During the war, when all your thoughts are about your safety and that of your beloved people, about Ukraine and the future of our nation, it is difficult to make plans. But I believe the strength of the Ukrainian nation lies in the freedom and creative potential of its people. It is difficult, but we must keep moving, dreaming, and developing to be able to restore the country when it needs us.
In this article, I, Liudmyla Nikitina, YEAs Alumna and young entrepreneur, will share my experience of participating in the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs business exchange programme, which offers new entrepreneurs the possibility to work for up to six months with experienced entrepreneurs, and how it helped my family and me in these challenging times.
The programme is funded by the European Union. It is available to all Ukrainians who meet the basic criteria: are 18 years old and above; would like to start their own business (it doesn’t matter in which industry); have a business idea and want to know how a similar business works abroad; have up to three years of business experience; speak English for comfortable communication; are motivated to cooperate, and ready to contribute to the development of the host entrepreneur’s business, and to improve their skills and competencies.
Participation in the programme provides an opportunity to explore the activities of a more experienced entrepreneur (mentor) and to gain practical experience. The exchange takes place at a time and term convenient for you and the host entrepreneur, usually for three to four months (maximum six months), and according to a schedule developed by both parties. During the exchange, as a young entrepreneur, you receive monthly financial support depending on the country of residence (from €530 to €1,100) and compensation for travel expenses to and from the country where the company is located. Besides, you always have the opportunity to make changes to the agreement: to change the terms of the exchange, to increase or decrease its duration, divide it into several parts in online/offline format, etc.
My personal participation began in 2019 at the Enter youth week in Strasbourg. It was there that I learned about the programme and met my future host. However, it wasn’t until 2021 that I applied to take part. Because of my hesitations, agreeing on the terms of my exchange was delayed. Therefore, I advise potential applicants to be confident and persistent 🙂
Applications should be submitted through the digital platform. They include a business plan drawn up in any format, a CV, and answers to questions like ‘why participation in the exchange is important to you’ and ‘how staying abroad should help you grow your business’. In general, you can complete your application in two or three days. Frankly, I have not seen such freedom in defining my own goals and priorities in any other programmes I applied for or participated in. Here, you are your own boss starting from the very first stage. It is you who is responsible for your business plan, you who chooses the entrepreneur you would like to work with, and you who sets the goals of the exchange.
You choose the local programme coordinator at the final stage of filling in the application package. In Ukraine, you can choose between CIVITTA and Radar Tech. The project managers from these organisations should help you to prepare the necessary documents, approvals, etc. With the support of my manager, Alina from CIVITTA, I started looking for a host entrepreneur pretty quickly. This is also a straightforward process. There is a database where you can find the ideal exchange option and pass mini-interviews with the companies you like. The final choice of the entrepreneur remains with you and the host organisation. When you decide on a hosting company, you agree on the internship period, start and end dates, and work specifics.
During my exchange, I wanted to focus on organising and managing international mobility projects, organising activities for young people, and deepening my communication and fundraising skills. So, when looking for a host, I turned to the Geoclube organisation from Porto, whose representatives I had met back in 2019 in Strasbourg. It is a youth organisation founded in 2000 by a group of teachers and students from the Escola Secundária de Gondomar. The organisation’s team develops the potential of young people and encourages them to solve environmental problems, work on building a democratic society, and strengthen social integration and youth entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on the youth of the local municipality and implementation of Erasmus+ mobility projects.
After the agreement was signed, all that remained was to buy tickets, finalise all the preparatory moments at home and embark on a new journey to gain such a desirable experience.
My exchange was due to start on 15 March. And it did begin, but under the conditions of a full-scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine. All my well-thought logistics planning went out of the window, and I was instead faced with evacuation and confusion about what to do next.
At the beginning of the last week of February, I agreed on my exchange with my employer in Kharkiv and was going to buy tickets to Porto. On Wednesday night, 23 February, I spent a lot of time deciding on the best possible route for the trip. Finally, I decided to buy tickets on Thursday morning, 24 February. But that was the morning when the world changed forever.
