Exploring Ukrainian Australia

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A Ukrainian, Olga Oleinikova, has been living and working in Australia for almost ten years. She opened a research and analytical centre “Ukrainian Democratic Initiative” and founded a Persollo startup there. Olga teaches at the University of Sydney and organises scholarship programs for students from Ukraine. She is convinced that it is possible to change her homeland for the best, from any place on the planet.

Compared to European countries, the number of Ukrainians currently living in Australia is small. In 2020, the diaspora was about 38 thousand people. There are mentions of the first Ukrainians in Australia, arriving in the 19th century — in the 1820s it was sailor, Fedir Zubenko, who had to stay in Australia due to illness, and in the late 1870s it was scientist and explorer, Mykola (Nicholas) Mikloukho-Maclay.

Photo courtesy of Olga Oleinikova

People came here even after the First World War, but mass migration took place after the Second World War, in the 1940s and 1950s. Social activists, forced labourers and refugees were part of this wave of migration. Most of them did not want to return home, where the Soviet regime ruled, because it equalled suicide. People settled in large cities across the country: Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, and more.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Ukrainians united in a new place. They founded various art and sports clubs, student and scientific societies, the first public and political associations, and even opened their own churches, schools, and youth organizations. The immigrants of the 1940s and 1950s formed the core of the Ukrainian community in Australia.

Later in the 1990s, Ukrainians were moving to Australia for economic reasons related to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 2004, for the first time in the history of Ukrainian migration, qualified specialists have been coming to Australia voluntarily.

Studying in Australia

A sociologist, Olga Oleinikova, came to Australia in 2012 to study at graduate school, the University of Sydney — the oldest and the best university on the green continent. Before that, she received a master’s degree in sociology from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and worked in the marketing department of TNS (Taylor Nelson Sofres). Although she enjoyed working in this profession, she aspired not to provide business research but sociological projects that would bring her a stable income. She decided to get a degree abroad and chose between the best universities in Australia, Canada, and Italy. In the end, she chose to study in Australia:

“I just went to the website (of the University of Sydney — ed.), and found a professor of my sociology specialisation. I wrote that I am a Ukrainian, my name is Olia, and I want to study Ukrainian migration to Australia.”

After receiving a scholarship to the University of Sydney, Olga started her research. She mentions that the least information was about people who came to Australia from the start of the post-Soviet period, so Olga focused on this wave in her study. The researcher collected 56 stories of Ukrainian emigrants from 1991 to 2016 and wrote the book Life Strategies of Migrants from Crisis Regimes: Achiever or Survivor?

“My book is the first to describe who those people, currently coming from independent Ukraine, are. You can learn what they do, what they live for, how they see the future, and what their identities are.”

Photo courtesy of Olga Oleinikova

In this book, Olga explores ways that immigrants adapt, distinguishing two strategies: survival and achievement. The followers of the first strategy reactively rely on the opportunities that present themselves, stick to the Ukrainian-speaking environment, and accept almost any job, allowing them to stay in the country. Those who fulfil the other strategy create opportunities, strive to improve their professional skills, to master a foreign language quicker, and establish contacts with locals. This means the main difference between these groups is how willing they are to change their own lives and whether they have the ambition to influence the quality of life for others.

On a question about her own national identity, Olga answers that wherever she is, Ukraine will always be her homeland. She is impressed by a new trend that has replaced multiculturalism — post-nationalism. It is a process in which global, supranational communities are more important than unification by a single national identity.

“It’s more important to me to talk about people. Because the territory is about people.”

Olga says she got to Australia without any problems, but she notes that not everyone is so lucky. She explains that this country has many severe restrictions for immigrants. There are four ways to move to Australia: to reunite with your family, being a political refugee, getting a student or work visa (at the invitation of the company), and by marriage.

Photo courtesy of Olga Oleinikova

Ukrainian Democracy Initiative

In 2016, Olga founded the Ukrainian Democratic Initiative Research and Analysis Centre (UDI) at the University of Sydney. She says that in the state of New Wales, where she lives, none of the universities conduct research on Ukraine — this inspired her to establish such an initiative. The work of the Centre focuses mainly on sociological and political projects. First and foremost, UDI is an international network for all those interested in the growth of democracy in Ukraine.

The core UDI team consists of five people, but there are also about 170 scientists and public figures from 16 countries involved. This initiative is open to new participants — not only scientists can join, but anyone interested.

Olga defines three major areas of UDI work. The first is the conduct of academic research, the design of educational and methodological recommendations. The results of this research are used by various Ukrainian NGOs and activists to inform the government, and aim to consider certain recommendations from the UDI. The second is the organisation of events that can be attended by anyone, not just members of the initiative. And the third is scholarship programs for students from Ukraine, which the team calls “connection with the world”. Thanks to UDI, students of Ukrainian universities can continue their research at the University of Technology Sydney for three months. This is the first program for young researchers between Australia and Ukraine, so Olga is happy about this achievement. She says that Ukrainian students really need such opportunities:

“We have created guest scholarships at UDI for people to come to Australia, gain experience, then go and change something back home.”

