Leading in Crisis - Olga Kravchenko

In this special episode of the Good Leader podcast, I spoke to Ukrainian Founder and CEO Olga Kravchenko about the leadership lessons she has learnt managing a team currently building barricades and Molotov cocktails, that they don’t teach at business school.

In This Episode

To honour International Women’s Day 2022 and in light of the devastating Ukraine-Russia war, I spoke to a very special guest—Olga Kravchenko, a Ukrainian woman entrepreneur.

Olga is the Founder and CEO of Musemio, a VR educational app that aims to make arts, culture, and history education accessible for every child across the globe, helping parents to raise and educate a culturally-conscious generation at the same time.

She is also from Ukraine where at the moment her family and some of her employees are enduring the brutal Russian invasion, building barricades and Molotov cocktails, while Olga is in Portsmouth, UK.

In this episode, she shares what it means to lead in crisis and which leadership lessons she has learnt that they don't teach at business school.


Show Notes 

Connect with Olga via her LinkedIn or by emailing info@musemio.com

"How can you help Ukrainian people NOW?", a post by Olga listing ways in which you can support Ukraine. 

"Accidental Entrepreneurs", an episode of the Good Leader podcast where Olga discusses her entrepreneurial journey, unconscious bias in the startup world, and the importance of finding your foil.


Transcript 

NIKOL CHEN: Hello everyone, and welcome to a very special episode of the Laidlaw Foundation’s Good Leader podcast where we learn important leadership lessons from remarkable individuals in all sorts of fields.

Today, to honour International Women’s Day and in light of the devastating Ukraine-Russia war, we have a really special guest - Olga Kravchenko, a woman entrepreneur from Ukraine.

Olga is the CEO of Musemio - a VR educational app that aims to make arts, culture, and history education accessible for every child across the globe.

She is also from Ukraine where at the moment her family and some of her employees are enduring the brutal Russian invasion, while Olga is in Portsmouth, in the UK, coming to terms with what it means to be a leader in a crisis which is what we are going to discuss in this episode.

Welcome, Olga.

OLGA KRAVCHENKO: Hi Nikol, thank you for having me today.

NC: So, Olga, you founded Musemio to make culture, history, and arts accessible for every child around the world. So far, you’ve worked with organisations such as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Hellenic Museum of IT, and the London Transport Museum.

In light of the current situation in Ukraine and our world today overall, why do you think Musemio’s mission is so important?

OK: Yes, I founded Musemio to make arts and culture accessible, but also having in mind that as [children] grow up, they need to understand their role in the future world as global citizens. Right now, with the devastating war, I still feel it’s important for children to understand the context of history in a way they can speak - through gaming, through interaction. It goes without saying that the way some of the games are designed, including Musemio, they help children to process some of the concepts that otherwise would be too hard to comprehend.

One of the latest experiences that we’ve released and one of the experiences I’m the proudest of is the partnership with Dr Maha Aziz, The Global Kid, that helps children to understand more about globalisation, country interdependence, and democracy. What is happening right now is not just a threat to Ukraine, it’s a threat to the entire democratic world. This is not something that the child should take on the responsibility to resolve, but it is important for them to grow up understanding the fundamental principles of the democratic world.

I think platforms like Musemio and other wonderful educational institutions are teaching kids the lessons of humankind. The history of humankind which sometimes should not be repeated. I think it is important to spread awareness around what are some of the horrendous lessons that we have learnt in the last hundreds or thousands of years of human history and translate them in ways that don’t put all the responsibility on the child but rather encourage them to take action, and to be the action as they grow up.

NC: Thank you, Olga. Some of your team members are currently in Kharkiv, Dnipro and Kyiv, some of them are not getting sleep because of explosions next to their house, they are building barricades, making first aid kits and Molotov cocktails.

What is the biggest lesson you learnt from this situation that they don’t teach at business school?

