Courtesy: Alex Iskold
A little over a month after Russia attacked Ukraine, Alex Iskold is trying to come to terms with the reality of his home country while doing the best he can.
Iskold, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine at the age of 19, is a venture capitalist and CEO of 2048 Ventures in New York. He is also a tech entrepreneur and co-founder of the 1K Project, a non-profit organization that allows anyone to donate $1,000 directly to a Ukrainian family.
To date, the project has raised more than $3.5 million and helped 3,500 families. But Iskold, now 49, knows that no matter when the fighting ends, the crisis heading into Ukraine, a country of 44 million people, will deepen.
More than 4 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, with more than half entering Poland as the Russian military bombed population centers. Millions more will surely lack basic necessities well into the future and will need money for food, medicine, clothing and transportation.
“There are many ways you can donate, but when you donate direct aid, you know a family is better off because you helped them,” Iskold said in an interview.
For a family of three to four, $1,000 only lasts about a month, he said. With more than 70,000 families already awaiting assistance and applications increasing by the hour, the project needs sponsors from individuals and companies to continue to contribute.
“This is a strong call to action because businesses could make a significant difference and we are confident we are the right ship to deliver the aid,” he said. “Hopefully businesses can step up and help us reach more families.”
The concept behind the 1K project is simple: an individual donates US$1,000 which will be sent directly to a Ukrainian family.
Iskold started the 1K project for a different purpose. He and Chrysi Philalithes, a fellow entrepreneur and start-up investor, founded it in 2020 to support Ukrainian families during the Covid-19 pandemic. Iskold revived it when Russia invaded Ukraine.
“For me, the 1K project is an outlet, a coping mechanism,” said Iskold, who left Ukraine in the early 1990s to escape anti-Semitic persecution. “I could sit on the couch for hours and watch TV or help out in some other way.”
The 1K project team consists of more than 50 volunteers, many working 10 hour weeks, from across the US, as well as Latvia, Ukraine, France and Kazakhstan. The operations team responsible for reviewing family applications and responding to sponsors includes some high school students and Iskold’s own children. Engineers come from companies like Techstars, Yahoo, Mozilla, Venmo, and Citigroup.
“We have the best technical talent I’ve ever seen,” said Iskold. “They move at the speed of light.”
The group needs them because “the technical challenge is immense,” Iskold said, adding that his experience with distributed systems helped him build the technology. The team, meanwhile, is collaborating with software like AirTable, Slack, Notion, and Front.
“It’s just this incredible combination of code and people that we use to get the job done,” he said.
To apply for help, families fill out a single form. You need a bank card that accepts local currency to get help. About 40% of the applicants are still in their hometown in Ukraine, 20% are refugees outside the country and 40% are displaced persons.
Once a volunteer reviews an application, that information is shared with a sponsor, who then sends the money through Wise, a multi-currency money transfer service. The money is deposited directly into the family bank account, so the money is available on the go.
Courtesy: Alex Iskold
“We created the system and were constantly writing code while funding families,” Iskold said. “We are nearly 100% automated where possible, including checking applications for basic errors. Still, support emails and texts for families and sponsors keep us on our toes.”
Crypto is a popular option
Cryptocurrencies can also be donated. When that happens, they are sold for cash, which is sent to the families with Wise and converted into the Ukrainian currency, hryvnia. A partner organization called Open Collective accepts donations over $1,000, be it cash, stock, or cryptocurrency.
People have used the crypto option in creative ways, Iskold said. Meta Angels, a community of people working on digital art in the form of non-fungible tokens, created and sold a number of unique NFTs for the 1K project, valued at nearly $50,000.
Iskold said there is a widespread sense of responsibility among people to help Ukrainians. Many are watching the war and looking for ways to help.
Ukrainian officials have been pushing for a ceasefire deal and a solution to the humanitarian crisis sparked by the Kremlin invasion. At peace talks in Istanbul on Tuesday, Russia claimed it would scale back its attacks on Ukraine, but military officials have continued to stage strikes around the capital, Kyiv.
Iskold’s efforts can’t keep up with the devastation, but for some families, it may be all they have.
“The 1K project is a bridge until affected families can get back on their feet,” he said.
CLOCK: Russia calls for a reduction in military action near Kyiv