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I'm a Ukrainian CEO who's expanded my bridal business despite the war. Here's how I did it.

Thibault Spirlet   

I'm a Ukrainian CEO who's expanded my bridal business despite the war. Here's how I did it.
  • Ulyana Kyrychuk is the CEO of Milla Nova, a bridal company in Lviv, Ukraine.
  • The war forced her to review everything she learned about crisis management at Harvard.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Ulyana Kyrychuk, the CEO of Milla Nova, a bridal brand in Lviv, Ukraine. It's been edited for length and clarity.

I'm the CEO of Milla Nova, a female-led bridal company in Lviv with 500 employees that makes dresses for brides around the world.

Since I took over the company in 2020, I've faced a pandemic and war in my country. Against all the odds, my business has grown into a global brand, selling in 59 countries.

I've taken online leadership courses with Harvard Business School to learn how to lead through crises and changes.

But nothing could prepare me for what was to come: a war that forced me to reconsider everything I knew about leadership.

My disaster recovery plan went out the window

I remember we had our strategic session on February 23, a night before the war started.

My first instinct was to draft a business continuity plan to deal with any potential disaster or threat to my employees.

But when the war started, it wasn't just a disaster – it was something I'd never experienced before. And it was difficult to predict everything.

The plan didn't account for things like employees being upset, frustrated, crying, or refusing to leave their relatives in Ukraine. We weren't prepared for this.

Retaining my employees and giving their role purpose and meaning

A lot of my employees said they wouldn't go to work during wartime and instead wanted to volunteer and help soldiers on the frontlines.

So, we completely stopped producing dresses in the first days of the war and only made military gear for the Ukrainian armed forces.

That was a critical decision to not lose our people.

At the same time, we couldn't give up on brides. In the bridal industry, when you miss the wedding day, you are out.

Little by little, we restored the operations, and we made military clothes for the army as well as dresses for our customers.

We even asked some customers to share their dresses among themselves to help us in the first few weeks of the war and avoid disappointment. In the end, we didn't miss any wedding dates.

Moving operations to a war footing

We provided people with everything that we could. For example, we made a shelter for people to seek refuge in. Lviv is far from the front lines of the conflict, but we wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.

For those who have relatives fighting on the front lines, we supported them with donations such as military clothing.

We even finished repairing our factory in Lviv in the summer because we wanted everyone to come together, ramp up our capacity, and continue the growth of our brand.

Some people thought we were crazy to repair and make our factory four times bigger than the previous one during the first year of the war.

It turns out it was a phenomenal decision. It helped us ramp up our production, and revenues have grown from $19 million in 2022 to $24 million this year.

Too little to fail

Sometimes, we think we are too small or too far from the world to reach out to bigger brands.

That happened to us with the parcel delivery company DHL. It closed operations in Ukraine when the war started. As a result, we couldn't export our dresses produced in Ukraine.

What came to mind at the time was writing to the boss of DHL on LinkedIn to ask for help. I told him we had customers from around the world, from Australia to the US, waiting for their gowns and that the only thing missing was their red and yellow boxes.

I didn't expect anything. But the next morning, I got a message from him saying they would try to restore operations as soon as possible.

I was so happy I got this answer, and in more or less two hours, I got a call from the CEO of DHL Ukraine.

Work culture and war mindset

I believe the key to success is company culture. This spirit of taking care of people — employees and customers — is making everyone feel valued and invested in their work.

And we understand that everyone plays a crucial role in contributing to that cause. That's the best motivation.

And this is how every leader should run a business. If you don't understand the personal motivation of your employees, how are you going to motivate them to reach their goals?

If you care about your people and know their motivations, you will get results.

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