Editor’s note: It’s often said that small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy. Many Ukrainians have come to realize that this should also be the case for their country. In June of 2016 the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation (USUF) signed a Memorandum on Cooperation with the Business Community Club (BCC), a small-business association headquartered in Lviv and with an ever-growing number of branches in other cities throughout Ukraine. USUF and BCC are collaborating with the goal of sharing information and building bridges between Ukrainian and American entrepreneurs. To that end, USUF presents the following interview with Mykola Savulyak, Head of the Business Community Club, about the activities of his non-governmental organization (NGO) and the state of small business in Ukraine. The interview was conducted by Jeff Schimelfenig, a United States Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to BCC:
Jeff: Mykola, tell us about the Business Community Club Ukraine.
Mykola: Thank you, Jeff. I think it will be good if I start at the beginning and why we decided to create a Business Club. When I returned to Ukraine from my studies in Germany, I understood that I would like to be an entrepreneur and start my own business. So, I started to communicate with people who are starting businesses. And I had to discover how to start the business. I searched for advice that could help me start my business. So, about two months later, I communicated with lots of people and many entrepreneurs and I understood that small business is the direction I would like to work. Secondly, I understood that there are a lot of problems and areas where small businesses need help. I also understood that small business is the future for economic development in our country.
Working with some interested business people, we made a business plan. We had an idea to make an organization to help small businesses start and develop. We made a 12-year plan on how to make a national organization for Ukrainian small businesses. This would help small business survive, prosper and grow in the new Ukraine. Initially, we started with some events. These were networking events and seminars and then we tried to help business people with consulting and assistance with finding contacts, clients, and partners. We tested different events and services to see how we could get to our goal.
We have been working for nine years and now we have more than 1,600 members. We are working in several cities in Ukraine. The main office is in Lviv. Also, we have locations in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Rivne, Ternopil, Lutsk, and Ivana-Frankivsk. Our goal in the coming years is to expand our activities in other regions and to open offices in all 24 major cities in Ukraine. Currently, we organize and conduct about 500 events a year. We plan to expand these into other regions where we don’t have a strong presence. We also are partnering with organizations like U.S.-Ukraine Foundation to help our members learn from and communicate with businesses and community experts from abroad.
Jeff: What is the mission and objective of the Business Club?
Our mission is simple. The Business Club is for executives and small business owners who have a reliable business reputation, who are building their small business in Ukraine. We are united into a Business Club, that takes an active and ethical position in society and works to build a strong Ukrainian economy.
We focus on three objectives. Firstly, it is business development, where we help businesses to start and develop. Secondly, we help the business climate for small business in Ukraine. Thirdly, it is about building business reputation in Ukraine. We plan and lead a lot of events in these focus areas.
Jeff: Who are the members of the Business Club?
Mykola: Firstly, we work with people, not with companies. So, our members are private citizens. Secondly, that person should be an entrepreneur or CEO of a small business. We don’t work with big business. Thirdly, it is very important for us to have members with a good business reputation in the market. Lastly, it is important for us to have a person who wants to develop their own business, be active and socially responsible.
Jeff: Are there specific business sectors you are focused on?
Mykola: We unite all economic business sectors, but only around small business. We are in IT, restaurants and hospitality, tourism, retail, manufacturing, professional services, to name a few. Inside the business club we have special sector groupings and they work with those sectors specifically. In Ukraine we have a trend emerging in the future around clusters. This will take time, maybe a few years in the country to take effect. In the future we will make the business club around clusters, about 20 clusters for different directions.
Jeff: What are the organization’s future goals?
Mykola: When we started this, we set the goals for 12 years through 2021. So, we aim to be the national organization for small business in Ukraine. We are beginning to build offices in all 25 regions of Ukraine. We are going to unite about 50,000 members — micro enterprise and small business entrepreneurs of Ukraine. We are going to have representatives in about 50 countries abroad. Those representatives or offices will serve as a bridge between Ukrainian entrepreneurs and business people from other countries who would like to start business projects, or export/import operations with Ukrainian businesses. So, we would like to be the voice of small business in Ukraine on the national and international level. We would also like to be the platform for development of small business in Ukraine.
Jeff: I know as a Peace Corps volunteer that the club places a lot of resources and emphasis on the social impact programs in Ukraine. Can you discuss the areas that the club aims to have a social impact?
Mykola: We work with three main social groups. As you know there is a war ongoing in Ukraine. So, we have about 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). We also have about 100,000 veterans. We design programs to help these people find new jobs in new regions. We are helping them to start their own small businesses. Sometimes they need help with housing, seeking advice and more. We have a couple of programs for IDPs and veterans. We have worked with and received some grants from several international government and NGO partners who support these efforts. The second group is women. I think it is a similar challenge in other countries, but in Ukraine women are often not managing businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses. So, we would like to help women in Ukraine make their own businesses, be more independent and make more of an impact on the economy. The last group we work very close with is youth. We understand that in five to ten years we will need a new generation of good, thinking people, who should have the skills to lead. About four years ago we started a project called Young Leaders of Ukraine. Now, they have their own NGO. The program helps youth (ages 14-20) to prepare themselves for small business or management positions. We understand they need practice in project management, communication skills, taking ideas into action, etc. So, we are preparing them for real business life. Young people are a quick study and some of them are working with our organization. We would like to give them the chance to stay in Ukraine, not go abroad to look for a job. We want them to stay and help build Ukraine.
Jeff: Speaking of going abroad, there is a large diaspora of Ukrainians, especially living in the United States, what are some ways that they can get involved with the Business Community Club Ukraine?
Mykola: Firstly, we need expertise. We need ideas and innovation from the U.S. market or European market, things we haven’t thought about here in Ukraine. We would like to connect with and speak with many entrepreneurs abroad who can help explain ways to develop small businesses here more efficiently. Secondly, we would like to promote and support export/import opportunities between Ukrainian small businesses and entrepreneurs abroad. It is difficult for small businesses in Ukraine to export. We would like to make connections to help facilitate this opportunity. We have also a lot of social impact ideas to support IDPs, veterans, youth, women and more, and we are always looking for partners. When we work with business people abroad, we would like to invite them to also be a member and join us in connecting with other individuals in the Ukrainian diaspora and build bridges of opportunity back to Ukraine.
Jeff: What are some of the ways that people can get connected or learn more?
Mykola: I can say that in Ukraine, there are thousands of entrepreneurs and small businesses. They are open for cooperation. They want to have partners in Ukraine and abroad. We have a website which has an English version. There our potential partners can read more about us. Secondly, you can write an e-mail to our organization with your ideas and vision and we will respond to you personally, via Skype or via phone. We can be reached on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) as well. We will then plan steps forward together. Also, our offices are open in Ukraine. We are very happy to welcome guests and entrepreneurs from abroad to tell them about Ukraine’s great opportunities and give our vision and perception based in real life here in Ukraine. We are working to further develop our partnership with US-Ukrainian Foundation.
Jeff: How do you see the future of small business in Ukraine?
Mykola: The future is bright. Through hard work and lots of learning and cooperation, small businesses and people looking to create business opportunity will find ways to make a good life for themselves and for all of Ukraine. We must be willing to work together and believe in an open and free Ukrainian civil society with business opportunities for all.
Jeff: Thank you, Mykola.
Photo at top of page: Mykola Savulyak (L), head of the Business Community Club in Ukraine, is interviewed be Jeff Schimelfenig, a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Lviv.
For more information about the Business Community Club Ukraine:
The U.S.-Ukraine Foundation liaison with BCC is Adrian Karmazyn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For Information about the United States Peace Corps in Ukraine: https://www.peacecorps.gov/ukraine/