Interview with Lyubov Shipovich, Dignitas Fund: on charity, one million drones, and miltech

Victory Drones, Furious Birds, Flight to Recovery, 1000 Drones, and dozens of other projects are initiatives of the Dignitas Fund, the history of which began in 2013. Its Co-Founder, Lyubov Shipovich, built an IT career in the USA and led a company with offices in three countries. But in 2022, she returned to Ukraine to look at the situation from the inside and focus on charity activities. Lyuba is still in Ukraine.

She separated from RAZOM because she wanted to be effective in miltech besides the existing humanitarian projects. Lyuba has a vision of which problems need to be solved and how. She also worked on document flow digitalization at the Odesa Regional State Administration. In an interview for AIN.Capital, Lyuba Shipovich shared her ideas.

“Ukraine seemed not to have a future.” Moving to the USA in the 2000s

In 2008, you moved to the US. Why did you decide to emigrate? Why to America? You already worked for a Canadian company in the third year of your study at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

I worked for the Ukrainian branch of Tangram, and it helped me get a job in the US because a recommendation letter from Canada was almost the same as an American one.

In 2008, all patriotic movements that boomed after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which I passionately attended during my student time, stagnated. A dark era seemed to return when Yanukovych became prime minister, looking towards Russia again. It was my period of youth maximalism when we believed all our successes and ideals after the Orange Revolution’s victory had been betrayed and canceled, and I just wanted to run away from it as far as possible. Ukraine seemed not to have a future.

And I started to look for opportunities abroad. At the time, many Mohyla Academy IT faculty graduates moved to New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, which were my three best options. I filled in applications for IT specialists in these countries and got an email that I won a Green Card on the day I protected my diploma work. It was how I chose the country to emigrate.

Lyuba Shipovich. Photo credit: Facebook

What were your career steps in the USA?

I moved to New York City, where my relatives lived. I didn’t communicate with them much before leaving Ukraine. Then, they were unknown to me since I had met them only as a small child. However, it was my starting point.

During the discussion on my perspectives, my relatives said, “Forget all you learned in Ukraine. Everything goes differently here. A friend of mine, a brother of my mother-in-law, worked in a good company. We will ask him to help you. It is so difficult here to find a job!”

I listened to them carefully and decided to research the US labor market myself. I read articles on famous job portals like Dice or Job Monsters. There, I learned that the average response rate is about 7%. I decided to send 100 CVs a day to get seven calls for a job interview. Every morning, I woke up and applied for 100 different IT vacancies.

But it appeared I was wrong about statistics. Seven percent was the average response rate for the whole labor market. In the IT industry, this indicator was much higher. About 50% of my emails got responses. After a week, I had to change my phone number due to an impossible amount of calls and interview invitations.

I left two job offers, negotiated a bit, and got my first IT job after only two weeks in the US.

This small startup, EZ Texting, grew into a large company with offices in three countries and many employees. I grew with the company up to the CTO level. I spent there over seven years.

I persuaded my boss to expand beyond the United States and open an office in Kyiv. We did it in 2012. And the office still works here, although my boss sold the company, and I left it many years ago.

What was your job at EZ Texting?

It is a mass texting platform. It was a popular service in the US during Obama’s campaign, which widely used texting before his first presidency to access the voters. Thanks to that, emergency push messages evolved. There was also communication between school teachers and student parents and business newsletters.

The platform provided mass sending and receiving text messages. It was a two-way communication, for example, for TV shows that ask you to text a keyword.

After you moved to the US, your relatives said you should forget everything you learned in Ukraine. What was the difference between Ukraine and the USA?

There is a stereotype among immigrants that you should start from scratch, from the bottom. You must forget the education and experience you had in Ukraine. In reality, it is a myth. Maybe it was so when Ukrainians migrated to the USA in the 19th century and worked in mines in Pennsylvania.

But it is long not so, I believe. Ukraine gives people a good education, especially in trans-border professions, such as computer sciences, finances, pedagogics, and medicine—all multinational subjects. And Ukrainians have always been well integrated into English-speaking society. They read scientific papers. They participate in international congresses. So it’s a cliche that you must work hard at the worst job after moving to a new country. It’s long not true.

“I didn’t know how to translate хабар.” Opening an office in Kyiv

Were you not afraid to open the office in 2012? Yanukovych was the president of Ukraine, and there were obvious economic and political risks: a non-transparent government, corruption, monopolies, etc.

