From ambulance driver to investor: U-M student creates fund to seed Ukrainian entrepreneurs
Driving an ambulance in war-torn Ukraine is a risky business. But for an American college student pursuing a dual degree in business and public policy, it was a risk worth taking.
For one unforgettable month this summer, Samuel Ashley, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, joined business students from other universities to raise $100,000 to buy and deliver ambulances to the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih on Aug. 24, the nation’s Independence Day.
Ashley, who is seeking masters degrees from the U-M Ross School of Business and the Ford School of Public Policy, has since embraced a business risk, motivated by the “resiliency and general optimism” of the Ukrainian people. He is creating a venture fund to support Ukrainian startups.
“Driving ambulances to a warfront was impactful. And when I was driving across fields of beautiful sunflowers, I decided I am all in to support and advocate for Ukrainians in any way I can, which has led to my new venture fund,” Ashley said.
He will spend November and December in Poland and Ukraine, establishing relationships there before fundraising back in the U.S. Tech entrepreneurs and startups in the country lack access to capital, Ashley said, and despite current conditions, many seek to build companies and innovate.
In a Q&A, Ashley describes his plans for the future:
What will you be doing in Ukraine and Poland for the next two months?
The Ukrainian business culture is much more personal than here in the US. I will meet many startup founders who still live in Ukraine or have fled to Poland. My two goals are to build long-lasting relationships with the startup ecosystem and identify a local expert I can take on as a co-founder of my venture fund.
Earlier this month, I was at a TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco and met a broad range of Ukrainians, from entrepreneurs and other (venture capitalists) to government officials. Some of them live in Kyiv and we will meet again in-country. I am also connecting with several startups in Ukraine.
I will spend most of my time in Kyiv and travel to Lviv at times, both of which are safer cities. Also, as an American citizen, I can always exit the country anytime.
What is the reality of Ukraine’s tech entrepreneurs and startups right now?
These founders and entrepreneurs are outstandingly bright and ambitious. From my limited purview, they are even more motivated since the war started on Feb. 24 to show the world that they are not only surviving but also thriving despite the Russian invasion. Their resiliency has been demonstrated time and time again, but what has surprised me is how optimistic every Ukrainian is about winning the war, pushing out the temporary military occupants and rebuilding their country.
How can the young Ukrainian generation—living abroad—partner with locals to support the country?
I have found that many of the global Ukrainian diasporas are already contributing to their cause. They are supporting and advocating for Ukraine. While donating to nonprofits and other NGOs is still needed, I’ve seen most young Ukrainians have contacts within these organizations and will partner with them to fundraise more significant amounts from their communities.
I recommend that Ukrainians first use their friends and family to connect with Ukrainian organizations. Those who may not have those contacts should ask their professors, schools or employers what they are doing and how they can become involved. Anything and everything matters.
What is the influence of your MBA program on this new venture fund? And what is the goal?
My Ross education and experience have directly contributed to my understanding of different business problems. I now plan to use that knowledge to invest in Ukraine. In addition, the program guided me to found my own startup and now I am building a new venture fund.
After returning to the U.S., from January to March, I will fundraise with investors into my fund as limited partners. My goal is somewhere between $2 million and $3 million for my first-round fund. At this point, I will likely take on a third U.S. co-founder with deep expertise and network in the banking/finance/VC world. I aim to deploy capital in May and use raised funds to invest in target startups and founders.
How was your experience working with other college students to drive ambulances to the southeastern war front in Kriviy Rih?
In a word: Impactful. I have enormous respect for every person on the team and their contribution. Their courage and get-it-done attitude still motivate me today. If I had not met Andrei (Molchynsky, Stanford MBA), I might not have found my new love for Ukraine and its incredible people. Hard to find the right words for a month of my life that I will never forget.