Warning: Please note, this podcast includes references to topics including violence and sexual abuse that some people may find disturbing.
Today, we chat with Dima Okhrimchuk, CEO and Co-Founder at Organization.GG, a marketplace for online experiences in the gaming multiverse.
Dima was born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine. He had the opportunity to become an exchange student in the US and this experience made a huge impact on his personal development. He dreamt of getting an education abroad and after visiting Stanford and UC Berkeley on a business trip to Silicon Valley, he knew he should be there, where all the innovations are coming from. So, in 2015, he started his MBA at Haas, at a time when there was an ongoing war in Ukraine. Everyone is talking and saying that the worst started on the 24th of February this year, but it actually started much earlier than that, back in 2014. This was the year when Russia started its invasion of Ukraine.
In this episode, Dima shares with us what it was like to be studying abroad at a time when his home country was almost at a war, why he went back home after graduation rather than staying in the US, and his experiences founding his tech business before and after the conflict.
Dima also let us in on the current situation in Ukraine, the recent developments, how people are united to help Ukraine win, and what we can do to support the people of Ukraine.
On returning back home after getting his MBA
“For me, that was never a question of whether to stay or to come back to Ukraine. That was my goal from day one. I wanted to build out the network, get the knowledge from UC Berkeley, meet a lot of talented people, but upon graduation, I always wanted to come back to Ukraine and start using and sharing that knowledge with Ukrainians because Ukraine is a young country with a lot of perspectives and a lot of opportunities.”
Global awareness and spreading the word about the situation in Ukraine
“In the first couple of weeks, the whole world was buzzing about it but as time goes by… And I understand people have their own lives and they forget about what is happening in a country that could be thousands of miles away. But the war in Ukraine is not over yet. It’s far from being over with that planned aggression of Eastern parts. Putin is not going to stop. His main goal is to demolish Ukraine as a nation. We need to fight back and we need to win. And for that, we need to have awareness around the globe. So, continue talking about this and continue watching the news, especially the independent news. Spread the word about what’s happening.”
- Dima Okhrimchuk on LinkedIn
- Dima Okhrimchuk on Facebook
- Dima Okhrimchuk on Instagram
- Organization GG
- Organization.GG Charity Marathon
- Universal link with various ways to support Ukraine
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Dima Okhrimchuk, CEO and Co-Founder at Organization.GG. Dima is a Haas MBA alum and an experienced leader, leading Organization.GG’s mission to be a marketplace for livestream experiences in the gaming multiverse. Dima’s background includes working in investment banking and as a business executive in Kyiv, and was recently featured in Poets & Quants about his views and experience on the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Dima, welcome, and great to have you on the show.
[00:34] Dima: Hi, Chris. Thank you for having me.
[00:36] Chris: Dima, it’s awesome to have you today on the podcast. We’ll talk a bit about your background. But I know you’re super passionate about just sharing what’s going on in Ukraine today and the experience that people are having, so we’ll definitely focus bunch of our conversation today on that. But just to start kick it off, could you share a bit about your background from—people can probably see is you studied in the Ukraine and then came to Haas for an MBA, but can you explain what was it like growing up as a young kid? And how did you end up coming to Berkeley Haas all the way across the world get your MBA?
[01:10] Dima: Yes, Chris. So, as you said, I was born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine. At the time I was born, it was actually USSR. It was 1988. But it was the privilege of time, so I don’t remember a lot about those times. But what I do remember growing up as a kid is that Ukraine was a young country with a lot of opportunities on one hand but zero structure. The more force and power you had, the more you could earn. And then that’s actually how things evolved in Russia as well. This is where you can see those oligarchs are coming from. So, people who were the most aggressive and the most ambitious, they were able to get more in their lives during those times in the ’90s.