I have lived pretty long in the United States at that time. If you live far away, you can forget what things are in reality and start wearing pink glasses. You only return during a vacation for a few days, and it all looks pretty. The restaurants are working. Your friends are smiling. All this influenced my point of view.

So, we needed an office to represent us in Ukraine. I contacted several real estate companies to find a proper one and suddenly got lost in translation because I didn’t know how to translate хабар [bribe in English—edit.].” I didn’t know how to explain to my boss that if we like an office, we must give a bribe to its owners to get this office. Later, I managed to find a proper translation. But back in 2012, I was shocked and forgot such things could exist.

One day, I even thought the idea to open the office here wouldn’t work. Those days, real estate agents looked like big guys with barsetkas [specific handbags—edit.] who showed us real estate in Kyiv.

But fortunately, it went well thanks to our great partner, Alex Lutskiy, Founder & CEO at Innovecs, whom we met through our friends. In a hotel lobby, Alex presented his drawing portfolio. He told us about Innovecs, a company that has yet to be established. Now, it’s large and famous in Ukraine. But then, it was only drawings. The founder of our company, Shane Neman, asked me, “Do you believe they can do it? That these drawings wouldn’t be it?” I answered, “Let’s try first, and we’ll see.”

Four weeks later, we visited their new construction object near the Taras Shevchenko underground station. It had bold walls and unfinished renovation. Shane asked me again then, “Are you sure there will be something here? An office?” We believed in them and became their first customer. They built an isolated office for us from scratch and helped hire people. That’s when the outstaffing concept arose. It’s when a hired person carries out all the job duties for a company (client) being officially employed by another company (outsourcing agency).

I remember other customers coming to our office and telling us about the results of that kind of partnership, where we played a role model.

What was your boss’s reaction to the bribe situation?

None. I didn’t inform him. I just told him the owners didn’t want to lend the facility to us. I was ashamed and decided not to share this and avoid Shane’s disappointment in Ukraine.

Returning home and the beginning of the war

How did your career continue in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, it didn’t. We created an office; I returned to the United States and built my career there. Later, we sold EZ Texting to Callfire, a larger business that kept the Ukrainian office.

At the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity, I was in the United States. My friends and I registered a non-profit organization, RAZOM, and started helping Ukraine with funding, providing agency, and protecting Ukrainian interests in the US.

And suddenly, a war began in Ukraine. At the same time, I continued working as CTO at EZ Texting. I had two full-time jobs—I helped my native country and led the technological development of my company. With this adrenaline, I could work so until the summer of 2015.

Then, the company was sold, and I received my part, which was enough to live a year without a job. So, I quit the company and went to Odesa to work in Mikheil Saakashvili’s team on things I knew well—digitalization.

It became the first region of Ukraine to provide digital document management and digital services at a state administration. There was no Diia at the time. Dmytro Dubilet and I worked on iGov, a government services portal, and launched the first digital services in the Odesa region. We also implemented more projects like Affordable Meds, where patients could check budget reports online.

I have been to Odesa until 2017. Then, I came back to America since I had no more savings. I changed two jobs because I believed I could work for somebody as an employee. But it appeared I didn’t. That’s why I founded my own US-based fintech company, Data Ocean, in 2020 with an office in Ukraine that became profitable within a year, which was very fast and successful. I couldn’t believe it was so easy to achieve.

We had great development plans. However, on February 24, 2022, all our key specialists in Ukraine went to the military commissariats. Almost all of them continue to serve and destroy the invaders. So, we paused the business in 2022. It was absolutely natural.

Two months before the full-scale Russian invasion, we planned our actions in the case of a big war. And on February 24, there was no panic. Everybody followed instructions: where to deliver papers, equipment, etc.

I am sure, as a business, we were well prepared for this scenario. I remember my friends from other businesses laughing at me on Facebook when I asked them how they would prepare for the invasion.

Did you not plan to replace your employees who went to serve?

Our business is pretty special—it’s the registers for bank compliance monitoring [checking if actions of a company and its employees are legit—edit.]. It is about sensitive data. On February 24, we shut down all servers at once because personal data was one of the enemy’s primary targets. And now, while having a physical war on battlefields, we also have a cyber war that caused data protection costs to increase. So, our business became unprofitable in front of multiple cyberattacks.

Thus, the registers operate in the private mode. We grant access to the Ukrainian special services and the Anti-Corruption Action Center. There are no public packages anymore.

They could return in the future, but after Russia has been destroyed. Today, the business can’t be my No.1 priority. It is the support of the Defense and Security Forces of Ukraine for me and many Ukrainians.

