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Cleveland entrepreneur keeps paychecks, support coming for Ukraine-based workforce

Ukraine Tensions
Posted at 5:44 PM, Mar 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-04 18:48:25-05

CLEVELAND — The founder of a Cleveland-based startup with a remote workforce largely comprised of Ukrainians has stayed true to his firmly-held mission of putting people first and profits second.

The Russian military reportedly continued attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine Thursday and Friday, including reported strikes at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, and currently occupy it. The seizing of the nuclear power station has stoked fears of a similar disaster to that of Chernobyl, the nuclear meltdown in 1986. The situation prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday morning.

Jamie Van Doren, a Cleveland resident and founder of local start-up NeverEnding Inc., summed up the past two weeks rather succinctly.

“The past two weeks have sucked,” he said.

Van Doren started NeverEnding in January 2020 and quickly secured capital to bring on a small staff, who have worked remotely since its inception. The start-up is an amateur animation and storytelling platform where people can take the stories in their heads and bring them to life through web-based comics or even animated videos. With its beta recently launching two months ago, the platform has had substantial early success, netting more than 20,000 users.

Last summer, Van Doren brought on more than a half-dozen team members from a small studio based in Ukraine, Dadcom Games. It didn’t take long for friendships to form.

“We start every major meeting with ‘tell me something good,' where you will share something professionally or personally that went well in your life,” Van Doren said. “We wanted to normalize the fact that these personal moments and these wins are critical and this is what our relationships are based on. It’s a lot work and we have to all be passionate about it, which means that we do develop these strong relationships.”

When the brunt of the Russian military began invading Ukraine in an unprovoked, false flag "peacekeeping" mission, those relationships began to be tested. With the help of Vitaly Krivenko, the CEO of Dadcom Games, Van Doren has tried to maintain communication with his Ukraine-based 3D modeling team, despite the invasion interrupting electric and internet services across large swaths of the country.

“They’re not just contractors; these are our team members,” Van Doren said as he fought back tears. “These are our friends. They’re going through some terrible times right now. It is humbling, it is humbling to recognize that there is nothing you can do.”

Currently, Van Doren said there is no way to send money or other aid to his Ukraine-based staff but it hasn’t stopped him from trying. One of his team members, who is based in the besieged city of Kharkiv, doesn’t drive and remains holed up in the war-torn city.

“We’ll find a way to get those funds to him so that if he has to pay an exorbitant amount for somebody to smuggle him out [of the country], we’ll do that,” Van Doren said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the 3D modeling work that he’s done for us in the past or that he might do in the future, it’s about the fact that this is someone who we have grown to know and care for and he’s at immediate risk of death.”

When the conflict first started, Van Doren promised his staff that their paychecks would continue to come even if they were mentally unwilling or physically unable to work. To his surprise, each and every time a team member logs into work each day, it inspires him immensely.

In many cases, the team members have found that working has allowed them to escape what’s going on outside their window, Van Doren said

“Our company is about our people. Our brand is about our people. I do not have a company if I don’t have people,” Van Doren said. “Yeah, we want to make money one day. We want to be big but we have to always focus on the people and doing the right thing. They aren’t working because they’re worried they’re going to lose their job. They’re working because the alternative is spending all day glued in front of the TV or dealing with the anxiety of the horrible things that are happening around them and to them.”