Alex Iskold is “one of the luckiest people you’ve ever met,” he says. He’s the cofounder and managing partner of a venture firm, 2048 Ventures. He previously spent five years with Techstars as the managing director of its New York City program, where he invested in and helped more than 100 startups. He has also cultivated a vast network of contacts over the years, contacts that he is putting to use for the second time in two years.
The first time, Iskold and fellow VC Minda Brusse called on these friends and acquaintances to organize and donate directly to families in need of financial assistance during the onset of the pandemic, forming a kind of human blockchain, as the New York Times described it, before the machinery of federal assistance began to work. Ultimately, says Iskold, the group was able to disperse $3 million to roughly 1,000 families.
While he never expected to be at it again, Iskold is now putting the band back together and reviving that earlier operation, dubbed the 1K project, to provide much-needed help to Ukrainian refugees who’ve fled the country, as well as families that remain trapped inside, are suddenly jobless and, in a growing number of cases, no longer have a place to call home.
Like many onlookers around the globe, Iskold is horrified by an invasion that, one month ago was still hard to imagine yet has already displaced more than 2 million people and caused more than $100 billion in damage.
But it’s also personal. Iskold is Ukrainian. He spent the first 19 years of his life in the country, and he still has many cousins and friends and acquaintances there. (He says a third cousin and her family escaped almost immediately, while desperate others have stayed because they have sons and husbands who are between the ages of 18 and 60 and thus forbidden from leaving the country.)
Unsurprisingly, Iskold’s network has been quick to heed to the call to help. Since tweeting out the news 11 days ago that he was resuscitating the 1K project to funnel money to Ukrainians last week, a network of 30 volunteers, from developers to data analysts, has sprung into action to spread the word and ease the path to helping sponsor and recipients (who they are helping to vet) reach each other.
As Iskold explains it, “The most powerful thing we’ve built is a distributed network [that quickly enables] sponsors and families to apply. Interested parties can find the forms on our site. There is a lightweight vetting process for sponsors and more strict vetting process for recipients, with a prioritization on families. But once the sponsor and the family are approved, they get matched, and the sponsor is texted or emailed directions on how to fund the family through [the only money transfer service] Wise.com.”
The donations, made in $1,000 increments, are not tax deductible, but for those who want to donate larger amounts and to receive a tax credit for them, Iskold says the group is using an outfit called OpenCollective.com as its “fiscal sponsor.” (Say you wanted to sponsor five or more families, Iskold and company would send you instructions on how to donate to OpenCollective; it would then dispatch the money to the families through that vehicle.)
It could more donors. The pop-up organization — which Iskold describes as “razor focused on helping families who have three plus children,” including women who are either in the war zone or who are now displaced within or outside of Ukraine with their children — right now has more demand than it can meet. “We have a ranking algorithm and as of right now, and we’re shortly going to fund 1,200 families,” he says. “But we have 12,000 applicants already and we can’t fund everybody; we just don’t have enough.”
As for how the money is being deployed, there are “so many use cases,” says Iskold, who credits the Ukranian banking system for continuing to function in the face of complete chaos. Some families have used the funds to move to safer parts of the country; others who are already outside of Ukraine and using it as a stopgap measure to feed their children. In all cases, the families are in highly distressed situations.
Says Iskold: “We’ve heard from a bunch of families where they send us these completely crazy pictures where they’re sitting on their couch one day and the next day, the bombs completely blew away their homes and they have nowhere to live and they need to figure out how to get out of that place with [not much more] than a T-shirt.”
The stories are anguishing for him. “I’m getting thank-you messages and constantly crying,” he says. Worse, he knows there’s only so much that his sprawling and eager network can do. “There is just a ton of problems that we’re hearing about that we’re not able to help with, like ammunition for the army or medical supplies.”
He also worries daily about his contacts in the country, particularly when they become hard to track. “You know how you see green dot [on your smartphone] and then sometimes you don’t?”
In the meantime, he’s doing what he can — and making a dent. Iskold says that already, since spinning up the 1K project anew, people have donated $1 million to more than 800 families, help that is “exceptionally helpful for refugees” who’ve left everything behind in flash and who look to be joined by potentially millions of others.
“If families are displaced within Ukraine and lucky enough to get into refugee centers,” says Iskold, “a lot of stuff is taken care for them. If they’re not in a refugee centers, they need food, they need help.”