What benefits do the special services get by accessing your databases?

We provide access to our compliance registers, mainly regarding politically exposed persons, their connections, associated legal entities, etc. It is pretty helpful for different investigations. DataOcean is not just a name; it possesses vast datasets.

Dignitas Fund

Let’s discuss your charity activities and Dignitas Fund. When, how, and why did you create this foundation?

At the end of 2013, several Ukrainians in New York and I created Razom, a fund that helped Ukrainian citizens during Euromaidan and supported veterans later. In 2022, Razom could raise over $65 million, $48 million of which became military aid, mainly tactical medicine equipment and UAVs. In 2022, I came to Ukraine from the US because I believed I had to be here to provide qualitative aid.

At the end of the year, we discussed our priorities for 2023. The board members in the US and I had some differences in the vision of the future. They stayed in the position to cut military support and focus on humanitarian aid. I didn’t understand it. How can we support humanitarian actions when people die every day, and the war goes on?

We must support the military to avoid the endless needs of suffering civilians. The enemy must be stopped so that we don’t have to buy more prostheses and care for more orphans.

I didn’t want to protest and persuade them of the importance of my point of view. Therefore, our military and veteran project teams decided not to argue. We separated into a new fund where there would be no doubt about which projects to support. Because it is a foundation that provides special technology aid to the Security and Defense Forces, that’s how Dignitas arose.

It wasn’t a new beginning since we had running projects with active teams. For example, we got the Victory Drones project that was created in 2022 and the Flight to Recovery project aiming at rehabilitation of heavy-wounded soldiers. We continued delivering drones to the army. By doing so, we didn’t interrupt working and focused on tech support and training of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, National Guard, Border Service, and other military units.

Are you still participating in RAZOM activities?

No, I quit. I am its co-founder because this title can’t just disappear. But I left the board and totally focused on Dignitas.

Which Dignitas’s projects can you name based on the most effort made?

  • Victory Drones is probably the largest and the most famous project in Ukraine. Mariia Berlinska leads it within our fund. First and foremost, Victory Drones provides training to our soldiers on how to apply technologies in the war. Over 50,000 combatants have finished practical training on training grounds within this project.
  • The Development of the Ukrainian Miltech Community is an association between military tech robotic systems and producers of AI technologies.
  • Furious Birds provides military units with combat drones manufactured in Ukraine.

All our projects are connected. At Victory Drones, we develop a manufacturer community, and at Furious Birds, we purchase UAVs from Ukrainian manufacturers to support their growth.

Providing the military with drones from the Dignitas Foundation. Photo credit: Facebook
  • 1000 Drones for Ukraine supplies surveillance drones to military scouts.

We split combat and surveillance drone initiatives since we may not raise funds for the last ones in the USA. So, Furious Birds doesn’t work in America, but 1000 Drones does. We have one legal entity in the US and one in Ukraine to balance and decide what and where we can do.

  • The Flight to Recovery project trains boys and girls to assemble, repair, and pilot UAVs during rehabilitation. We establish training rooms at rehabilitation centers where trainers can do their lessons. Watching a veteran who lost three of his four extremities operate a drone is exciting. It is a masterpiece and extra motivation for veterans in rehabilitation. It also motivates our trainers and military students when one can say, “Look, your comrades can fly even without hands. What is your reason to say no?” It is one of my favorite projects.
  • Protecting the Beauty of Ukraine is a joint project with EVA. Its goal is to teach 100 female soldiers aerial reconnaissance and provide them with equipment. Now, the half of the project is behind.
  • The Mobile Shower Laundry Unit is a project that looks different from the others. However, its name corresponds with the name of our fund. Dignitas means dignity in Latin. And the hygiene of soldiers is about human dignity and accessibility under any condition.

Currently, we put our Veteranius project on hold. It aims to teach soldiers civil IT. It is about helping Ukrainian veterans reintegrate into civil life. At the moment, there is no demand. But we are ready to resume it any time. Some of the mentors from this project educate soldiers on training grounds within the Victory Drones project. Otherwise, if the war slows down or there is a demobilization wave, we will start to adapt veterans to the civil IT industry because all our projects are dedicated to technology. We believe we can save lives, help equalize the battlefront situation if the aid volume is sufficient, and even win at some parts of the front. That’s why we invest in the development of miltech the most.

You have another initiative—UAV Engineer—teaching to craft and operate UAVs.

