As war rages in Ukraine, women entrepreneurs find strength, hope in business

March 1, 2023
Natalia Chukhil launched a business sewing and selling stuffed toys with support from the Pact-led WINGS project. Credit: Yana Mikhnich/Pact

For Natalia Chukhil, sewing children’s toys has long been a way to cope amid war and instability. When Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Chukhil was forced to leave her home in Donetsk. To take her mind off her stress, she attended a master class on making soft toys. A baby elephant was the first toy she made with her own hands. She made more baby elephants.

Eventually, Chukhil landed in Lviv. She spent several years working for large companies in financial department executive positions, but after the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine last year, the continuous heavy burden, overtime work and stress forced her to quit. She turned to sewing for some relief but needed income.

An employment center suggested she join WINGS, a Pact-led program in Ukraine that helps rural and marginalized women to build their economic security by enabling their success as employees and entrepreneurs. WINGS is funded by Global Affairs Canada.

Through WINGS, Chukhil gained skills and confidence to turn her toy-making hobby into a successful business, which she named 1,001 Elephants.

“The project sessions were just what we needed then,” Chukhil says of herself and other WINGS participants. “We all came to the project perplexed, not knowing what to do. WINGS turned me to myself, to my own inner feelings. I realized that my universe begins from me. I was eagerly waiting for every session because they filled us with inspiration and enthusiasm. You realize that you are not alone, that you have a community of like-minded women.”

The WINGS project began before Russia’s 2022 invasion and was never intended to help women cope with the many consequences of unrelenting war. Yet when the need became such, that is exactly what WINGS adapted to do, says the project’s manager, Pact’s Olesia Galchynska.

“The Ukrainian economy has been severely affected by the Russian aggression,” Galchynska says. “Labor markets are disrupted. More than 5 million Ukrainians have lost their jobs. In rural areas, where WINGS operates, the situation with employment is even worse. For many, entrepreneurship is the only relevant livelihood option in the war context. And war means so much stress, so much instability. We knew we had to rise to these circumstances.”

“My business gives me a desire and strength to smile against all odds. Even if missiles are attacking our cities.”

WINGS participant Olha Liamentovska

From the first days of the war, WINGS has been maintaining feedback loops with its participants, Galchynska explains. The project has routinely surveyed women with questions about their key challenges and needs. Based on the findings, WINGS adapted its original approach, updating the content of program elements to be responsive.

For example, women noted that they were experiencing stress, uncertainty, anger and despair that prevented them from making long-term decisions and commitments.

“To respond to this, the project adapted its self-confidence building intervention called The Studio of Opportunities, adding group sessions on stress management and stress relief techniques,” Galchynska says. “We strengthened individual counseling skills of local coordinators who deliver sessions to project participants. We added extra support for women after they graduate from the Studio.”

WINGS also updated its business skills training curricula, worked to find more funding opportunities for women to start their businesses, and launched a community of women entrepreneurs who’d graduated from WINGS for peer support and learning. The project also developed safety protocols for in-person events and meetings, rented space with bomb shelters and purchased generators and power banks.

Galchynska notes that all of Pact’s programs in Ukraine have successfully adapted to continue their mandates and meet emerging needs because of the war.

“The toughest thing is to hear that our participants or partners have lost a loved one, or their homes were destroyed or they had to flee violence,” she says. “We are doing our very best.”

More than a year after Russia's full-scale invasion, WINGS continues to strengthen economic security for rural and vulnerable women. As of this month, 1,530 women have enrolled in WINGS, and 198 have received seed funding to launch their businesses.

For WINGS participant Olha Liamentovska, running a business, especially during war, was something she never thought she’d be capable of. She’d worked in finance until she had children and often baked for family and friends, but she felt embarrassed whenever the idea crossed her mind that someday she might turn baking into a business.

Olha Liamentovska started a bakery with support from WINGS. Credit: Natalya Dmytryshyna/Pact

With support from WINGS, though, that’s just what Liamentovska did. She gained confidence and learned to set goals, create a business plan and build a customer base. She won seed funding through WINGS to purchase a dessert refrigerator and soon launched Klyosh Confectionery in Lviv.

Although war has changed her business, it hasn’t stopped it. Rather than taking orders weeks in advance for large events like weddings, orders come in more spontaneously now.  Liamentovska has learned to be ready to make desserts “today for tomorrow.”

She receives more orders for kids’ parties now. During the war, she explains, everyone has become more appreciative of children’s joy.

“My business gives me a desire and strength to smile against all odds,” Liamentovska says. “Even if missiles are attacking our cities.”