OK: I think at business school, people usually talk about leadership, about the motivation and the encouragement of your team. They also try to talk about the culture that you’re building within the team. In a crisis like that, during the war... Honestly, I never imagined in my life that I’m going to end up running a company with employees in the middle of a war conflict. I learnt that the empathy that you have as a leader should be switched on to the maximum, but at the same time, everything that you’ve done before will impact the way your team is responding to the conflict.

On the first day, when the war started, my first reaction was: can I get all my team to safety? I called them, I made sure that they are aware of what’s been happening because I found out that the war started at 3am UK time, 5am Ukrainian time, and I called my family first to make sure that they are together because we didn’t know what the next couple of hours were going to bring. And then I called my team. I called each of them and they still couldn’t believe that this is the new reality that we will need to find a way to live through, and my first reaction was: look, do what’s important for you and for your family. Don’t worry about anything right now. And if you need someone to talk to, if you need someone to vent to, I am here.

In the first couple of days, my team just sent me updates in the work chat. It was still very surreal - all the Molotov cocktail-making, and first aid kit-making. In the last couple of days, I did feel that there was a big shift. People are getting tired, emotionally exhausted, and more and more people are coming back to me on our daily calls - they are not group calls anymore because the internet is not that strong, they’re personal calls - and they are telling me about how they feel, what sort of help they need, what is their plan of action. All of them are trying to decide whether their families need to try to go to the west or they need to stay where they are. In some cases, it’s not necessarily possible - for example, the employee in Kharkiv is not really able to leave Kharkiv right now just as a matter of fact.

I think one of the biggest lessons for me was: business is business but you need to remain human in any situation and put your employees’ human needs first. What I found very interesting as well - that my team did not want to stop working and their request to me was: “The only thing you can do right now is to help the business to continue running.” We are in the middle of a fundraiser, we have a number of projects, we have created all the backups together in the last 10 days, and we’ve created the emergency routes if something happens, if the connection disappears, to continue running the projects. For example, my CTO - in the middle of taking shifts to protect the territory, he continues working on the projects because for him it’s a way to stop thinking about the reality that is happening outside and I know that this is true for a lot of Ukrainians who are in the tech sector, who are working despite these horrendous circumstances.

I think also what they don’t teach you at business school is that in times of crisis, community really comes together. The support and the help as a Ukrainian founder I am receiving right now from all over Europe, from all over the UK; from any kind of support to make sure that the projects continue being delivered, to the information about how I can access up-to-date information on the latest immigration laws to hopefully get their families into safety once it’s possible, is tremendous.

So, the two lessons that I think they don’t teach you at business school: that as a leader during a crisis you need to have your empathy levels turned up to the maximum and be flexible enough to adjust to the situation while still keeping your head cool regarding what would be the best decision for the business, while still putting your employees and their wellbeing at the forefront of everything you do. And the second lesson that I’ve learnt is that you need to also be very trusting of people who are offering help while at the same time making sure that you protect the interests of your business and the interests of your employees to the best extent you can.

NC: Than you Olga, I hope anyone who has employees in Ukraine right now hopefully learns from you, and anyone going through a crisis of any kind as well.

Just a month ago, Musemio launched a new game called Secret Shelter Challenge together with the London Transport Museum that lets children discover what it was like to shelter in the London underground during World War II. Now, thousands of people in your home country of Ukraine are sleeping in underground shelters as air raid sirens echo through the streets. What does it mean for you to be a leader in a crisis like this?

OK: Yes, our latest experience as you said was around a deep-level shelter during World War II. What we tried to do with this experience with the London Transport Museum is not to focus on the ugly side of the war, but try to show that the child’s mind is still so innocent that they can find the positives of staying in the shelter, that’s how we ended up having the imaginary Queen Mouse and Grumpy Teddy appearing.

For a child, it’s really hard to comprehend the monstrosity of the situation that is happening around them and it’s important that we show that there is a human side within all of this horror. I’m seeing videos of my friends sharing from the shelters and people are trying to keep them rallied up as much as possible - they talk and they laugh and they organise games for kids. They are trying to navigate their ways of living through it - something that we are echoing in the Secret Shelter. Obviously, when we were creating it, none of us thought that this situation would ever repeat itself.

