Kiril Bondar, Partner & CFO at UNIT.City: “You May Not Predict The Future But Can Create It”

The UNIT.City project started in 2016 on the property of a former motorcycle factory in Kyiv. Over the past years, it quickly acquired a new life. It became a focal point of ideas, community, events, perspective companies, ambitions, and energy, an attractive magnet for high technologies and innovation for the whole CEE region.

We asked Kiril Bondar, Partner & CFO at UNIT.City, about wartime challenges, the current shift in management and strategy of the company, background and skills which help to overcome threats, and projections on the Ukrainian tech ecosystem.

TechUkraine: Before the war, the largest innovation park in Eastern Europe UNIT.City was a home for over 100+ local and international companies, building a vibrant community and developing tech ecosystems in Ukraine. How did you and your team manage during the first months of the full-scale invasion? What was the most challenging in this period, and why?

Kiril Bondar: We have built UNIT as a community of people who share the same values and are passionate about technology and creativity. This approach is paid in full. From the first day of the Russian invasion, we’ve organized bomb shelters for our residents, team members, neighboring residents, and their families. Set up full perimeter security 24/7, collected food and water reserves, communication, and sleeping places.

The most amazing thing was the unity and willingness of people to help each other. Under bombing and shooting, you might expect people to care only about themselves, but at UNIT, even without too much formal commands, all community was very united and proactive. I guess this is the most fantastic experience. 

We never closed UNIT, and everyone was able to get their things and documents or come to their offices and work on urgent tasks or humanitarian projects.

Life has changed over one day, and we have immediately rebuilt the UNIT team for new tasks:

  • launched a humanitarian fund and raised a couple of millions of dollars, 
  • volunteered in Kyiv and other communities, 
  • prepared and delivered food, and many other activities. 

I think the key was to get children, women, and parents in a safe place and engage in new activities and initiatives. We had to change our planning horizon from months to weeks and weeks to days and hours. Later the biggest challenge was to stay strong emotionally and find the energy to proceed.

TechUkraine: UNIT.City reopened in late May, and it has been working for 2 months. What are the key results and lessons of this period?

Kiril Bondar: We all agreed that waiting is not an option nor a strategy. As we say, you may not predict the future but can create it. So we decided to open UNIT to the public, get part of our team in the office and start working together.

Now it’s about 25-30% of all companies come back.

I don’t think this process will be fast, but you must keep running and looking for new ideas and opportunities. If you close the business, you will look for clients, time, energy, and a team. Of course, you may save a few dollars by staying closed in antibiosis, but then you have the risk of never being able to restart again, or the cost or relaunch would be way higher than just keeping on operating.

The heart of UNIT was beating all the time. 

Speaking financially, we have some revenues and appreciate our clients for that. Whatever we generate, we spend on our operational expenses: supporting the campus and team.

TechUkraine: After 3 years in Ukraine, Dominique Piote left the post of UNIT.City’s CEO and joined the Advisory Board launching recently. Tell us about this reshuffle, the new managing structure, and the team’s core responsibilities.

Kiril Bondar: Dominique had to relocate to Europe just a few days before the full-scale invasion. As you remember, US and EU embassies gave very strict orders to their citizens to leave Ukraine. So, Dominique was actively helping with team reallocation, fundraising, sharing information, and speaking about Ukraine in the EU and the US. He did whatever was critical and necessary in those days.

As you realize, to run UNIT starting from May, you must be on-site, meet people and the team, take immediate decisions, measure risks and take risks. Dominique’s contract was expiring in September this year, and we asked him to join the Advisory Board of UNIT.City where he could support the project with his expertise.

So now, Dominique is very dedicated to strategy revision, ecosystem support, and communication with donors and partners.

He is also actively working on the EU grant program for Ukrainian startups that have recently been announced. So I would not say that the project management structure has changed at all. We have:

  • Advisory Board that includes the project founder 
  • Executive team who is managing the project on a daily basis.

Core team functions and organizational structure have not changed either.

UNIT is a complex project with hard and soft infrastructure – ecosystem, collaborations, partnerships, and educational projects.

Some of our business lines are for profit in the long run, and some of our activities are being created to support and develop the Ukrainian creative and IT community. So such a complex project requires a complex management system. In general, our strategy has not changed as well. It gives me confidence that we did many things right in the past.

We are in self-finance mode now and, unfortunately, had to freeze most of our educational projects and initiatives.

I’m sure we will relaunch them with new sponsors and stakeholders later.

TechUkraine: What kind of priorities are now for UNIT.City in new conditions? Do you plan to reinforce the strategy? What’s next for the company?

