When the war in Ukraine began, we were 18 months into the Ukraine National Identity Through Youth (UNITY) Activity. Working with our lead partner IREX, we mapped out and were ready to launch activities aimed to equip youth aged 15–35 with essential skills to expand economic opportunity through innovation, entrepreneurship, and career preparedness. However, the war compelled us to pivot our initial approach to provide quick and focused support to youth-led enterprises to guide their recovery and adaptation plan and lead with a trauma-informed approach, so that we could address their most pressing needs.
The first 2 months of the war were particularly challenging. Faced with the enormity of the situation, the team grappled with uncertainty, unsure of their next steps. Safety became the primary concern, urging staff to remain in secure locations and wait for a clearer path forward. Yet, during this time, the support Making Cents International gave them proved instrumental in providing the emotional stability needed to navigate the storm. When we were in a safer position to regroup and strategize, we zeroed in on what was possible and reasonable to do in the midst of a war.
Pivoting for Survival
Given the risks associated with operating in occupied territories, we exclusively worked with businesses that relocated to safer regions, primarily Western Ukraine. This precautionary measure allowed us to minimize potential harm and secure the safety of business owners and our staff, as well as their communication. While some businesses had to close due to the conflict, we tried to give our unwavering support to those that were able to relocate and to business owners who were able to stay open in the western region but needed to pivot their business strategy.
Our primary focus were youth-led micro and small businesses because they could be more agile. Through the Fast Business Support Program, we collaborated with local partners, such as the School of Mindful Entrepreneurship, to provide mentoring and grant funding to these enterprises. We secured the seamless provision of financial aid, while supervising our local partners’ activities. The first round of the program successfully supported 20 youth-led businesses with everything from specialized consultations and marketing assistance to access to international markets. We helped IREX facilitate funding to the selected businesses. The financial support was primarily to cover salaries, rental expenses, and industry-specific mentor matching. While raw material provisions proved challenging due to funding constraints, the UNITY team made every effort to meet the specific needs of each business. Due to increasing demand, Making Cents International continued to provide business support activities, and in June 2023, launched the second round of the Fast Support Program with 15 youth-led businesses.
In listening to youth business owners, we learned that they wanted to do everything they could to support the war effort and their fellow citizens, resulting in a demand for assistance for those who run social enterprises. So, we launched a pilot project similar to the Fast Support Program that solely targets youth-led social enterprises. The project officially starts in July 2023. Simultaneously, we are launching another program aimed at supporting youth-led businesses in accessing international markets. This effort, conducted in partnership with Center 42, will provide mentoring support to five businesses for 3 months, enabling them to explore international opportunities.
Considering the sizable number of young people who had lost their jobs during the war, we also felt it was necessary to assist them in finding whatever work they could to sustain themselves. With the economy under pressure, finding freelance opportunities or gigs that aligned with their skills and backgrounds made the most sense. Initially, we faced challenges when discussing freelance and gig work, because there were several misconceptions and stigmas surrounding both. Parents, especially, preferred that their children pursued full-time jobs for stability. In response, we repositioned our approach and focused on helping the youth find freelance work in industries of the future, such as digital and artificial intelligence, to encourage acceptance and the understanding that short-term work in these sectors would have long-term effects in their gaining of hands-on experience.
Weathering the Storm
Still, no matter how we attempted to show up for youth in business, we did and continue to deal with young people who are under tremendous stress and constant worry about their own physical and psychological safety and that of their loved ones. As I worked at the heart of this initiative, I witnessed firsthand the measures the UNITY team members took to provide much-needed mental health and psychosocial support to a business community grappling with the unimaginable. Participants had a profound yearning for human interaction, but it was not easy for them to admit they needed psychosocial support. Lingering biases stemming from the Soviet era have made it challenging for individuals to ask for help. The fear of appearing weak or burdened often prevented the youth from vocalizing their need for assistance. Yet, despite these obstacles, the UNITY Activity became a beacon of hope, offering a safe space where participants could open up about their struggles and find the support they longed for. We recruited a highly skilled and specialized team member, Svitlana—a psychologist with a specialization in trauma—to guide the creation and delivery of targeted and layered support to youth and youth-serving professionals. Through her guidance, the team learned the importance of adopting a trauma-informed approach. She inspired us to engage with participants on a deeper level. By approaching conversations with empathy and a keen awareness of trauma, the team fostered an environment where individuals felt safe to share their stories, whether related to family, personal struggles, or even their work.
Supporting others through their hardships can often take an emotional toll on those who provide the assistance. The team behind UNITY understood this all too well. We recognized the weight business mentors and program facilitators carried as they worked closely with youth entrepreneurs and youth navigating the effects of war. To secure their own well-being, the team implemented regular psychosocial support session check-ins to offer a mental health lifeline to those conducting activities. During my conversations with program facilitators, the significance of weekly coffee chats became apparent. These intimate gatherings provided a safe haven for team members to express their thoughts and emotions. Led by the compassionate mental health specialist Dania Fawaz, these sessions served as a platform for shared experiences. Amid the uncertainty, the simple act of being together and opening up about our fears and hopes brought camaraderie to the UNITY team.
As we continue to adapt and the rebuilding of Ukraine approaches, activities like UNITY will be crucial in paving the way for healing, fostering resilience, and reminding us all of the transformative power of youth when they exhibit compassion and empathy and are skilled in the industries of the future.