As a child growing up in communist Romania, Chili Piper co-founder and CXO Alina Vandenberghe feared Soviet occupation. So, when Russian forces attacked Ukraine on February 24, the tech founder felt her anxieties resurge, even though she now lives in New York City with her husband and co-founder, Nicolas Vandenberghe. Chili Piper is a B2B software company that helps businesses to facilitate meetings with clients to increase inbound lead conversion. With employees in Ukraine–as well as Russia–she immediately felt that she needed to do something to help–so she did. –As told to Rebecca Deczynski
I feel like I’m being chased by tigers–I can’t really sleep properly. I’m in a million WhatsApp and Telegram channels, just trying to see how I can be most impactful. I don’t have any direct family in Ukraine, but I do have employees and friends. But somehow, I’m affected to such a degree, it’s as if my own mother were there. There is some trauma in my Romanian lineage–at any point in time, Romania was somehow occupied by Russia, either directly or indirectly, even in the time it was communist. I have this fear that we’ll return to the oppression and brainwashing that happened to my parents and grandparents. When I moved to the U.S. in 2007, I saw what beautiful freedom looks like, and I don’t want to go back.
In the fall of 2021, Chili Piper launched our own charitable foundation, Citizens of Our Planet, after raising a big round of funding from Tiger Global. We pledged $1 million to causes that are close to me and my co-founder’s hearts. So far, all of our efforts have been toward promoting non-violence–it’s something I feel very strongly about. Even in our normal operations at Chili Piper, we’ve done a lot of training to stop workplace microaggressions. We started the foundation with a donation in October for Afghan refugees.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was the ultimate form of violence. I started spinning my wheels and thinking about how cash could be deployed to help stop the violence. I’d already been raising money through Citizens of Our Planet, and I realized I could provide short-term relief to local NGOs, until larger organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross could mobilize.
Once we started sending cash, I realized it was complete chaos. Somebody would say, “We need diapers here,” and another person would need blankets and another needed shelter. There was no way to see if those requests were fulfilled or not–they were just thrown into the ether. We eventually realized that at every border, volunteers were organizing their own internal platforms with NGOs on the ground to address their needs–but those platforms were pretty bare bones. It would get overwhelming pretty quickly, and there were gaps in what local NGOs could provide that other organizations might be able to fill by sending them cash or supplies. I have my tech lenses on all the time, so I wanted to see if there was a way we could mobilize NGOs on the ground and start supplying them. Last week, we launched a platform, Bridge, that allows NGOs to request supplies and helps connect people who want to share supplies or cash with those NGOs in need.
In the early days of the war, I also started thinking about how we could help our own employees. We have eight in Ukraine, and they’re all still there, but one employee’s wife and toddler successfully fled. I started putting together a Google Doc that shared information about the kinds of documents people needed to flee, and then I sent it to Techfugees, an organization dedicated to using tech to help refugees, which we’ve worked with before. They helped circulate it in different WhatsApp channels and people kept adding to it. It became this 50-page doc that contains everything you need to know about how to migrate. It’s been accessed by over 10,000 Ukrainians.
It has been a roller coaster of emotions, especially when I’ve talked to mothers who are fleeing. It absolutely tears me apart, but I feel quite grateful we’ve built a company that allows me to take action. I’m also reminded that without the economic success of my company, I lose the opportunity to do so. So in the past few weeks, I’ve been constantly at odds of operating on both sides–focusing on business versus focusing on how I can help those affected by the war. It’s very tricky, because all of the conversations I might have about my business–about certain features or bugs in the software–feel so trivial compared with what people are going through right now. It’s hard to have these conversations when I know people are running from bombs.
We have unlimited PTO, and I told our Ukrainian employees that they don’t need to work. I don’t think they could even possibly think about work. I’ve occasionally asked for some translation help with for the Foundation. We’ve very lucky because we have more than 200 employees all around the world, so the company has not had much of a disruption–it would be different if our entire engineering team was in Ukraine.
A screenshot of a Zoom meeting that appeared on Chili Piper’s website before the Russian invasion.
Before the invasion started, we got our Ukrainian employees and our six Russian employees on a Zoom call. We said, “Look–this is happening. Your countries might be at war and you might be drafted to kill one another.” We took a screenshot of the Zoom call and put it on our Foundation website and said, we are a tech company that is here for peace, and we asked other tech companies to share the same message. But it’s not enough for this message to come from tech companies alone.
We’re deploying more cash and we’re taking donations on our website. We’ve raised over $200,000 and aim to raise at least $1 million. Our employees are also spreading the word. It’s amazing to see what makes a difference, even if it’s a small act.