The scandal with Slush is not a new story. However, the awkward situation with this global IT event that took place in 2022 became a lesson for the international IT and business community to learn. I called it “a shock from Slush” — a controversial monetary decision-making by the Western “players” surpassing legal and moral responsibility in the midst of Russia’s war crimes against humanity.
What is Slush?
Slush is a big event in Finland (with nearly 9000 participants) that is held annually and helps startups and venture capitalists (investors) meet at matchmaking and pitching. Its five top venture capitalists are Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA, and Northzone.
Global IT start-up community was shocked by Slush granting €1 million investment to Immigram, a startup aimed at helping tech talent relocate to the UK.
What was the problem?
While making a big decision, Slush ignored important facts: Immigram was run by Russian founders who carried out active business operations in the Russian Federation despite the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia due to its continuous war crimes against Ukraine since 24 February 2022.
Some critics called the decision of Slush “tone-deaf.”
Immediate negative reaction from the global business community pushed Slush to revoke Immigram’s award.
The reputation of Slush was undermined, as well as the reputation of the investors taking part in the event. But Immigram’s scandalous response made the situation even worse.
Finally, Slush made an official statement:
“Slush stands with Ukraine and condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, we do not partner with Russian companies or funds or accept startup or investor applications from companies based in Russia.”Sifted.EDU
Unhappy with the changed decision, the Russian founders of Immigram responded quickly in a manipulative way — because of the “wrong color of passport” (not because of war), one million reward was revoked from them.
“…A wrong colour of the passport…”Sifted.EDU
Immigram was turning the public attention away from the true reason for revoking the “prize” — Russia’s aggression. They emphasized discrimination instead.
The company also tried to hide its collaboration with the Russian Federation which was under sanctions.
In particular, Anastasia Mirolyubova, Immigram’s co-founder and CEO, was claiming that she was “judged by where she was coming from” (source: Sifted).
In other words, Anastasia was playing the “victim.” And many Western investors, “players”, or those who didn’t care about the war, simply believed the legend of the “poor girl” who did not get the one million euro prize because of the “wrong color of the passport.”
There was nothing new or surprising in such a reaction on the part of Russians, considering their propaganda not only on TV, but in the United Nations assembly, and through the mouth of the corrupted politicians in Europe or elsewhere.
Anastasia Mirolyubova did not have the courage to judge the crimes of her home country against humanity. She just fooled the thousands of professionals who participated in Slush trying to convince the community that the “prize” was revoked for other reason than the actual Russian aggression.
What is Immigram?
The start-up was established in 2019 by Anastasia Mirolyubova and Mikhail Sharonov, both holding Russian passports, who relocated to the UK in 2016. Anastasia resides in the UK, while Mikhail is mainly in Georgia (the post-Soviet country with a pro-Russian government at the time being.)
The idea of Immigram was to help IT professionals (from the post-Soviet countries in particular) apply for the UK’s global talent visa and relocate there.
Anastasia Mirolyubova mentioned that Immigram helped to buy “an ambulance car for the frontline” to support Ukraine and that she was even ready to “donate $100k of operational cash to non-profits supporting Ukrainian immigrants and refugees.”
However, as soon as her one million euro prize was revoked by Slush, Anastasia accused Ukrainians of “xenophobia and racism.”
7 Problems of Slush
The decision made by Slush to choose the “winner” representing the aggressor country (Russia continues to attack Ukraine in 2023) raised a number of questions. Not only about the “winner” but the “leaders” representing Slush, as well as the modern business culture of the West.
Previously, I emphasized the problem of Western technology continuing to flow into Russia despite sanctions. It was helping the aggressor to kill the civilians and destroy the civil infrastructure in Ukraine.
The leaders of Slush did not supply weapons or technology to Russia directly. Nevertheless, they made a big financial decision that supported a startup founded by individuals who were the aggressor country passport holders and who kept close relations with the state sponsor of terrorism (staff and operations of Immigram were noticed in Russia, according to open sources.)
In my opinion, Slush had to consider at least the following 7 problems prior to making the big decision.
Problem No. 1 — Origin of Founders
Immigram’s founders were Russians. This required not only due diligence but legal consideration, in view of the sanctions imposed against their country of origin.
