War in Ukraine has pushed women into more leadership roles in its growing tech sector, where they are gaining experience and contacts abroad that could help rebuild the economy when the conflict ends, some entrepreneurs, companies and investors say.

With most men unable to leave Ukraine, women tech entrepreneurs like Anna Lissova, 30, who runs mental health startup Pleso Therapy, have taken charge of raising funds, finding new clients abroad and embracing other key roles.

Before the war she focused on recruiting therapists in Ukraine. Now she travels abroad to pitch the company at conferences and has led product launches in Poland and Romania.

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“I had to suddenly change my role and take over the public representation of the company. The war led to women taking more senior positions and power in startups,” she said.

Martial law prohibits most men of military age from leaving the country, creating a need and space for female tech entrepreneurs at home and abroad. They are able to build on a stronger representation by women in leadership positions in Ukraine than in the European Union and globally.

Some say they still face prejudice in the traditionally male-dominated tech industry however, or describe their struggles to run a business while adapting to life as a refugee and having to raise families alone with fathers still in Ukraine.

Over the past decade, Ukraine has boasted one of eastern Europe’s fastest growing tech hubs with startups attracting funding and clients from a large domestic market.

Women were underrepresented however, making up only around 30% of managers in the professional, scientific and technical sector, whereas they occupied 40% of leadership positions in Ukraine overall in 2017-2022, according to a study by the United Nations Development Programme.

The study highlighted that the proportion of Ukrainian women leaders nonetheless outstripped a figure of 35% for the European Union and 29% globally.

ukraine women tech sector economy

Pictured above is Anastasiia Smyk, CEO of aviation software solutions company Input Soft, at Kyiv’s Boryspril International airport. Despite the Russia-Ukraine war, women are taking on more leadership roles in the tech sector. Ukrainian women are founding startups abroad, making a positive impact on Ukraine’s tech sector.  (Valentyn Zavadskyi/Anastasiia Smyk/Handout via REUTERS)

Separate figures by Eurostat show around 17% of major tech jobs are held by women in the European Union.

Reuters spoke to nearly a dozen venture capitalists, tech founders and industry officials to document the critical – and often new- roles women have played in driving a sector seen as key to Ukraine’s economic prospects when the war ends.

“Women’s leadership within the tech sector has become more pronounced after the full-scale invasion,” said Pavlo Kartashov, director of the Ukrainian Startup Fund (USF), a government-backed body that seeds startups.

“We have witnessed a surge of female entrepreneurs who have stepped up to lead their companies and are driving growth.”

This rings especially true for ambitious startups looking to grow abroad, as many that have stayed in Ukraine focus on military or war-related technology such as drones, he added.

TECH RESILIENCE

The tech sector has proved resilient. While Ukraine’s GDP plummeted nearly 30% in 2022, tech sector revenue rose nearly 1 percent to $7.97 billion and was forecast to increase to $8 billion in 2023, according to state statistics compiled by the Lviv Tech Cluster.

The industry also accounts for nearly 5 percent of Ukraine’s GDP with the number of tech specialists inside and outside Ukraine rising to 307,000 in 2023 from 285,000 in 2022. These numbers include the Lisbon-based founder of digital currency payment platform GeekPay. Veronica Korzh, who founded the startup three months after leaving Ukraine in February 2022, has witnessed a leap in female founders, due in part to increased access to investors outside Ukraine and accelerator programs targetting women funded by the EU, international bodies and tech multinationals.

Many global bodies are out to boost women’s representation in tech across the board, amid research showing firms with a higher proportion of women are more profitable, spend more on research and development and are more environmentally-minded, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

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“I’ve seen more women starting companies after the war and taking on bigger positions because they can talk to investors and help develop brands to new customers,” Korzh said.

“This is also helping keep attention on Ukraine and spreading the word about the potential of its tech sector.”

For many tech workers, Poland is a first stop as it borders Ukraine and the countries have long business and cultural ties.

Mykhailo Khaletskyi of the Polish-Ukrainian Startup Bridge – a group that provides grants, co-working space and other assistance said: “We see women driving new funding rounds and gaining experience that will help to establish new companies and attract international talent and funding,” he said.

Anastasiia Smyk, 27, an aeronautical engineer, launched her aviation operations management software company Input Soft outside Ukraine in Warsaw, where she tapped a burgeoning refugee tech community. Her product is now used in the United States, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

“When talking to male investors, there were questions like ‘Why were you appointed CEO of this company?’ or ‘Please share if you have any male business partners'” she said. But she fought against the prejudice.

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“My job was to find investments, recognition in the global market, and international clients who would become our early adopters, which was not easy for a no-name startup company from Ukraine,” Smyk said.

Looking at the startups founded by Ukrainian refugees she predicts many will return to the country when the war ends and give a huge boost.

“I want to return to Ukraine to be part of the rebuilding and revitalization of our country… We are even open to working pro-bono just to see the first civil aircraft in Ukrainian skies as soon as possible,” she said.

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