The Brain Drain
Battle for talent Edition 54
This week I popped along to celebrate General Catalyst’s launch of its European Offices. As the champagne and canapes did the rounds, partners at one of the largest VC firms in the world reminded us all that their first investments in Europe had been in Ukraine - companies like Grammarly, airSlate among others. And they made it a point to highlight the priority of GC in Europe would be first and foremost, to support their Ukrainian Limited Partners (LPs) and staff of portfolio companies, alongside their contributions towards humanitarian relief.
Pictures of the exodus of terrified civilians have brought home for us all, just how desperate the situation is. But this daily mass exodus from Ukraine is hitting home especially for the tech industry, many of whom are scrambling to find ways to protect staff. This is one of the most significant brain drains in recent history. Ukraine was a hub for the most in-demand coders in the world, and European and U.S tech firms know it.
As one founder at the launch party told me, “hirings in Europe are getting tough and the days of the great resignation are over. Noone wants to leave their job and move to a new one with inflation and an economic crisis looming. Last in, first out and all that.” So, if you are able to land the techies who built Whatsapp, Grammarly, Gitlab and others, or the ones who worked on R&D for Google, Samsung or Amazon, you line up to hire them.
That’s exactly what some of the biggest tech firms around the world are doing, and start-up founders are getting in on the act. Companies building in-house tech strength aren’t that far behind either, and all of them seem to be gravitating toward a non profit called Remote Ukraine.
With visa rules outside the EU still in flux (I’m looking at you U.K. government and Priti Patel), these techies are getting offered remote jobs. And here’s the interesting bit. As expected some of these offers are going to the majority of coders who are men between 18-60. That means they have to stay in Ukraine to battle it out with Russian troops, per country’s current mandate. Those not relocated by their own companies, and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries in Europe are the minority of Ukraine’s coders. These are the women who are the tech industry’s hottest property right now. So, spread the word and get hiring!
Russia’s brain drain
Overnight, the BBC was also quick to point out the brain drain isn’t just a Ukrainian issue. Russia’s techies are leaving in droves too, fearful of the iron curtain that seems to be falling on the country. They’re headed to countries like Georgia, Turkey and Israel. And despite the EU wide flight bans, some have even made it to Finland, Estonia and Latvia. How many manage to exit, and how many stay will determine Russia’s future in a tech driven world.
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ESG Smokescreens - Values Vs. Corporate Speak
There’s been much ado about western multinationals pulling out of Russia. Who’s really done it, who’s not, and who has been too slow. In many cases announcements haven’t really matched the punch that sanctions are meant to deliver.
British American Tobacco Vs. Imperial Brands for example. One’s all male board is still ‘evaluating’ the situation, the other’s board led by women has clearly suspended its operations, and continues to pay its employees. Nestle, Unilever and Cadbury have all announced some level of suspension but continue to provide ‘essential food products’, or ‘basic offerings.’ Then there are the ones who seemingly had to be dragged into shutting their Russian shops -Uniqlo, McDonald’s and Coca Cola are names that come to mind. Citigroup’s Jane Fraser has been roasted on social media for not jumping ship quick enough. But in all this noise, what is fascinating is the lack of transparency from these companies about their reasons of curtailing business, exiting or delaying their Russian exits.
Why not be honest about the inevitable difficulties in operating businesses in a country under sanctions? A tech crackdown by Russia means Whitney Wolf Herd and Bumble’s decision to get out of Russia is driven not just by values, but the impossibility of operating in the country. Oil prices make shipping goods expensive, western air traffic bans make logistics impossible. Then there are the SWIFT bans and a crashing rouble making payments difficult. And don’t forget the Russians have made it impossible for western companies to divest their stakes —even if like Citi, they’ve been in the process of doing so for a year.
Then there is the question of leaving a profitable (well, till now anyway) market where companies of other countries will fill the gap. The Indians aren’t leaving, neither are the Chinese and of course local Russian players are the ones set to gain the most once the big western names exit. There’s much to consider for our board rooms. The main question though is — are ESG values something real, tangible and worth taking a fiscal hit for, or is shareholder return paramount. If it is the former, it is time for their communications to get clear — so every stakeholder knows exactly what they are sacrificing and why.
You can keep track of the companies exiting Russia by following Yale University’s tracker.