The UAV Engineer is a course on the Prometheus platform powered by Victory Drones. We have three online courses:

  • Technology Application during the war is a restricted course for combatants access to which is granted upon requests from their commanders.
  • UAV Engineer is a basic course for all.
  • People’s FPV is about handmade drones.

The two last courses have free access.

Why are there public and restricted courses?

The Technology Application during the War course has been developed for the military only. It has military officers as lecturers and special topics correspondingly. We verify its participants to restrict combatant access only to avoid leaks to the enemy. Part of the training materials have already been leaked and translated into Russian. However, we constantly update the materials and keep them closed so the enemy doesn’t feel we help them. It contains a lot of sensitive data regarding nuances of technology applications in Ukraine.

“A million drones is a real and too small number.”

Now, we have more and more drone operator schools. What mistakes do they make that can be avoided?

People must understand that civil and combat drone operations are two different skills. Civilian pilots don’t turn into good front operators automatically. So, civilian schools must have military teachers who serve and know how to work at the zero line. Or you can constantly be in touch with them because technologies change quickly. It means the things that worked two months ago don’t work today.

Our trainers do field training directly on-site, close to the front. The trainers also must not lose their practical skills.

The war is such a huge impulse for technological development that civilians must spend much more time catching up.

What is your opinion on the development of miltech in Ukraine?

It evolves amazingly fast. It is only a pity that the war caused this. Another pity is it happened with delay. If we had such technology evolution at the time of the full-scale invasion, we probably could strike Russia back beyond our borders relatively fast. But unfortunately, we didn’t have this technology two years ago.

It would be unfair to say that the state doesn’t pay attention to miltech development. There is a state-backed Brave1 agency, a Ministry of Defense accelerator, the Army of Drones project, mass drone purchases by state bodies, etc. But it all is still not enough for such an intense war.

We must buy more. The government should invest in technology development before purchasing ready solutions. Because in order to develop a business that can sell its products to the state, you must invest before. The business should be sure its products will be purchased.

The government officials say the government will buy over a million small drones this year. But first, someone must manufacture them. The manufacturers without signed contracts are not ready to scale up their production without guaranteed sales in the future.

One more time, only short-term contracts are signed today. The state should make at least middle-term or three-year contracts so that the businesses can plan their production expansion.

Unfortunately, R&D and initial production expansion stages are possible only thanks to private investments and charitable organizations. They are ready to buy even those drones that haven’t received a state certificate yet. Thanks to this, the manufacturers can survive and slowly develop. However, it would be much faster if the state concluded contracts with guarantees and invested in production development.

And, of course, there is a lack of standard ammunition for drones. Civilian companies manufacture drones and no ammunition. They provide vehicles and products that can transport something.

Nowadays, over 90% of soldiers craft explosive devices, which is connected with some difficulties by drone projecting. Because the manufacturer doesn’t know the weight, form, and size of a self-made explosive device and therefore cannot make an optimal vehicle for it, another problem is those explosives are not safe. They can either not explode or explode during a drone start. We have many operators wounded due to a lack of standard ammo. And this part can be resolved only at the scale of the government.

We visit the frontline quite often, bring aid to our soldiers, and speak to our military instructors. I even did a few tours for officials from the Ministry of Defense. I asked them to look at how the ammunition is produced on a bold clay floor in a simple house.

The foundation’s team often visits the front line, so Lyubov knows about the problems of the military. Photo credit: Facebook

And what did they answer?

It was not “old bulls.” They are young people who came into their offices to make changes, and they were shocked and tried to figure out how and why such things happen. And I know there are some improvements in the field of standard ammunition. The three ministers announced their development during the recent events we visited together. Still, there is no standard munition on sites.

Do you believe in the promised one million drones?

It is a real and too small number. According to our calculations, we need about 3.5 million FPV drones for this year.

What will be the costs?

Speaking of FPV drones, they cost about $500 apiece. It is not big money for the state. The government could invest in this to let manufacturers expand their production and sign long-term purchase contracts.

What do Ukrainian manufacturers do to be more independent from Western help?

In fact, we don’t depend on our Western partners in FPV drone production. The parts come mainly from China.

At the same time, Ukraine tends to localize production and evolves pretty quickly. Sure, we won’t be able to use only local components shortly. For example, there is no option to set up microchip production in Ukraine within a few months. It is years of mass investments. However, some components can be replaced soon: plastic and carbon parts or flight controllers are already made in Ukraine. The same works for engines, fans, and electronics.