Growing up, my dream has always been to become a pilot when I was younger, a commercial pilot. Probably, that led me into reading a lot of books about other countries. And I was always passionate about traveling. And I think my parents had this opportunity, actually, to have this exchange program where I spent the summer in the US when I was eight years old. So, it was just myself flying all over from Kyiv to New York, then stopped somewhere in Iceland. I think it was Reykjavik. It was an amazing trip because I could barely speak English and I clearly remember how I was crossing the customs in JFK, because I see this guy asking me, and I remember his words, “Are you traveling alone?” And I couldn’t answer anything because I didn’t understand what he was asking. So, he said, “Just wait here.” And then he asked someone to translate what he was asking. And then I said, “Yeah, I’m alone.” Then someone came up and they took me to this host family where I spent those three months.
That was my first interaction with the US. And I think it made a huge mark on my further development and ambitions. And after graduating from Shevchenko University in Kyiv where I did international business, I had this wish and dream to get education abroad. And since I already had some experience and friends in the US, I thought US should be the country.
And one of the jobs that I was doing was venture capital fund. I was working there. And we had a business trip to the Silicon Valley. And we visited both the Stanford University and UC Berkeley. And I thought, “This is it. I have to be near where all the innovations are coming from.” But UC Berkeley, this is where I had to fit cultural-wise foremost. So, in 2015, I started my MBA at UC Berkeley. It was an amazing experience because my dream essentially came true.
In a way, it was a bubble, a good bubble, with amazing people from 50 countries with their backgrounds, with their own experiences. That time was an interesting time because, in 2014, Russia started their invasion into Ukraine. They started off by annexing Crimea and taking our eastern parts away, including parts of Ukraine. And when I came to UC Berkeley, I remember all of my classes asking, “What do you think about what’s going on? How’s your family?” It was the first time we encountered war. So, when everyone is talking and saying that the war started on the 24th of February, it actually started much earlier than that, back in 2014. And that was the sort of evident aggression of Russia towards Ukraine. But their plan of invading, I think it has been there for decades, if not longer.
[04:45] Chris: Could you talk a little bit about that Dima? One of the things that people experience often in the MBA program is some kind of life-changing experience. But for you, specifically, there was essentially almost a war in Ukraine at that time. And then you were coming to the MBA program right after that, or even during that. What was that experience like for you? And what was going through your mind as you’re sitting in class but also your family and friends back home may be going through that experience as well?
[05:11] Dima: That’s a good question because I think I was worried, like a lot of Ukrainians. But at that time, it wasn’t as bloody and scary as the war is happening right now. Because, in 2014, there were a lot of people killed and there was a lot of blood, too, but it was segregated to specific regions which were, at that time, perhaps, some of the people that lived there, there were sort of pro-Russians. And it wasn’t as black-and-white as it is today. And there wasn’t the massacre that is taking place right now. I think it wasn’t the case back then. We didn’t have as much information as we do today with those public groups, telegrams, livestreams, etc. So, at the time, it felt bad. It felt terrible. But it was happening on the eastern parts of Ukraine, which didn’t influence 95% of the country, or 90% of the country. It was more like a territorial conflict, which is not the case now, unfortunately.
Chris: It’s good context. Could you, maybe, explain, one of the things in your experience and your background that’s unique is you finished up at Haas, and rather than staying in the Bay Area or the bubble, the bay, you actually returned back home. Could you explain why you did that and what was the reasoning for that? And then, also, what was the experience like having that experience and then being able to bring that back to the country where you grew up?
[06:36] Dima: That was my goal from day one. I wanted to build out the network, get the knowledge from UC Berkeley, meet a lot of talented people. But upon graduation, I always wanted to come back to Ukraine and start using that knowledge and sharing that knowledge with Ukrainians, because Ukraine is a young country with a lot of perspective and with a lot of opportunities in that country. For me, that was never a question of whether to stay or to come back to Ukraine. And having that experience allowed me to get an amazing job in Ukraine when I came back, to be able to share the knowledge with other people that are willing to get education abroad, specifically, in the US in UC Berkeley. And to share the vibes and to share the goodness of being able to get education abroad and then coming back and having all these opportunities as a UC Berkeley grad was amazing. So, I wanted to spread the word about it and to motivate other Ukrainians to go abroad, live there for a while, and then, perhaps, come back. But it’s their decision at the end of the day, but the opportunities immense in Ukraine, so there is no reason of not willing to come back.