Among the partners of the Ukrainian Democratic Initiative are universities from different countries, not only from Ukraine. For example, they facilitated workshops with the University of Oxford. Bringing together scholars from the Ukrainian Democratic Initiative, they studied the role of the diaspora in the democratisation of Ukraine. As a result the book Democracy, Diaspora and Territory was published in 2019. However, the main achievement of the Ukrainian Democratic Initiative, according to Olga, is forming a global platform for scientists, activists, and public and political figures to study modern political and social transformations in Ukraine together, regardless of their location, and implement projects for Ukrainian democratic development.

Olga says that the Ukrainian community in Australia is very close-knit. There are enough organisations that form the information field, for example, the Ukrainian Studies Foundation, the Association of Ukrainian culture experts of Australia and New Zealand (AUANZ), the Foundation for Ukrainian Studies (FUSA), the Aid Fund for Ukrainian Studies of the Ukrainian Community of Victoria, and so on.

Photo courtesy of Olga Oleinikova

As the director of UDI, Olga is a member of an expert commission of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine — she helps determine which research projects will be funded from the state budget.

Olga also teaches at the University of Technology Sydney. In her job she always illustrates everything with examples from Ukraine:

“My parents and grandparents live there (in Ukraine — ed.). This means I always know what is happening: what reforms take place and how they are going. I’m following all of this.”

Students often choose Ukraine as a subject of study. Olga admits that she is delighted when foreigners write about her homeland.

Photo courtesy of Olga Oleinikova

A Persollo startup

Olga is recognised not only for her research initiatives, but also for her entrepreneurial activities. In 2013 she met Kyrylo Medvediev at a video broadcast of TED Talks at the University of Sydney. At the time he was also studying at this university, learning IT management. In 2015, while writing her dissertation, Olga and Kyrylo established the startup Persollo. They noticed that 68% of social media users do not complete an online purchase because when they click on a product they are interested in, they are not led to it immediately. A person has to perform a certain number of actions on the store’s website before paying for the desired item. Sometimes a user can be simply redirected to the brand’s main page, and they have to look for the thing they wanted to buy. Because of this, online retailers lose a lot of potential buyers and, consequently, profit. Olga and Kyrylo came up with an idea to create a product that would help buy in one click:

“You can click on the image that you see on the brand’s social media page, on someone’s blog, or in your social media feed, and you can buy this product immediately.”

For the startup to be successful, Olga and her co-founder attended two accelerators in Australia — startup development programs that help attract investors and provide expert support. At the first accelerator program at the University of Sydney, young entrepreneurs learned how to present a product, research the market, and communicate with customers. Then Olga and Kyrylo got an invitation to the most prestigious Australian accelerator, Muru‑D, where they found investors and started making money.

“Only 10 companies can participate during six months. And there is substantial competition — 300 companies per place.”

Photo courtesy of Olga Oleinikova

Thanks to the Muru-D accelerator, entrepreneurs got a six-month training, mentoring, workspace, and visited Silicon Valley, where they gained experience. Olga assures that thanks to this accelerator program, they caught a kind of “spirit of start-up”.

In addition to direct buying in one click, Persollo offers analytics — brands can see how efficient it is to work with a particular blogger. Using this data, companies can choose the most profitable collaboration to promote their product.

After accelerator programs, famous brands such as New Balance, Sunglass Hut, and OMD became Persollo’s customers. The geography of software sales reached China, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Although Persollo is not currently focused on the Ukrainian market, Olga does not rule out such possibility, should the customers appear.

The Persollo team consists of twelve people, mostly Ukrainians.

“All the guys who support the product are in Ukraine. So, we are connected: our product is created by Ukrainians, it is also supported, designed, and developed in Ukraine.”

Olga observes more opportunities for herself to help Ukraine in Australia — by creating jobs, she contributes to the development of Ukrainian professionals.

Supporting from abroad

As Olga says, Australians are friendly and open-minded so she felt comfortable and confident there from the beginning. She appreciates equality and the lack of class struggle the most:

“If you are eager to work, it’s up to you to achieve what you wish for. And people will support you here.”

After the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine became more recognised in Australia, she says. Although Ukrainians have always been treated well due to their professionalism and hardwork:

“Locals, who are familiar with Ukrainians, consider them mainly experienced people — professionals. That’s why Ukraine is not associated with unskilled people or poverty here.”

Olga plans to continue working on projects aimed at advancing democracy in Ukraine, supporting young talent, and implementing new research. At the same time she is developing Persollo, which has already grown into a full-fledged business from a startup. During her stay in Australia, Olga started a family and plans to continue her journey in this country, because according to her, she has all the opportunities to make life in Ukraine better. Olga is convinced that establishing intercultural relations will help to overcome a lot of national and personal barriers:

“Everything is so multicultural and intertwined. I do not see the future in isolation. I promote the idea of sharing everything: people, resources, money — everything.”

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