How do you solve a problem like…
The western policy world is still trying to figure out what to do, what not, what do fast, or go slow on, when it comes to Ukraine and Russia too.
Dutch finance minister Sigrid Kaag is putting up warning flags of rough undercurrents caused by Ukraine’s invasion, that might develop into killer waves. This week she said that while the Netherlands was open to discussing reforms as the EU responds to challenges posed by the conflict, she’s warning against watering down the EU’s borrowing rules by stripping out defence and other strategic investments. She says the EU needs to keep its eyes on debt sustainability even as it confronts the economic challenges posed by the war.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris seems to have finally stepped out of Jow Biden’s shadow, to take on a bigger role in the Ukraine crisis. This week she was in Poland speaking about the U.S. standing by its allies, but immediately shot down any NATO or U.S. involvement in Ukraine that would become inevitable with Poland’s offer to Ukraine of soviet era MiG29 planes. They’d have to get to the country via U.S./NATO air bases and that she said would directly bring the west into conflict with Russia.
That Polish offer may have been greeted with cheer by the Ukranians, but Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili said it 'touched the line' for Putin. In an interview with The Daily Mail (yes, I read the tabloids too!) this week she said, “Nobody wants to give to President Putin something on which to found new propaganda.”
President Zourabichvili was quite clear that the west needs to be careful in their communications of offers of assistance. Georgia after all has personally experienced Vladimir Putin's end game. In the interview she said, what’s happening in Ukraine is similar to Putin sending tanks to Georgia during its 2008 war. She said the idea was to make a ‘psychological impression’ and that the Russian President is banking on their sheer sight to push the rhetoric of a ‘massive' invasion.’ President Zourabichvili is now convening a conference of women leaders in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and has invited VP Harris amongst others to discuss what steps will lead to peace. She said especially in such delicate times, “It's important that women leaders, even when they are in the second position, are not kept in the back seat.”
Now we wait to see if Hungary’s new President and its first female one is going to derail, or help the EU in their anti-Kremlin stance. Katalin Novák is close to prime minister Viktor Orbán and is widely expected to support his nationalist agenda in her new largely ceremonial role of president for a five-year term.
The appointment has most folks in the EU up in arms. Afterall, she’s considered an Orbán puppet having been deputy chair of his party and family affairs minister in charge of his economic support agenda for the middle class. She also very conveniently takes up the job less than 4 weeks before an election that’s going to be a close call for Orbán. So analysts say the appeal to female voters is pretty blatant. Most critically, we know Viktor Orbán has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for now, and Novák has backed it. But considering his close ties with Putin in past, Brussels isn’t banking on it for long.
The 🌍’s still turning
Bonuses are back baby!
Cost of living crisis may have us all penny pinching, but it seems our timing for becoming cost conscious, worked out for John Lewis staff. The U.K. retailer’s profits bounced back after a pretty tough year so it’s bringing back bonuses of 3% (1.5 week’s salary) as the £46m profit pot is shared between its partners/staff as the retailers. Plus, a wage hike of 2%, that’s on top of the retailer’s promise to pay staff a living wage. Last year John Lewis had to cancel bonuses for its staff for the first time since 1953.
But the dark clouds are looming for this U.K. icon. John Lewis’ Chair Dame Sharon White, hailed a "good start" to the group's five-year overhaul, but has warned of a troubled wider outlook amid inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. The company which recently stopped its "Never Knowingly Undersold" pledge, has also said it will remove any products made in Russia from its shelves.
That’s what critics are calling U.K. retailer Marks and Spencer’s decision to appoint joint CEOs, but have the woman report in to the man. M&S named food boss Stuart Machin as CEO and clothing head Katie Bickerstaffe as co-CEO. Both were the company’s joint chief operating officers (COO) before their promotion. But here is the kicker - That title of Co-CEO for Katie makes no sense. Stuart is the de facto CEO running the day-to-day business, and Katie will report to him. So why even bother with the Co-CEO title - it ends up sounding like a platitude, or a terribly thought out women’s leadership PR move. As sources told the newspaper The Telegraph:
“It’s all very strange, he’s chief executive, and she’s co-chief executive. He’s running the business. How can you be co-chief executive then?”.
“The City likes one person to blame and one person to report. That’s the CEO and the CFO. Very, very odd.”