And while I was studying in UC Berkeley, Ukraine made such a big progress. Even it was already in war with Russia, not in the most active phase, but so many new small businesses opened up, a lot of new restaurants, bars. Like Ryanair, one of the low-costers entered the Ukrainian market. It’s opened up a lot of European countries, so people could pay €20, €40, and travel to Madrid, London, Paris, and then bring the buzz back to Ukraine. And this is what was happening.
And I don’t know if you could ask foreign visitors who were in Kyiv in the last year or two. I’m sure you would have heard amazing feedback and people would be coming back after their first visit. And that would be happening in a lot of areas. Startups, venture capital, restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, everything was booming.
And maybe, because of the freedom and pro-Western values that we were able to bring to Ukraine, and perhaps, Russia, by looking at what was happening in Ukraine, by seeing all those big developments and huge leapfrogs towards pro-Western values, perhaps, this was always super irritating for the autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. And for him, that was a bad example for the Russian people because they could see what was happening in the neighboring country, and they could motivate them to change the existing political structure in Russia. So, perhaps, that has always been the reason for him to make the aggression towards Ukraine.
[09:21] Chris: Dima, as an example, you came back to Ukraine and became really quickly a tech executive and then became a founder and CEO of your own companies. Can you explain what that business was like and what running a business was like in Ukraine before the conflict? And then, also, could you talk a bit about what that experience was like when the conflict started, and how the lives of folks on the ground change pretty rapidly in that course of time?
[09:48] Dima: Yeah. So, when we’re going to talk about conflict, I’m going to be referring to the conflict or the aggression that took place on the 24th of February this year, because the war has been there for the last eight years but this war has evolved dramatically, starting from the 24th of February. So, doing business in Ukraine was never simple. And it’s, unfortunately, the true fact that we have to face. But starting and doing business has been much easier in the last two or three years. There has been a lot of changes to law, and just the perception of entrepreneur has changed a lot in the community. And before, everyone was looking for jobs within state or banks or some larger companies, but in the last four to five years, this has changed dramatically. Now, everyone turned out to be their entrepreneurs, starting being a freelancer, traveling, starting their own shop, or creating a fashion brand.
And some of these guys, they managed, not to be successful only in Ukraine, but they managed to build global companies. If we talk about tech companies, for example, I’m sure you’ve heard about Grammarly. I’m sure you’ve heard about Reface. We hope to be one of those companies, too, with Organization.GG. So, in a couple of years, you could name us, too, like Preply. And a bunch of other, like Gitlab. They’re all companies with Ukrainian founders building global businesses. Same goes for fashion brands. Like Baginskiy, his famous hats, they were worn by Madonna, for example, and a lot of other celebrities. Things were going pretty well for a lot of ambitious entrepreneurs in various sectors.
But obviously, when the war hit more than a month ago, things just changed dramatically. From the latest data that I’ve seen, 80% of businesses in Ukraine, they stopped doing business. So, they’re not making any money, they’re not being able to pay any salaries. So, the whole economy, it’s not there. It’s non-existent. Only in the last week, when Russians left Kyiv and left the outskirts of Kyiv, and I’ve talked to my mom and my family and my friends, they said that some of the business are coming back. Some of the shops are opening back—some of the cafeterias, cafes, restaurants. But still, life is not back to normal, by any means. And especially, the Russian forces are not gone. They’re just being relocated to the eastern parts of Ukraine, to Donbass and Lugansk. And now, they’re going to focus all their power specifically on those regions. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be using artillery or missiles in other regions of Ukraine, like they did before. They were shooting in Lviv, the western parts of Ukraine. They had a missile shot 20 miles away the border with Poland while Biden was visiting Poland. It was happening simultaneously. It was also an act, a blocking act.