I live in Kharkiv with my sister. I sleep with earplugs and try to follow a disciplined regime, so, on 24 February, I woke up at 7am and saw dozens of missed calls from my mother, heard a noise on the streets, opened the curtains and saw an incredible traffic jam in the city centre. I don’t remember being very confused, but the first thing we did with my sister was to talk to our parents, agreeing on how we would evacuate from Kharkiv, and collect the essential things, solving the most pressing work issues along the way. We only managed to get to our parents who live in Kharkiv oblast at 6 pm due to the enormous traffic jams, although it usually takes an hour and a half to get there. And only when all my family members were nearby did I start to think about the future and what to do next.
My host organisation in Porto was very kind and was ready to host not only me but also my sister and parents. In such uncertainty and panic all around, their proposal was a blessing. However, we have an old grandmother, and my mother refused to leave her behind. I did not try to persuade her, as I saw how deeply the situation wounded her. Therefore, I decided to go on the exchange together with my sister.
The road from Kharkiv to Poltava, Lviv, and then to Porto took a week. My sister and I fell ill because of the time spent at the border crossing, the traffic jams, queues, and hypothermia. After arriving in Porto, we had to be treated for two weeks and recover for another week. Now that I have fully recovered and started doing my exchange, I am looking for an exchange company for my sister.
Currently, my everyday life is reminiscent of the first month at a new job, when you get to know the team and explore the local cuisine and features of the city, culture, and country. Although my work schedule is a typical eight-hour working day, I can choose the time at which I start my working day, and also whether to work in an office with a team, or by myself.
15 April marks the first month of the exchange for me. Each month, I have to report on what goals have been achieved during the exchange. Unfortunately, due to the impact of the Russian invasion and my illness, comparing the initial exchange plan and what I am doing in practice is only about 50% of what was agreed. However, even in such circumstances, during the first month of the exchange, I managed a lot:
- I made friends with the team of the organisation I am working for and developed a comfortable work schedule;
- I carried out research on how the organisation builds its communication with young people;
- I got acquainted with the company’s strategy, communication channels, content plan on social networks, and how each team member manages work processes;
- I participated in the development and submission of an application for the Erasmus+ youth mobility project;
- Together with the responsible team, I conducted 2 trainings for high school students on creative and cultural entrepreneurship and began to edit videos for social networks.
Much work remains to be done, as Geoclube is going to have several training courses in May and June. So, in April, I will be focused on preparing for these events and implementing youth exchanges.
Besides work, I try to do as much as I can to support Ukraine remotely and unite the Ukrainian community in Porto. Together with my sister, we attend rallies of support and protests. Recently, we were invited to visit the private school Colégio Internato Clare. It was an unexpected but exciting experience for us. We met the local students and talked to them about the situation in Ukraine. I was amazed by how the students became active in helping displaced Ukrainians after our meeting. They got interested in learning more about Ukrainian culture, published a school newspaper sharing Ukrainian stories, and organised concerts in support of Ukraine. We also took part in one of these concerts and together with the students we sang on the balcony of the school. I cannot share how deeply I was touched at that moment. We could see and feel the support from the people who shared our values and, at the same time, were incredibly amazed by the resilience of the Ukrainian people.
Due to the uncertain situation in Ukraine and all the challenges that my home city, Kharkiv, is going through, the programme managers gave me the opportunity to extend the duration of the exchange if needed. Of course, the possibility to do so will also depend on the funding of the programme, but they are eager to step in and support me. So I am still following my exchange plan, exploring the country, learning Portuguese, and gaining experience in managing international projects. I am also glad that I can continue my work with the team of the NGO Garage Gang in Ukraine remotely and support some other projects: Living Library, Building Ukraine Together, and Cultural Agency A.
Some days it hurts me that I am not at home, but to a greater extent, I understand that right now I can be more useful for my parents, friends, initiatives and projects I work for, and Ukraine in general from the place where I am. The fact that I am here also gives me faith in the bright future of my country, where I see myself as an entrepreneur contributing to the growth of Ukraine.
Therefore, I would like to encourage young Ukrainians, students and entrepreneurs, not to lose their trust in Ukraine and to continue their development using all the opportunities the world gives us. The country will need your professionalism, knowledge, and skills.