Building bridges beyond borders: how the Belarusian tech community fosters solidarity and innovation abroad

  • 2023-07-19

Belarus faced a rigged presidential election in the summer of 2020, with opposition candidates systematically removed from the race. Following the disputed election, protests erupted across the country, demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who had been in power for 26 years. However, the peaceful demonstrations were met with a violent government crackdown, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Protesters, journalists, and opposition figures faced arbitrary arrests and police brutality.

Over the next two years, the impact of the contested election is still being felt in Belarus. More than half of the country's startup founders left in the aftermath, with a second wave of emigration following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Despite the challenges, the Belarusian startup ecosystem has continued to thrive abroad.

Belarusian tech industry — homeless but thriving

Belarusian tech communities have found a new home in Lithuania, Poland, and Georgia. However, they face challenges in navigating life abroad while avoiding antagonizing the Lukashenko regime. This is because they fear that their actions might put their friends and family in danger or jeopardize their ability to return home. In addition, companies with teams inside and outside of Belarus have been forced to walk a tightrope due to the country's increasing isolation.

One example of political repression is the Imaguru Start-up Hub, a tech-focused coworking and meetup space in Minsk that helped create the start-up ecosystem in Belarus. It fostered a community of business angels and taught many companies, leaders, and entrepreneurs in innovation until the Belarusian regime shut it down in 2021. Nevertheless, the start-up hub continued to develop a Belarusian community online and opened new hubs in European capitals such as Madrid, Vilnius, and Warsaw.

There are also several examples of Belarusian start-ups thriving abroad. For instance, PandaDoc, a document automation platform that was founded in Minsk and accelerated by Imaguru. Now its headquarters are in San Francisco. The company has raised over $51 million in funding and serves over 23,000 customers worldwide. Another example is Filmustage, an artificial intelligence platform for the film industry, which recently raised $550,000 to expand internationally and provide a product in several foreign languages.

Relocating abroad initially provided new opportunities for Belarusian tech companies and entrepreneurs to connect with global funders and investors. However, the situation changed when the Ukraine invasion occurred. Venture funds that were previously interested in supporting Belarusian start-ups suddenly closed their doors, leaving many entrepreneurs struggling to integrate into the European or American market.

Despite the challenges, Belarusian founders remain committed to their community and their worldview. They continue to help fellow Belarusians navigate the difficulties of living and working abroad while maintaining their identity and values.

Global impact of a strong and supportive community

Tech communities are famous for their mutual support. First, we saw this in the Belarusian example, then in Ukraine. One way the community is helping entrepreneurs thrive outside Belarus is by providing them with access to networks and resources that can help them establish themselves in new locations. For example, exiled Belarusian journalist and activist Pavel Liber created an app “New Belarus” to help exiles stay connected with people back home and build communities in their current countries to support the democratic movement in Belarus.

Imaguru plays a big role in the formation of the Belarusian community, bringing together experts, investors, founders and serving as a meeting place for all participants in the tech industry. Additionally, Imaguru launched the Solidarity hub to facilitate the democratization of the country. When the Russian war in Ukraine began, the hub moved on, quite naturally, to inviting Ukrainian people to join in. First, Imaguru employees were providing things as simple as shelter and volunteer help to people fleeing the war zone. Now they provide all services to Ukrainian people free of charge: mentoring, consults, and co-working spaces. 

“We also look at Ukraine as a country of talented people who create amazing products and deserve increased attention from the business community. Recently, we invested in Zeely, a wonderful Ukrainian growth marketing app that increases business revenue for entrepreneurs, – the hub’s founder Tania Marinich says. – What we see now is that the mindset of solidarity brings two communities—that of Belarusians in political exile and of people fleeing the Russian war in Ukraine—closer together. The IT community is incredibly cohesive. People can be very busy with their businesses, but they still devote some of their time to work for charities and solidarity projects making the world better bit by bit”.

In addition, Tania received a position in the Coordinating Council (an organization that unites democratic forces) to actively highlight the problems faced by Belarusian entrepreneurs. She works to put pressure on international organizations to support Belarusian tech entrepreneurs and make their voices heard in the global tech community.

Eastern European start-ups are crucial for the European ecosystem as a whole

The specificity of Eastern European start-ups and their main advantage is a strong technological base. 90% of companies from Belarus or Ukraine are created by techies, while in Western Europe a different approach is more common. There, start-ups are created by people with strong business expertise, mature entrepreneurs. At the junction of these two approaches, truly ingenious teams are obtained. Therefore, it is so important to look for ways to interact at the level of the pan-European start-up community.

Tania Marinich claims that it’s especially important to act on humanity, knowledge, solidarity, and innovation right now: “Talent is the key driving force of innovation which can solve many societal problems. The borders should be open, at least to some degree, to give people the possibility to be where they’re needed the most. As long as entrepreneurial talent operates in an open environment and governments don’t stand in the way of entrepreneurial spirit, it’d be extremely helpful. Pan-European ecosystems still know quite a few administrative barriers. Resolving those would get more access to knowledge and to multicultural exchange facilitation, as these things are essential to ensure a positive impact of business on society. We don’t need to unify. We need to work together”.