So, definitely, people don’t feel safe at all. It’s a state of war. My team, for example, at Organization.GG, when this happened, some of them managed to drive to western parts of Ukraine, get their families out. Some stayed in Kyiv. But obviously, you cannot do your proper work. And in the first couple of days, everyone was just shocked. But then, the beauty of Ukrainian society and what is happening right now, people became so united because of this aggression, that everyone was just working towards helping Ukrainian army and to help Ukraine just withstand that first attack that was taking place.
I remember in the first two or three days, the first day was terrible because you saw that Russia attack the whole country with missiles. And all the foreign analysts—that Kyiv is going to be gone within two or three days, and the government is going to be gone. So, it felt like we’re losing the country, we’re losing the homeland, and no one knew what’s going to happen. So, a lot of people panicked. They put anything they could into their cars and tried to leave the country. I think, in the first week, over 1 or 2 million people left. So, with huge traffic gems outside of Kyiv. People were traveling for 40 to 45 hours on the road. Before, it would take them five to eight hours. People were sleeping in the car without food, without drinks, without gas. It was just devastating.
But when we realized that Ukrainian army is actually doing pretty well, we don’t know it’s doing that well as it does now, but doing pretty well, people started doing everything towards supporting and helping. And on the third or fourth day, people were just, any chat you go, any friend that I spoke to was doing something tiny or big. But it was tailored towards helping the Ukrainian army and us to survive. That’s amazing. And we continue doing that.
And I think, by this war, it’s not only Ukrainian people who are united, but a lot of countries in Europe, the NATO countries, the US. Some of them were able to find their purpose in the world because now there’s this black and white, Russia with its soldiers who are raping, killing innocent people. Obviously, it’s black. And it’s a fact. It’s been proven by a lot of media sources and analysts. And Ukraine is quiet because it’s a small country which is fighting the second largest army in the world. No one expected that. NATO is afraid of fighting. But we are, and we’re doing it successfully. At the end, we want to win this war. And we will. And that’s because we are united and we were able to ignite this unity for countries that are currently supporting us. Because in this war, again, there is no gray zone. It’s just black and white, an evil fighting against people who want to live their lives, who are fighting for their dignity, for their pro-Western values, for the independence, for the life of the kids.
[16:11] Chris: Dima, it’s a great context. Could you share a little bit about—I know folks have, maybe, seen things in media and maybe, even though they see it, they don’t quite understand. Can you explain, maybe, just what you’ve heard from family and friends who are still in Ukraine and are still going through that? What is that experience like on a daily basis for folks in terms of what are they thinking, what are you hearing, and what are the current state of folks? Just so that folks who, maybe, don’t know that much about what’s going on or have only seen the headlines really can understand what that experience is like at a human level.
[16:43] Dima: Just for context, I’m currently not in Ukraine. I’m in Lisbon. We came here with my wife 10 days before the war started. And we decided to stay here because we thought I’m not a soldier, so I thought I could bring more value by working from Lisbon and helping out with digital activities, etc. But my family, my parents are in Kyiv. A lot of my friends are in Ukraine. My wife’s mom, she was actually in Bucha when it was invaded by Russians. And she actually lived through a horrible—just horrible experience because she was hiding in the cellar of her house for seven days without electricity, without food, and without water, and without heating. So, on the seventh day, she didn’t have any choice but just to go out and try to flee Bucha. And luckily, she was able to do it because there was a small group of people looking for an exit, too. And they teamed up. They had cars going out of Bucha. And she was likely to do that.
For other people that stayed or weren’t that lucky, the outcome was tragic, to say the least. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the massacre in Bucha. I’m sure you did. But every day, we discover new deeds of Russian soldiers, if you can call them that way. I cannot even call them humans by what they did. Just to give you an example, there is a proof that they were raping kids. There was six-year-old boy who was raped by Russian soldiers. And they tied his mom to a chair so she would watch them do it. I don’t have any comments for that. Again, their goal was and is to get rid of Ukrainian people. It’s a genocide of Ukrainians.
