Ukraine’s War Feels Close At A Whittier Bike Shop With Deep Ties To Kyiv
In a small storefront in Whittier, a worker puts the finishing touches on an electric bike. On the floor wheels, batteries and other parts sit in neat rows. Large boxes hold fully assembled bikes, ready to ship.
This workshop is the U.S. headquarters of Delfast, Inc. which got its start in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv about seven years ago. Last year, CEO and co-founder Daniel Tonkopi moved to Los Angeles and set up shop.
The e-bikes are designed in Ukraine, and the parts are made in several countries, including Korea, China, and the U.S. They arrive partially assembled and are fine-tuned here.
But home for most of the staff is Ukraine. “In Ukraine, we have about 40 people,” Tonkopi said. “And some of them are living under attack.”
They’re not alone. U.S. companies ranging from small startups to multinationals have staff in Ukraine, which is known as a hub for tech talent. Some of these businesses are Ukrainian-owned, like Delfast.
In the weeks since the Russian invasion began, the small e-bike company has been trying to keep business going while trying to adapt to ever-changing and increasingly dangerous circumstances in Ukraine.
‘Sleeping On Cardboard’ In The Basement
When Russia attacked in late February, “the first reaction was shock, absolute shock,” Tonkopi said. “We couldn't believe it. The first days were the most tough days and we didn't know what was going on.”
Then “after about a week, we tried to come back to our as-normal work as we can,” he said.
But “normal” these days is relative. Since the invasion started, about half the company’s Ukraine employees — which includes research and development, IT and support staff — have left the country.
Some have moved from Ukraine’s embattled east to the relatively calmer west. Others have stayed put, either by choice or because it’s too dangerous to try to leave.
Delfast’s social media and content manager is “living in the basement of her house” in the battered eastern city of Kharkiv, Tonkopi said.
“She's sleeping on cardboard, because she cannot sleep in her house because of bombs, because of air attacks by Putin's army,” he said.
Somehow, Tonkopi said, this employee has managed to keep working, as others have. But weekly Zoom staff meetings have become mostly about making sure people are okay.
“Every Monday we have a meeting for all our staff just to ask them, how are they? Just to hear their voice, to see their faces and just maybe to support [them] somehow,” he said.
Luckily, everyone who works for the company is still alive, Tonkopi said.
Life Under Russian Occupation
Delfast sales administrator Anastasiia Popova has been unable to flee because she lives in the southern city of Kherson, which is occupied by Russian troops.
One recent morning, Tonkopi called Popova from the Whittier shop to wish her a happy birthday.
Popova said she’d spent the day with her family and was happy to visit with her parents, whom she hadn’t seen since the invasion began. She said she’s grateful for the fact that the city is not presently under attack, like other cities — but she’s also scared for the future.
“I should be happy that our city is not in the situation like Mariupol, and I should be happy that my family is all okay,” Popova said. “And at the same time, you are afraid that it can happen any moment.”
Popova said her internet connection has been steady lately, so she logs on each afternoon to work, when it’s morning in the U.S.
“We are always trying to work, to do everything like before, but there are always little details that remind you that actually, it’s not a normal life,” she said.
A Bomb Shelter In The Bathroom
One example: the Russian tanks and military vehicles that are now all over town.
There continue to be explosions around town as Ukrainian troops push back against the Russians. Part of the new normal, as Popova works from home, is to be prepared for the worst.
“I've made a [bomb] shelter in my bathroom,” she said. “We put there all the carpets and pillows, and we took off the mirror above the sink, so that if there would be a big explosion, the mirror will not break and fall on our heads.”
She has also stretched tape across the windows and other mirrors — anything that could break in case of a bombing.
Under Attack, A Burst Of Creativity
While the small company’s U.S. workers are at least out of harm’s way, they worry for the safety of loved ones.
Tonkopi said that his girlfriend, who soon plans to join him in Southern California, was living in Kyiv when the invasion began. She’s taken temporary refuge in Portugal.
Hardware engineer Oleksii Vishnevskyi, who was working on a bike frame in the workshop as Tonkopi spoke, arrived in Southern California only about a month before the war broke out; his family was still in Ukraine. He said his wife and daughter have since made it safely to Poland, but his parents are still in Kyiv.
He worries about his family “the whole time, day and night,” Vishnevskyi said.
Tonkopi said he’s been trying his best to connect colleagues back home with any information or humanitarian organizations that can be of help.
In spite of everything, he said, the staff in Ukraine keeps going. In fact, in the weeks since the war started, the engineers there developed a new e-bike model – a process Tonkopi said typically takes a year.
“Like that was insane, incredible,” he said. “They put all their energy into a new product.”
Tonkopi thinks this creativity was born out of a need to focus on something positive, “because we cannot just live in the basement and be afraid,” he said. “We want to do something.”
The company hopes to launch the new e-bike in a couple of months — and donate part of the proceeds to relief efforts.
This story has been updated.