Problem No. 2 — Business Affairs with Russia
Immigram conducted a business activity with Russia. Sanctions presupposed withdrawal of any business, financial, or even operational activity from the sponsor of terrorism country.
Problem No. 3 — Reality
Russia was continuing to commit war crimes in Ukraine. In such a context, what would mean — rewarding a representative of the aggressor, with a one million prize? What would it say about Slush and its stakeholders?
Problem No. 4 — Sanctions
The home country Immigram founders were representing was under sanctions for quite a long time before the “award” took place. Moreover, the scope of sanctions was only increasing, and definitely not because of the “color of the passport” or places of birth of the founders, but the war crimes.
Problem No. 5 — State Sponsor of Terrorism
European Parliament declared Russia to be a state sponsor of terrorism, and NATO Parliamentary Assembly designated Russia a terrorist regime. (A good explanation of what “State Sponsor of Terrorism” actually means is provided by the journalists of Ukrayinska Pravda.)
Problem No. 6 — Due Diligence?
The winner was chosen among a thousand participants. The procedures presupposed due diligence.
How was it possible that the fact of Immigram’s collaboration with Russia during the ongoing war was not noticed or taken into account?
Problem No. 7 — Reputational Loss
Slush will most likely face reputational loss and similar consequences. The names of its stakeholders and key venture capitalists such as Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA, and Northzone will be undermined to a certain extent.
What exactly happened? Corruption? Lack of competence? Negligence? Malpractice? Idiotism? None of the above-mentioned entities would want to associate themselves with such questions, but they were asked already.
Ukraine’s Context: Reminder
Ukraine is a modern democratic state located in the middle of Europe. Its size is similar to the State of Texas and larger than Germany or France. Its population is 46 million people.
Ukraine is not only a “leading exporter of wheat.” It produces the biggest aircraft in the world, and its IT industry is among the fastest-growing ones.
Ukrainian IT sector is so powerful that it continued to grow even during the ongoing war in 2022-2023! (To be precise, by 23%, according to Atlantic Council. You can also check a brief summary of Ukrainian IT trends in 2022 on Localizer.Pro.)
In 1991, Ukraine owned the world’s third nuclear weapons power, but for the sake of peace on the planet, it gave it up in exchange for “security assurances” from the U.S., France, and other signatories of the Budapest Memorandum disrupted by Russia.
In 2014 the Russian Federation broke International law by occupying Ukraine (Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula). It was stopped by the Ukrainian army.
In 2022 (24 February) Russia unfolded a full-scale war against Ukraine, rapidly taking over more of its Northern, Eastern, and Southern territories. They were liberated partially by the Ukrainians.
Failing to resist the Ukrainian army in 2022, Russia committed war crimes (in Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin, Mariupol, and many other cities, towns, and villages) against the civil society — killing, raping and kidnapping people, including children.
According to the UN, because of the war, 8 million Ukrainians became refugees in European countries, and nearly 5 million of them have officially registered for protection. More than 7 million are internally displaced people in the country. Thus, nearly 38 million Ukrainians are staying in their home country under constant attacks and blackouts in 2023.
European Parliament declared Russia to be a state sponsor of terrorism (a good explanation of what “State Sponsor of Terrorism” actually means is provided by a group of journalists from Ukrayinska Pravda.)
The world demonstrated its solidarity with Ukraine, taking action to support the country and stop the war started by Russia, a state sponsor of terrorism.
Global IT Community became one of the most active supporters of Ukraine at this crucial time.
Therefore, it was a shock for many that Slush as one of the leading global IT events, did not take this clear, obvious, and highly important context into account when making a big decision about the winner.
Should the West learn a lesson from the Slush story? Of course.
However, its technology continues to flow into Russia surpassing sanctions. Its political leaders are reluctant to fulfill legal and moral liabilities under the Budapest memorandum on “security assurances”, not providing Ukraine with the sufficient protection it needs to stop the killings of innocent people. Some of its opinion makers continue to repeat Russian narratives from mass media and pulpits.
For example, Russia is still not banned from Miss Universe competition watched by 500 million viewers in over 190 places.
Therefore, the question “Will the West learn a lesson from the Slush story?” remains open.