In an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Post, Matthew Devlin, Uber’s head of international relations, told us how the company had been affected by the decision at the beginning of the war to stop operations in some Ukrainian cities, what are the prospects for Uber in the Ukrainian market, and the role that the famous historian Timothy Snyder and his stories about Ukraine played in Devlin’s life.
Please tell me how the war affected Uber in Ukraine.
Prior to the full-scale invasion, we were operating in nine cities in Ukraine but, since then, we’ve invested more and expanded our services, so we’re actually operating in 18 cities now. We’ve effectively doubled our presence in Ukraine in spite of the war. And that’s very intentional. We know that the need for essential transportation services has only increased. We’re trying to support more Ukrainians in more parts of the country. And where we operate in those cities, we intentionally operate at a loss.
We give customers a lower price because we know the economic situation is very challenging for people at the moment. We also pay a higher proportion of takings to our drivers because they’re suffering too. We absorb the difference as a company and consider it to be a valuable contribution, we hope.
At the beginning of the war, we focused on evacuations, providing free transportation for refugees heading to the borders, then helping displaced families inside of Ukraine as well as free trips for donors to give blood at hospitals who we would drive there and back. That was our immediate response in the first few weeks of the war. After that, we put in place some longer-term efforts, including a partnership with the Ministry of Health to transport doctors to hospitals.
We have another program with the Ministry of Education, to support teachers at special needs schools. We’ve provided free transportation for teams of Ministry of Culture conservationists to travel all around the country, especially to areas where there was heavy fighting or have been deoccupied.
Photo by press service
We have also tried to think very hard about how we could leverage the Uber global platform outside of Ukraine to help.
How much has your company lost?
We don’t keep a running total but we know how much we’ve spent. So for the Ministry of Health, for example, that’s currently around a million dollars on transportation for doctors. Altogether on the direct financial donations that we’ve made from Uber grants and user donations, it’s around $10 million. But we’re really not counting these as losses, that’s just not our focus right now.
Uber left Kyiv at the beginning of the war. Do you think that was the right decision?
It was an extremely difficult decision. When the full-scale invasion happened, we suspended operations because we wanted to make sure that our service could operate reliably and safely. So, we suspended at the beginning in order to make sure we could do that. We put in a whole range of new safety and security features that, frankly, were new for us. We’d never operated in an active war zone. We had no experience whatsoever at doing that. We really had to build that capability as quickly as possible. But as soon as we had addressed those things, we were able to relaunch and expand on the cities in which we worked.
Was leaving the Russian market the right thing to do?
Yes. We’d had a joint venture in Russia for several years, but when the full-scale invasion happened, we immediately announced that we were going to accelerate our divestment out of Russia. We immediately resigned all our executives from the board of the joint venture.
Now, as a lot of companies are saying, it’s quite hard to get out of Russia. You actually need Russian government approval for the process. So we pulled together an entire team of very experienced executives to work just on this issue, to complete the divestment as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, it did take us a year to get it done.
We fully and finally completed it on April 21st. What’s also notable is we did not ask for any buyback rights. Some companies, when they left Russia, kept an option to go back in three years. We did not do that; our exit is full and final. There’s been no debate about the decision, which we made immediately at the start of the full-scale invasion.
What can you say about the prospects for Uber in the Ukrainian market? Does it have a lot of possibilities or not?
Without a doubt.
It’s a hard question because, I’ll be honest, right now, when we think of Ukraine, we think about how we can help Ukraine. We don’t think about it as simply a commercial market where we can go to make money. We have a different mindset.
Photo by press service
I think more people are learning that Ukraine is an important economy, an important country, where more companies should invest. At the moment we’re very focused on the war relief effort. As long as there is a war, we will focus on supporting Ukraine through that war. But when the war ends, when Ukraine is victorious, we will be invested here for the long term. And our industry, specifically within the Ukrainian economy, is growing very, very quickly.
I know you love Timothy Snyder’s lectures. So what interesting facts do you know about Ukraine thanks to him?
Tim was my professor in college. 20 years ago Tim taught me everything about Ukraine.
I do love Timothy Snyder. But to tie it into what we do, so when the full-scale war happened, and obviously I was reading the military side of it, the humanitarian side of it, I was extremely focused on the attack on Ukrainian national identity, independent culture, independent country, and how that was being denied.
I think most people are surprised to hear that Uber, a tech company from San Francisco, is driving medieval historians from the Ministry of Culture around to gather icons and records. But for me, as soon as I heard that that was happening and as soon as we identified that we might be able to play a small part in helping protect that part of Ukraine, we had to do it. Because I had an amazing teacher when I was younger, his name is Tim Snyder.
Tell me about your cooperation with UNITED24.
We partnered with UNITED24 to make videos of Uber drivers here in Ukraine who had done heroic things.
There’s one guy, Pasha, who had evacuated hundreds of people literally under enemy fire. Another woman, Oksana, drove for 28 hours to evacuate a mother and some disabled children who were stranded and needed to get out. And so we filmed those videos and had them tell their own story which we shared in the Uber app all across Europe, the US and Canada. People could not just learn and be more aware about the war, but about the human stories of the war and the heroism of ordinary Ukrainians.
We gave those who saw the videos the option to donate if they wanted to. It was all in-app and they could donate. And we raised $3.5 million, which would provide more than 50 ambulances for the frontline regions.
We’ll continue to work with UNITED24. Right now, we have a mechanism in Europe so that when you open the Uber app, you’ll not only see UberX or Uber Black, but also ‘Uber for Ukraine’. If the user selects that it adds a euro, or a pound in England, onto the fare which is sent to UNITED24. Every day it allows people to choose to support Ukraine, when they go to work or drop off their kids at school in Germany, Poland, France, Spain, wherever. We think it’s a really great way for people all across Europe to stay involved and to demonstrate solidarity during their regular life. I’m very excited about that.