Kiril Bondar: To be very short and specific, our priorities are

  • our residents,
  • new collaborations and ideas,
  • UNIT team.

We have a couple of big new ideas for UNIT, but let me keep them a secret so far. I truly hope that we will accomplish them this year and will share stories about that. 

I also have to be fair by saying that you cannot run the business at full scale if you have war in your country. You may adapt, restructure your business and prepare for the next cycle, but it’s not business as we know it.

Someone compares us with Israel now by saying that Israel has been living in war with neighbors for years. I’m afraid I have to disagree. To defend your borders and to fight with full-scale invasion is a different thing.

Nevertheless, the world has become very fast, volatile, and unstable now – it is a new reality.

We have reviewed the UNIT strategy, and it will stay unchanged: to be the place where businesses, talents, and startups would become successful due to culture, collaboration, and innovations.

What motivates us a lot is the fact that if we look at the past, we will always find opportunities. If we don’t see them or can’t create them, we need to change our minds, need education, and talk to new people.

TechUkraine: How do you tackle the wartime challenges based on your corporate background in CitiGroup, Dragon Capital, Ukrainian Bank For Reconstruction And Development, New Path Ventures? What kind of skills and experience helps you face and prevail over growing risks and go ahead?

Kiril Bondar: Looking back at my professional life, I have recovered from a long list of financial and political crises: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2014, 2019, and now the most tragic 2022. You may name those crises even without my help and call many others before 2000. But you know what – we are still alive and moving forward. That gives me hope that we will also win this time and find new senses.

Each crisis is the beginning of something new. I like that idea from legendary Ayrton Senna: “You cannot overtake 15 cars in sunny weather… but you can when it’s raining”. Think of this. In crisis times, everyone starts from the same position.

There are a few very treasurable assets that you need to preserve during the crisis to be able to run again – your reputation, team, and partners.

TechUkraine: In June, you visited the Consensus conference by Coindesk in Austin, the USA. Could you share key insights about the event? How was Ukraine represented at the Consensus? Why is it important?

Kiril Bondar: Since 2015, the Consensus has been the central meeting point for those committed to decentralizing the world. Note that we are already talking not only about crypto or WEB 3. Consensus is a festival created by CoinDesk, a very influential name in crypto journalism. This year in Austin, 20,000 participants discussed finance, investment, NFT, DeFi, regulation, Web 3, the metaverse – how it all affects commerce, culture, and communities, and how we live and interact.

Key insights:

  • Decentralization is a trend that has already taken shape and is definitely coming out of the underground. Remember, as before – everything that can be digitized will be digitized. Now, much of what is probably slow, overregulated, and inconvenient will be decentralized—finance, property rights, internet, insurance, culture, sports, etc.
  • Crypto is not only and not so much digital money but an asset class and a component of the U.S. financial market. With all the ensuing consequences, correlation, regulation, and mass adaptation. The crypto winter has already arrived, along with the S&P in winter. Now everyone has one calendar.
  • Community – about it on every panel. Communities are everywhere and about everything; this is a new cell of society, a new fundamental element of a decentralized digital economy.
  • The Creator economy is the economy of the creator, not creative. Of course, I don’t oppose it, but it’s important to understand that the whole Web 3 and decentralization trend is about J. Mark is not even remembered anymore. If you are not in Discord, Twitter, Instagram, you do not exist. I can’t speak for Tik Tok.

Ukraine at the Consensus: we are known, we are respected, we are admired, and we are cited as an example. The case with the crypto fund helping Ukraine is being analyzed as a textbook! Bravo!

TechUkraine: What are your projections on the Ukrainian tech ecosystem? What should be done to save and boost the innovation industry in Ukraine?

Ukrainians are extremely creative people with a unique need for freedom. Those two elements must be successful in the startup and innovations world. Still, the number of Ukrainian teams and founds is relatively tiny to our potential.

I think we need to work on our culture, which might be the key to future sustainable growth:

  • culture of collaboration,
  • making things together,
  • sharing ideas and knowledge instead of competition,
  • paying forward concepts,
  • giving back to the young generation,
  • willingness to learn,
  • and no fear of mistakes if you learn from them.

It’s the key elements that we need to cultivate.

Sometimes we are very focused on making money and ignore that money follows ideas, talents, and promising projects.

Focus on who you are and what you can do; money is just an attribute that will follow your success. It’s 100% guaranteed.

We at UNIT.City are very optimistic about Ukraine’s tech future. Today we have a great chance to win our freedom once again, and we will have a few years of great energy, support, and super motivation in the whole country. Just need to do them most effectively!

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