Women on the move
Tanja Vainio is the new Country Manager of Schneider Electric in Switzerland, responsible for the strategic and operational orientation of of the company including the Feller brand in the Swiss market. Most recently, Tanja was Managing Director, Business Line Automotive Tier 1, Robotics and Automation Business at ABB.
Susanne Pulverer is the first woman CEO of IKEA. The Swedish furniture retailer announced hder appointment as the boss of its Indian operations. She will take over as both CEO and also the company’s chief sustainability officer in the country.
Pearl Nkrumah is the newest addition to the nine-member Access Bank Ghana Board and its first female Executive Director to lead the bank’s Retail and Digital Operations.
In the U.K.
Louise Hardy joins Balfour Beatty’s board on April 1st as non executive director. Her previous roles include those at London Underground, Bechtel, Laing O’Rourke and as infrastructure director responsible for the portfolio of projects for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Corinne Grain has been appointed by Barclays as Managing Director in Senior Relationship Management (SRM), focusing on Continental Europe. Her emphasis will be on Barclays’ relationships with the largest insurance companies, asset managers and banks.
Kering’s board is seeing a bit of an overhaul.
Who’s out? Sophie L'Hélias. She’s stepping down to chair the board of Suez. She continues to lead LeaderXXchange, a purpose-driven advisory firm providing ESG strategic advisory services and her position on numerous other boards.
Who’s renewed? Daniela Riccardi, the CEO of Moleskine who has been a Director of Kering since 2014 and a member of the group’s Sustainability Committee.
Who’s new to the gang? Bringing her corporate governance experience to Kering is Véronique Weill, Chairwoman of CNP Assurances’ Board of Directors. Joining her is Yonca Dervisoglu, Vice President, Marketing at Google EMEA. She brings her wealth of expertise in new technologies, digital and marketing to the Kering boardroom.
My two cents on #IWD2022
I don’t know about you, but I found International Women’s Day #IWD2022 more depressing than most years. I’m not big fan of celebrating women for a day at most times. But even those who love the concept have to agree - the whole shebang of media coverage and brand campaigns seemed lacklustre to say the least this year.
It is purportedly a day to acknowledge the expertise in our midst and perspectives that are different from the norm in finance, corporates, ESG, journalism, policy, defence, science, tech agriculture and pretty much every aspect of our lives. But as with the cry for sticking by our ESG principles when working out which sanctions to comply with, and how to circumvent others - IWD2022 seemed full of hot air and checkboxing, with very little substance.
With war and the cost of living crisis on everyone’s minds, the prepped and rather vanilla lists of “women to celebrate” were dusted off and trotted out in various global media. There was of course the obligatory coverage of the women on the frontlines of the Ukraine invasion. And the acknowledgement from news bulletins that it was International Women’s Day. And that pretty much summed it up.
Wall to wall coverage of the U.S. and U.K banning oil imports from Russia, and its subsequent fallout dominated headlines across the world. But there didn’t seem to be much of an attempt at finding women experts to talk about, or explain the geopolitical ramifications of sanctions, the market’s panic and a potential economic crash. I guess these things have nothing to do with 51% of the world’s population?
Yes, sure IWD got a little traction on social media, squeezed in between sanctions, trolls and war mongering. And the usual questionable campaigns tried to elbow their way in with additional hashtags — like a Dutch shoe company sticking a bunch of men in high heels with the hashtag #RespectHighHeel. Give it to them - it was on point advertising, but tone deaf messaging. Last I checked, we’d relegated high heeled shoes as a symbol of power and success to the anals of history (though these shoes are quite pretty!)
Then there were the plethora of the usual banal webinars, where companies with no women in leadership, or not enough to be proud of like Huawei, trotted out their token rep to talk about IWD.
But before you think I’ve lost all hope, let me offer you a bright spot. There were those who want to go beyond talking the talk. In order to get on the path of walking the walk, companies like Keckst CNC Germany chose reflection. They invited me to kickstart a difficult internal conversation within their team about this year’s theme #breakthebias.
Instead of shouting from the rooftops about an IWD campaign worthy of a communications strategy firm, their aim was for the team to talk openly, identify problems, and ideate solutions which could then be actioned by the firm’s leadership team.
Considering this second influx of refugees into Germany who’ll need a home and jobs, I thought it showed foresight, that IWD in this case was being used as an opportunity to introspect. Introspection, I’ve always found is the biggest catalyst for real change.