Ukrainian Entrepreneur Fellow Finds Inspiration and Mentorship at GW’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The American Councils for International Education program helps to bridge global perspectives for business growth.

November 16, 2023

Ukrainian business fellows

Ukrainian business fellows Oksana Kravchuk (l) and Khrystyna Dereha. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Oksana Kravchuk spent three weeks at George Washington University’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIE) observing as students developed business models for their own startups.

Kravchuk was part of a group of about 15 Ukrainian business leaders from an array of industries including agriculture, banking, IT and manufacturing who came to this country on a United States State Department fellowship in conjunction with the American Councils for International Education that links them with U.S. businesses and entrepreneurs to stimulate private sector growth.

“The United States is the best place to understand how to develop open mindedness, networks and communication and an entrepreneurial mindset. That is why I am here,” said Kravchuk, who was eager to make contacts, gain access to U.S. markets and pick up tips on innovation and leadership for her business school in Ukraine.

Her home country’s educational system does not equip young people for the modern world or provide real world experiences, according to Kravchuk. “Like 90% of our youth go to the university,” she said. “It is not with an understanding of what they want from an education. It’s the thing to do. You go to the university. After that you get a job with a good company or you go into government.”

A former banker and manufacturing director, Kravchuk wanted something better for her 18-year-old daughter, and two younger children who live in Vinnystia, a city in central Ukraine far from the frontlines of the ongoing war with Russia but still vulnerable to Russian missile attacks.

“For the moment it’s pretty calm,” Kravchuk said. “We are resilient. A lot of new businesses are opening new branches. They’re not staying in one place waiting for something to happen.”

She was impressed that GW students in the OIE pitch competition develop business models based on research to determine how their projects work in real life.

“What impressed me is that they didn’t just think about earning money. They think about some very important global things, like homelessness, and integrating people into society,” she said. “There was a global mindset. It was not only about your business. You think about different problems.”

The Ukrainian fellows visit to the United States culminated in a session at the Elliott School of International Affairs Monday afternoon with I-Corps at GW Director Bob Smith, part of OIE.  The session at GW also alumna Sarah Malinowski, M.S. ’23, who described her visit to Ukraine to conduct research for the prototype of a new and improved prosthetic limb.

 Mentorship is the hallmark of the OIE’s Global Lean Startup Program which has trained people globally to be mentors on how to move technology from the laboratory to marketplace, leading to the creation of over 1,000 companies.

Entrepreneurs go through a journey that generally starts with an idea, Smith explained to the fellows. When they see something that leads them to ask, “why is that like that,” Smith told the fellows, “that’s the genesis.”

"And when you get interested,” Smith continued, “you get inspired, and you dig deeper and that leads to an exploration.”

Kravchuk’s personal frustration with her daughter’s education led her to create the leadership program and business school, United, six years ago to help prepare Ukraine’s next generation for the investment that comes when the war ends.

“She inspired me,” Kravchuk said. “I wanted to find something that would develop skills which are important in the modern world. When I couldn’t find anything, I realized I am not the only mother with this problem. I opened the center.

“I want to teach my students to be more open,” she said, “to see not only how to earn money in business, but also the direction the world is moving in and work with their surroundings to create more contacts and meet people in different spheres.”

For the past six years, United has sent more than 1,000 Ukrainian young people to camps in the United Kingdom, Bulgaria and Greece and hopes through contacts she made through OIE to organize similar visits to the United States.

Another fellow at GW, Khryrstyna Dereha, sells personalized gifts and accessories from her family’s company on the web through Amazon and Etsy, and to companies like Maybelline and Sony.  She was keen to learn more about social marketing and working with American influencers to promote her brand, Jungle. Despite cultural differences between the two countries, she discovered that U.S. and Ukrainian businesses were similar.

“When you’re really far away, you think that somewhere else is really different or you’re doing something wrong,” she said. “Now I realize I have experience and knowledge. I just have to do it. It will come. So not to be afraid. Just do it.”