Some big Western companies have even expressed their interest in our production facilities. They want either to create production here or sell such products to us. About a month ago, American media published hot news about the White Stork drones. The project seems to be associated with the ex-CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt. These FPVs are supposed to be used in Ukraine. So, the West understood how important unmanned aviation technology is for current wars and that tanks would soon be put on sale as non-liquid assets because a tank costs millions of dollars, and a drone costs only $500.

NATO members follow the experience of Ukraine, and I think they will refill their armories mainly with UAV technology in the coming years. Many European and American business representatives visit Ukraine to learn about our experience.

How did the attitude of average Americans to the war in Ukraine change?

I visited the United States in December 2023, and Ukraine seemed to almost disappear from their media. They discussed Venezuela, border problems, future elections, etc. And now, Ukraine has become a means in the political struggle between Republicans and Democrats. They debated whether to help Ukraine or protect the border with Mexico.

In general, Americans support us. But they forgot about us since there is no Ukraine in their news. Americans can even ask you, “Does the war still go on?” If people don’t see the war going 10,000 km away on their TV screens, it doesn’t exist anymore for them. So, we must do everything to keep their media interested.

Three CNN teams worked in Ukraine for the whole year 2022 and part of 2023. Recently, I chatted with the editor of the Ukrainian CNN office and asked for support. She answered that all their teams left Ukraine. So, CNN will not say anything about Ukraine.

Yes, not only tragedies can attract attention to the newspapers. However, we must remember them about the war. Maybe we should also learn from the enemy. Look at their propaganda-spreading channel Sputnik. Russia continues to invest in it and puts some entertainment content there to keep its audience interested.

What do you think about Russia’s technological potential?

It is huge. If we were better in unmanned aviation a year ago, now they have caught up with us and sometimes are even better than us.

It is vital not to underestimate the enemy. Russians have very powerful engineering high schools, such as the Novosibirsk universities. In addition, the Russian Federation is an autocracy with vast financial resources and can scale up any technology relatively quickly. We all know of their Lancet and Orlan drones. Can we do the same? We did it a long time ago. But we cannot scale up production.

Another crucial thing is who will be faster to develop a cheap optical target acquisition technology. Today, drones are still man-operated and must also avoid enemy electronic warfare.

An optical target acquisition system can help solve this problem. This means that if an operator loses connection with a drone but has already captured a target, the drone will fly and hit it automatically. And it will be a game changer at the frontline. Both Ukrainian and Russian experts work on it. The ones who do it faster will get a great advantage on the battlefield.

The second point is swarm technology. Today, we have one operator for each drone. If an operator can operate 50 to 100 drones at once, it will be another game changer. Several Ukrainian manufacturers already have some prototypes that are to be proven in the field.

Lyuba Shipovich

“The Ukrainian Paper Army”

Let’s remember your experience at the Odesa Regional State Administration. You worked on introducing digital document management. I know the issues of bureaucracy in the army are pretty sharp. Many officers are tired of complaining and making jokes about the situation. They seem to be desperate. What do you think about changing this bureaucratic system now?

When I offered to switch to digital document management, I heard an answer with thousands of reasons why it is impossible. After working in the private sector in America, I never worked with the government.

I listened to all these “reasons” and grew tired of this. So I went to the Chief of the Administration, Mikheil Saakashvili, and released a resolution that there will be digital document management starting next month. Period. The officials with 20 years of experience ran and whined, but they had no choice. They had to follow orders. After you switch to paperless, it is an irreversible process. You cannot roll it back.

The current CDTO of the Ministry of Defense, Kateryna Chernohorenko, moves in the right direction. They already implemented digital documents for the Armed Forces and forbid duplicating them on paper. I think the next step should be a total ban on paper documents except for classified data.

The Ukrainian army changed a lot in the last two years. Maybe not as fast as we wish, but it is really two different armies—the one from 2022 and the one we have now. For this, we can thank many businessmen and IT specialists who joined the military.

The modern army has a strong human potential. The Armed Forces would never afford to hire such well-paid professionals. But now, they have them thanks to mobilization and their free will. And if you have many professional people somewhere, changes are inevitable. And the changes are happening already.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine use a lot of digital services. For instance, Kropyva existed from 2014 to 2015. It was a base for the DeltaVezha, and Ochi systems.

All these services became possible only thanks to a bright flow of qualified specialists in the AFU, routine digitalization, business process management, SAP introduction, etc. All the innovations are a big progress for the MoD. But it would be much better if we did it during a time of peace and prepared for the war.