly, we focused on those closest to us – our employees and their families who were affected. Secondly, we knew that supporting a trusted charitable organization would be something we could achieve immediately and we knew our employees wanted to help so we set up a charitable matching scheme where employees could donate to their chosen charity (from a selection of 7 different charities supporting the people of Ukraine) and Kiwi.com would double those donations.
During our Care Crew task force meetings, the idea formed that we had a large headquarters office in Brno where we could adapt space to use for Ukrainian refugees to find a safe and calm place to be. This idea developed to offer a temporary school facility for Ukrainian children as well as an area of calm for their parents and this would be a practical way we could use our assets to help.
What were the priorities in the first days?
The first priority was looking after our employees who were impacted, helping those in the war zone to escape the conflict along with their families. We focused on arranging transportation, providing enough resources and accommodation stocked with all they would need when they arrived in Brno. There was of course a big wave of sympathy in the region and charitable organizations both local and global did what they excel at to get help to those in need. We identified charities, and gathering feedback from our employees. Charities that would use the monies raised to have a direct impact where it matters and set up the matching scheme.
Was it still important to work in collaboration with local government / NGOs ?
We saw our place as providing support where there was a gap whilst the government organized longer-term support. Of course, we wanted to utilize our resources and one of the resources we have is the space we rent. Our vision was to build a sanctuary for people fleeing the country, to offer school educational operations and parents a place where they can relax at least a little and work on their own strategies – to give them time to find accommodation and find work in a calm environment. For the children, it is very important for them to keep a structure and we want to make sure they don’t lose the routine that involves learning and that a school day brings. For their parents, it means they don’t have to focus on the kids and can focus on the plans for their new lives. We had discussions with local government and coordination as we are of course not an educational entity. What we did is hire teachers and education specialists to build that side of things and lead this activity. Right now we still believe it is a mid-term solution for those affected. Our advantage is that we can act super fast, prepare in hours. As we speak, the government is picking up this activity and will provide long-term solutions so this is the stopover sanctuary for the time being, before the children can attend official schools and so forth. Cooperation with the government is good, the government is on the frontline for now – but using our model as an example of how to solve the crisis in the interim. We can provide them with the information of what is working, small sanctuaries within local businesses is one of the ways in the mid-term that can help manage the crisis.
What are you most proud of in the Kiwi.com response?
I think the engagement of our people and the willingness to help, the fact that people are not indifferent or detached from the problems of others. Our people were taking their personal cars to transport refugees from the borders, offering accommodation in their homes and bringing their own stuff to the daycare center and working weekends to set it up as well as raising 60,000 EUR for charities supporting those affected.
It was incredible for me to see the Day Care Center in operation with 52 children attending, Czech classes in place for the adults, and the onboarding of part-time university students to help with drama classes, and PE and assist the teachers who are already in place.
Will you continue with this support?
The length of time is likely to be based on the official solutions and conversations with the government. We are not aspiring to operate an education facility, we don’t have the necessary skills to do that. We have really only put a patch in place and we have no problem continuing to offer this support for as long as it is needed and the government will guide us on the next step. We hope for peace and that all can return to normal life as much as possible. As a company, we will help as long as our help is needed.
See more in this interview (in the Czech language) done by Czech National TV.