As a leader in crisis, I’ve learnt to stay cool-headed, making sure that I don’t make any rushed decisions. This is sometimes really difficult because the situation changes hour by hour. I’ve learnt to be flexible but at the same time make sure that the business, which both I and my team are passionate about, doesn’t suffer.

As a leader, you need to keep focused. I was speaking to someone just a couple of hours ago - I said it almost feels like I have two full-time jobs: I’m still running Musemio full-time, I’m having calls and, unless it comes up, I’m not drawing attention to the fact that I am Ukrainian because we are a UK-based business and I am in safety and I know that my team will be in safety eventually. I’ve known my CTO for the last 15 years of us being together at school, I know that he will do everything possible to make sure that the business is running and all the projects are being delivered. As I said, we have a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, and any other letter in the alphabet.

Keeping your mind on your business is important while making sure that you also address immediate anxiety triggers - I will stop a task that I’m doing if I’m getting a message from either my team or my family because I know that unless I address it immediately it will prevent me from making the best decisions. I need to be up-to-date with the situation there but then at the same time do my best to continue running Musemio. So, it’s about being able to focus and prioritise with all the tasks and all the new things that you learn along the way.

NC: Thank you Olga for all these lessons and insights. Lastly, how can private individuals, investors and just organisations, in general, show their support for Ukraine?

OK: I think right now there are wonderful initiatives around Europe and around the UK that are helping Ukrainian founders, employees and companies to stay afloat and continue delivering on their visions and missions. This can be done in different ways - there are coordination centres that are facilitating any kinds of support that individuals can offer.

I know that there is a big initiative in Germany making sure that Ukrainian founders do not feel like they need to undersell their company when fundraising and they are trying to put in place a legal framework for that. Because even though we want to think that everyone has the best intentions, we also need to understand that some people will try to use this situation to potentially get their investment at a better valuation for them and a worse valuation for the company.

My message to everyone who is looking to support the Ukrainian community is: do not shy away from working with them because we are a very resilient nation and everyone I know is a very resilient individual looking to deliver projects of the best possible quality. The situation right now is temporary and it will end. And what Ukrainian employers, Ukrainian teams, Ukrainian founders need most is the stability and the prospect of continuing doing the great job that every founder I know is doing. So, yes, please do not stop working with Ukrainian companies - they have ways to make sure that the projects are not being stopped and are being delivered. Do not stop investing in Ukrainian founders or in companies that have a big number of Ukrainian employees. They already thought about it and they have ways to address this crisis and continue doing what they do best.

And finally, reach out to a local entrepreneurship group if you are an individual who has a spare couple of hours to help people with marketing or development. There is a big initiative run by a couple of volunteers, including Emma Heap, who are building a database for developers all over the world to cover for some of the gaps right now that are being caused by the crisis.

Continue supporting Ukraine, we’ll get through this crisis. And from a business perspective, it’s important that our economy can recover swiftly for both individual companies and Ukraine as a whole.

NC: Thank you Olga, and just before I let you go, could you please let us know where people can find you and Musemio online?

OK: Yes, the best way to contact me right now is either through my LinkedIn or you can also contact me through the generic Musemio email that can be found on our website. I’m monitoring it regularly, it's info@musemio.com. We are open to partnerships, we will continue delivering partnerships and we are sure that we can get over this crisis very soon.

NC: Thank you for coming on the show, Olga, this is actually your second time on the podcast and it is always such as pleasure to learn from you and speak to you. If you’d like to hear Olga speak about what it’s like to be a woman entrepreneur, you can check out our other episode called Accidental Entrepreneurs.

Thank you so much again, Olga.

OK: Thank you, Nikol.

Comments

So grateful to both Olga and @Nikol Chen (she/her) for this very special episode - giving such an insight into what is happening in Ukraine right now and what it really means to be a leader in times of crisis and uncertainty.