So, in Bucha, it was just drastic and devastating, like in other cities, too. It’s difficult for me to comment because I’m not there. But living under missiles and bombardments, this is something that you’re not being able to use, too. And for all the people, this is a new experience that they never asked for. They do everything to survive, basically. All your goals, all your dreams, they are set aside. Now, the only goal is to survive and to help Ukrainian army, to help your family, and to help your friends. This is what life of an average Ukrainian looks right now. Some are in better conditions. So, a lot of people were able to move to western parts of Ukraine. It’s pretty safe there. It’s being bombarded time to time, but usually, Russians are targeting infrastructure buildings, like oil refineries, etc. So, a lot of people stay there for the time being. They are renting out apartments and continue—if they’re able to work remotely, they do try to do that. But a lot of people are just helping to organize logistics from Europe, European countries, so they can bring medicine, food, etc. So, they’re looking for, not ammunition, but food, medicine, further supplies, and take care of the logistics.
People in Kyiv, where my mom and my dad are right now, there is a Ukrainian army and there is a territorial defense. These are the people who voluntarily agreed to defend the city or village they live in. And they were given very basic tutorial on what to do. And they were given machine guns. And they were actually creating or preparing column, Molotov cocktails. So, they were doing everything to meet and greet the Russian soldiers that would come.
So, a lot of people are engaged in this territorial defense. So, obviously, these are men, mainly. And everyone else, I know some of my friends, they were running a restaurant. So, they’re still running a restaurant right now. So, their cooks are there. But they’re cooking for the Ukrainian army and for the territorial defense. They’re getting donations. And for these money, they’re preparing food.
Some guys who were manufacturing jeans and fashion stuff, now they’re doing something for the Ukrainian army, too, like boots or the specific uniform. So, everything is tailored, again, for making sure that Ukrainian army has the force to fight and win at the end of the day.
We also have a large IT army. These are the guys who work in tech, but they decided to leave their projects for a while and start helping Ukraine. So, a lot of DDoS attacks are being currently conducted by the Ukrainians, targeting Russian banks or military companies that are producing tanks.
It’s not only Ukrainians. A lot of Europeans, people from the US, they also contribute to this. And I’m sure you know about this Foreign Legion. That’s over 20,000 people from all over the world came to fight for Ukraine because they see it as the only sort of choice to help the white against the black. So, everyone is doing whatever he can, even if it’s small or large. But again, everyone is sort of united around Ukraine, keeping its independence and winning this war.
[22:17] Chris: Yeah, absolutely. I know, Dima, not only the school, a lot of students on campus, just from my personal experience, have been really outspoken and wanting to continue to support the people in Ukraine to make sure that they have everything that they need and that they’re supported as part of a global effort. Could you explain, maybe, what are some of the things that you think folks who are interested in helping can do to really help the folks in Ukraine? And if there are any organizations or initiatives that you know of that could be ways that, maybe, Haasies could get involved and help, and you want to share that, that would be great as well.
[22:50] Dima: Sure, that’s a great opportunity to that. There are multiple ways how anyone can help. So, starting from donations, not only to support Ukrainian army, but for the humanitarian needs of Ukrainians. A lot were forced to flee their homes. People didn’t even lose—just they lost their lives. And obviously, they need financial support. They need food, cloth, anything that could be delivered to Ukraine. So, the donations is the first part.
Then, boycotting and Russian goods and services. It’s also an important part of the sort of economic sanctions that are already imposed by the governments. But if you’re able to boycott the goods on individual level, that also helps a lot, because the population of the US—the US market is amazing. And if you stop buying Russian vodka or Russian products, that would help a lot.
But currently, taking into account all the sanctions that are implemented, the main one is to be boycotting their energy sources, namely oil and gas, because since the war started, Russia has been able to sell their energy for over $30 billion US in more than a month. So, even all those sanctions are imposed, they’re actually still being able to make a lot of money. And in order to do that, people can go and talk to their MPs or senators and ask them to bring this up to a political level where this decision can be implemented on government level.
