Usually, the winners of a pitching contest are showered with accolades, media attention, and applause. After it’s done and dusted off, all they have to think about is what to spend that sweet, sweet prize money on.
But this year things haven’t gone according to plan for one startup. Immigration – the winner of the Slush 100 startup competition – is controversial for its ties to the Russian tech scene. Not only are its founders Russian passport holders, but it is also recruiting technical workers to move to Moscow.
This left many wondering why the jury decided to invest in a company with such strong ties to Russian business life. In response to pressure, Slush withdrew the award.
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A statement from Slush
Slush released a statement retracting Immigram’s win and requesting the funds withdraw their potential investment from the startup. But yes, VCs can still decide to invest in Immigram. At the time of writing, investors in the jury were silent.
— Slush (@SlushHQ) November 21, 2022
Immigram also confirmed on LinkedIn that it is sign out of the Slush Contest.“We will continue to support Ukraine and build a business for millions of talented people who want to move internationally,” the Russian-born company wrote in the post.
But let’s take a step back.
Who is Immigration?
Immigram is a B2B SaaS platform that enables employers to attract and retain international talent by guiding them through the myriad paperwork to enter the various job markets. 10% of their customers were Russians. You can watch their winning pitch here.
The jury awarded them a €1 million investment from five top VCs: Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA and Northzone.
What has been the reaction to the win?
Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of protest against the win in recent days, with many questioning the decision. Investigate the company AIN.Capital found it is booting hiring for positions in MoscowTo: “The same positions can be found on the startup’s career page, and they’re marked as external.”
Twitter is, unsurprisingly, in turmoil:
So while Ukrainian IT specialists are dying in trenches or struggling to work during blackout, are you giving money to a startup that helps Russians, those who helped this regime when it was comfortable for them and flee when it’s not?
Is this a bad joke?
— Тривожна картопелька (@nimvalar) November 19, 2022
I have a company ‘tickets_for goebbels_to_argentina’.
Can I have my million dollars?
— Tuany Muonteana (@hyperOff) November 19, 2022
Oh Slush, you lose your brand image in one fell swoop…
— Dyno Musk (Ne Elon) (@offlinethyrano) November 19, 2022
Yaroslav Krempovych, senior associate at Movens Capital, exclaimed Immigram openly on LinkedIn, pointing out the contrast between Ukrainian startup founders fight and die on the front lines “for the lives of their families and loved ones and the freedom of their country”, while “others try to help Russians escape the consequences of their actions and omissions…”
Today he shared that one of their clients was proudly pro-Putin public forums. Should a company be held accountable for the opinion of its customers when it promotes them as talent?
Uncomfortable conversations are necessary
You can say a lot about this situation. Since the controversy, Anastasia Mirolyubova, CEO and co-founder of Immigram, has shared on LinkedIn that she left Russia in 2016 “partly for political reasons”. According to her, this followed repression and detention of close friends by the government. She claims she ‘never lived [in Russia] since then they conducted no business and paid no taxes [there]”, despite evidence that the company is recruiting employees to work in Russia.
Responding to the controversy, she said: “Yesterday I received death threats and wishes for rightfully winning a startup competition with the wrong color passport. That is very wrong.”
This is a situation where many people are wrong.
Money above all
In many ways, we have fallen into a common capitalist trap: money has won over ethics. Immigram came out on top because the inconvenient truth is that investors are only involved because they want to make money.
Frankly, the fact that Immigram supports the Russian tech and startup scene means it should never have entered Slush’s competition in the first place.
And let’s be honest: the company’s product isn’t exactly humanitarian aid. Instead, it speeds up the bureaucracy of those who qualify for a global talent visa in academia and research, arts and culture or digital technology. Only a small percentage of the population has this kind of education, talent, or privilege—and the majority of them are white men.
Yes, there is a huge gray area here. Should we hold citizens accountable for the actions of their governments? Is – as TechCrunch has pointed out in the past — hire workers from Russia who actually damage the Kremlin? Should funds invest in countries at war?
These are all vital topics that we should discuss, but the most important thing is that more due diligence should be exercised in startup competitions during such difficult times. The selection criteria and the links with a power like Russia are of the utmost importance. And that’s where Slush failed. Let’s hope the startup world takes note and stops this kind of travesty.
Another “success story” about relocations is a designer who moved to London. A quick background check through Teti Poodle reveals that she designed a website for a Russian construction company in occupied Crimea.
Keep in mind that this is all taking place at a time when millions of Ukrainians are forced to flee their homes or join the armed forces. TNW journalist Thomas Macaulay did something about it after his participation in IT Arena 2022 in October, an annual conference in the city of Lviv that showcased the industry’s vital role in the war.
While talking to several Ukrainians on Slush this year, one talked about writing blog posts in her bathroom under the light of a candle, hoping for some internet connectivity. Nothing is easy in this environment.
What makes it even worse is that the second and third were placeholders Cosiness (UK), creators of mobile apps that help people with disabilities find accessible places, and Zeely (Ukraine), a mobile-first website and ad builder with AI-driven marketing tools for non-marketers. Yes, you had a Russian and a Ukrainian startup competing in the top three.