Nataliya Anon immigrated to the U.S. from Western Ukraine 30 years ago, as a college student. Now the Tiburon resident, a mother of young children and the founder and CEO of Svitla Systems — a global software development company based in Corte Madera — devotes much of her energy to Hromada, the nonprofit she cofounded in 2017 to support the people of her homeland. Over the past year, as Ukrainians fight a war with Russia, Hromada’s mission has gained urgency. We sat down with Anon to hear about her background and her commitment to supporting the people of Ukraine.
Tell me about your youth. Were you born in Ukraine?
I grew up in the Soviet Union, in Western Ukraine. Historically there was an occupation by Russia in Ukraine. My grandmother lived with us so I heard family stories of the occupation. But I lived in a dual world. At school, growing up in the Soviet Union, I would hear Soviet propaganda, but then I would come home at night and my grandmother would tell me these stories. I trusted my grandmother more than I trusted the propaganda. I knew that what they were telling us at school was not really true. The teachers knew too, but they had no choice but to teach us the propaganda.
How and when did you come to the United States?
Growing up I was a very good student. I had graduated from high school with accolades. I had twice won the all-Ukrainian academic contest, in English. Because Ukraine was still in the Soviet Union, the best students went to Moscow. I applied to the elite Moscow Financial Academy. starting in 1989, I went to school there for three years. The wall came down in 1989, and then, in 1991, Ukraine became independent and perestroika (reform) came. A delegation called the People to People traveled from the U.S. to Moscow that year. I was able to meet a professor from the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon who asked if I wanted to come to the United States to study. I could never have imagined that I would have such a chance.
In 1992 this professor helped to get me a scholarship to the community college. When I was studying there I wrote letters to other professors I had met. One was a professor from the University of Kansas, who said that because I had three years of education in Moscow and one year at community college in the U.S., the University would consider that I had a bachelor’s degree and take me into the master’s program. I got a master’s degree in Financial Accounting at University of Kansas. In 1999, I applied and got into Stanford Business School. Afterwards, I stayed in the Bay Area and founded Svitla Systems
You also co-founded a nonprofit organization called Hromada. What are the priorities of the nonprofit?
Yes, Hromada is a local 501(c)(3) sending micro-grants of financial aid to Ukraine, directly to people who need it. There is no overhead, everyone is an unpaid volunteer, so every single dollar we collect goes directly to the people who need it the most. Since the beginning of the war, we have sent more than $450,000 in aid. In some cases, this is lifesaving for these families. For example, we work with a volunteer who directs funds to women who have children and their husbands have either died in the war, or, in some cases, the husband has come back from the war and committed suicide. When that happens, they do not qualify for state benefits. Or, in other cases, when the husband has died in “non war-related actions” such as working in a mining field, not directly on the field of battle, they are not qualified for governmental aid, so, in some cases, they are left with five or six children, and they have no help. When they receive even five hundred dollars from our organization, it is life changing for them. It has a big impact. Here this does not seem like a huge amount, but the magnitude of help for these families is significant.
How do you ensure that donated funds go directly to people who need support most?
We work directly with more than 80 volunteers and nonprofit organizations on the ground from all over Ukraine. In the beginning of the war we were using the money only for food and water for the people left in the cities that were bombarded. We would send money to an organization in Dnipro, and they would load the trucks with food and water and take them to Kharkiv, because Kharkiv was a city that was under heavy bombardment. Our volunteers would go on the streets and distribute the food and water, and then they would load the trucks with women and children to evacuate them to Dnipro, because Dnipro, at that time, was safe.
Now we are supporting everything from orphanages and other community programs to families that have been directly impacted. For example, we buy furniture or transportation for the orphanages. For Christmas, we created a program for families that gave $50 per child whose father had died, given to the mother so she could use these funds in whatever way she needs. In the city of Lutsk, we are creating an art studio, a photography room, so children can learn to take photos. We bought the equipment and these kids can come each week and a volunteer teaches them photography.
Do you have family in Ukraine?
Yes I do. When people ask me that question I say “They are all my family now, every Ukrainian.” I am from Western Ukraine. The whole country is affected because the whole country is at war, but Western Ukraine is not occupied. Compared to the rest of Ukraine, it is relatively safe, although they shower rockets on all of Ukraine. Every time I say that I have to pinch myself. Is this happening? How could this really be happening?
What message do you have for your fellow Marin and U.S. citizens?
It is difficult to reconcile how this war could be happening at this time, in this age. The “never again” is here again. It is all developing right in front of our eyes. People are lost, feeling hopeless and like there is nothing they can do. But we live in democracy here, and majority opinion matters and advocacy matters.
I hope people understand that the war in Ukraine is not just a war that is happening far away. What happens in Ukraine matters very much for our future here in the United States, and the people of Ukraine are just the same people as we are. They have the same dreams and the same aspirations. It is just so unfair, especially for the young people who cannot pursue their dreams because of the war. I hope people here will visit Hromada’s website and advocate and offer support.
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.