Talking to your MPs and actively supporting Ukraine in various demonstrations, that all helps. And I’m happy to share the link. If there’s a way to do that, like in the podcast—
Dima: There’s going to be a link with all those options to help. Again, donations, boycotting Russian goods, signing petitions, all this helps a lot. And again, just spreading the word about what’s happening, because in the first couple of weeks, the whole world was buzzing about it. But as the time goes by, I understand people have their own lives and they forget about what is happening in the country that could be 1,000 miles away, but the war in Ukraine is not over, yet. It’s far from being over with that planned aggression of eastern parts. And Putin is not going to stop. His main goal is to demolish Ukraine as a country, as a nation. We need to fight back and we need to win. And for that, we need to have awareness around the globe.
So, continue talking about this. Continue watching news, especially the independent news. Don’t ever watch Russian TV if you don’t want to be zombie. That’s the main part. From our side, for example, at Organization.GG, although we were a for-profit platform, in the last three weeks, we actually transformed our platform into a non-profit charity platform. So, we’re currently hosting a 30-day marathon where streamers from all over the world can participate and raise money for Ukraine. And we take zero commission on all these donations. And all these funds directly go to two non-profits. They’re both US-registered. I know the founders personally. One is called Razom. And the other one is called Nova Ukraine. So, both of these charities, they’re super reliable. They’re very hands-on in terms of what is going on in Ukraine. They’re able to effectively distribute the money that they raise. So, I would highly recommend donating to these specific charities. There is also a way to donate through Organization.GG, so these two specific charities. You will just see a link to these two PayPal accounts, and you’re able to donate there, too.
So, if you don’t see the link on this podcast, just go to Organization.GG, find a charity campaign, click on the Donate button, and choose whether it’s Nova Ukraine or Razom. Both are good. Any dollar counts at this time. So, please do that, if you haven’t already. But a lot of my classmates, Haasies, everyone has been very supportive. A lot of my classmates have already donated. And any amount of support that Ukrainians are getting from all over the world is tremendous. And we’re very grateful, not only for the words of support, but for the real actions and for real pains that you may incur because of this war. And we are thankful for that. But just to remind, the war is not over. So, we have to push forward. And that’s the only way.
[27:26] Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Dima, coming to a close, could you share, maybe, one big takeaway that you would hope Haasies and folks in the Haas community take away from the whole experience in Ukraine and something that you’d hope to leave folks with as either a message or a thought about what’s going on and how they can continue to be part of that positive movement to support the folks there?
[27:48] Dima: By looking back at what was happening and the reasons why it happened, I think it all relates to the inactivity of both the population. This war, it didn’t have to happen if actions were taken timely and in a proper manner in 2014 or even before. But because the world was focused on other things and it wasn’t on its agenda, this massacre is currently taking place in Ukraine. But I think it relates, not only to Ukraine, but in anything that’s going on in the world. I know that you cannot focus on so many things at a time, but there are just moments in life when you have to make a decision, whether you’re in or not. And the earlier you make those decisions, the better it is, the less consequences there are for the rest of the world and for you as well.
We could have made this decision early in 2014. We didn’t. And the rest of the world didn’t. But this is the right time to make a decision and to say that you’re with Ukraine and to do as much as you can to help us win, because again, this is not the war of Ukraine against Russia. This is a war of a country with pro-Western values fighting for its dignity, and safety for the whole European continent, because if we don’t stop the aggressor right now, we don’t know where he’s going to stop. But it’s not going to be Ukraine. Inactivity is the worst that you can do. So, make your decision and start acting. That would be the main takeaway.
[29:25] Chris: Dima, it’s been awesome to have you on the show today. We’re so excited and so thankful that we can share this story. And we look forward to all the, hopefully, meaningful action that folks, not just in the Haas community, but around the world do to really support the people and the effort in Ukraine. So, want to say thanks again, and wish you and your family and your loved ones safety and all the best in the coming days.
[29:47] Dima: Thank you. Thank you, Chris. Thank you for this.
[29:50] Outro: Thanks again for tuning into this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. Enjoyed our show today? Please, remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review. You’re looking for more content? Please, check out our website at haas.fm. That’s spelled H-A-A-S.F-M. There, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts. And until next time. Go Bears.