Nobody understands the challenges of being an immigrant founder like Lyubov Guk (Lyuba). From Ukraine to the UK, Lyuba’s journey with Newton Venture Program came at a turbulent time. Here’s her story.

Building bridges

Born in an industrial city on the outskirts of eastern Ukraine, Lyuba lived a simple, local life with family and friends. Her mother, a finance director, was her role model and inspired Lyuba to “wear a suit and work with numbers when I grew up.”

After studying finance, Lyuba spent three years as a financial analyst. “I realised it wasn’t for me. I had a really good job in corporate finance and for many, it was a dream job. But I was working 24/7 on Excel and while it was interesting, I wanted to spend more time with people. I wanted to have more impact on the company and others.

“The invasion by Russia in 2014 became an additional motivation to make a career change as I had to leave my job. Our territory was occupied by Russia so my employer offered relocation to the nearest Ukrainian city. I didn’t want to keep doing this; I was concerned for my safety. So, I moved to a small city in western Ukraine – it was safe and I started looking for a job. I was applying for almost everything to see what feedback I got!”

Lyuba was hired to handle Ukrainian operations for a new consulting company, run by David Gilgur, Newton NVP03 alum. “My role was to build bridges between Ukrainian businesses and the UK. I did market research, worked with SMEs and enterprise-level clients and everything in between in both countries. I was the first hire in Ukraine and developed the activity there, gaining our first clients, some of which are still trading with the UK.” At the same time, Lyuba and David began running UK roadshows for Ukrainian startups on the side, described by Lyuba as a hobby!

After three years, the Ukrainian team, led by Lyuba, had grown to ten strong and relocated to Kyiv. And in 2020, amid the pandemic, Lyuba relocated again, this time to London. The consultancy had been sold so she and David could concentrate on a new adventure: Blue Lake.

“Blue Lake was created to find and invest in hidden gems and to help overlooked international startups build their companies here in the UK. We did our research and realised that 46% of the UK’s unicorns were founded by immigrants. At the same time, we know first-hand how challenging it can be for founders, especially at early-stage not having a network and support. We wanted to help startups from all over the world that have global ambitions, bringing them to one of the best tech ecosystems in the world, the UK.”

Understanding VC

“David was a key driver for the changes. He talked about venture capital and startups but it was new to me. He pushed me and the team to learn more about the tech space and VC. We learned a lot from our previous company – seeing where the gaps and opportunities are for early startups in our home country. For example, in Ukraine, where the local tech talent has blossomed into a rapidly growing startup scene, there’s a shortage of local investments. A local investor can easily ask for 50% of a startup and often get it. We were in a unique position leveraging our network, knowledge and experience of building bridges between the UK and emerging markets. Now, the same knowledge helps when working with and supporting our portfolio of UK-based startups with international founders from countries like Ukraine, Pakistan and India.”

Lyuba first came across Newton Venture Program on LinkedIn. After applying for the first Fundamentals cohort, Lyuba was accepted onto the second one. “I was looking for opportunities to gain knowledge and meet people. I really enjoyed the content on Fundamentals and it was helpful. There was never a shortage of opportunities to talk to people and work with them and I’m still in touch with my working group. 

“I attended one of the digital get-togethers and met two people who ended up investing in our syndicate and Blue Lake itself! I was lucky to meet these like-minded people who I probably wouldn’t have met as they’re from different backgrounds. Newton was the platform for us to meet and do things together.”

Overcoming obstacles

On completing Fundamentals in December 2021, Lyuba immediately decided to apply for the Fellowship. “I achieve more by meeting people offline. I looked at the program structure and saw the final module is around fund building. At the time, Blue Lake was focused on syndicated startup investments and we’d started to look at taking the next steps on the VC journey with a fund setup, so the timing was perfect.”

Lyuba was accepted on the program, but in the meantime had the devastating news that Ukraine had been invaded by Russia, again. At the time of the first module, Lyuba was desperately trying to get her family to safety in the UK.

“It was very stressful. I was helping my family with logistics and it affected my headspace so I may have missed some parts of the experience. The Newton team was very helpful and the program manager knew if I wasn’t there that I was sorting things out. I kept everyone posted and was able to catch up on activity after the module.”

Despite the worry and exhausting circumstances, Lyuba was able to get her family to safety in the UK and enjoy the program.

“At the beginning of the program, I feared that everyone was super experienced. I was a newcomer and an outsider in the community. I still don’t think of myself as an expert! So, I was trying to understand who these people are but quickly recognised that we’re all at the beginning of our journey, no matter our background or previous experience.

“The content was great and the team was very helpful, but the best part is the people. I’m new to the country and the VC community: Newton helped me meet people I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise, including the practitioners who spoke on the course. Now I have connections rather than cold intros.”

Reflecting on the program, Lyuba wouldn’t necessarily do anything differently, but it did help her realise what she needs to do more of. 

“Build a diverse network – rather than only with people who look and sound like you. Erica Young’s networking session showed me that my network was almost all Ukrainian in the UK. It was easy – we have a similar background and speak the same language. Going beyond my comfort zone and shifting Blue Lake’s focus to invest in diverse immigrant founders from all over the world, I have discovered an incredible pool of talented and diverse founders.

“The Fellows Vision project helped me shape Blue Lake’s vision and gave me confidence that we are on the right track. I was getting feedback from speakers and faculty and so much of it was positive. Now I’m moving ahead with more tools and understanding.”

The program has connected the dots for Lyuba between her own experience of being an immigrant, the lessons she and David have learned and how that puts them in a great position to help others. 

“VC is a commercial activity and we need to make money to invest again in startups. It’s also crucial for us to have a positive social impact. We know the challenges the founders face and how to support them. I wish I had similar support when I’d just moved to the UK, so I’m glad to be in a position where I can now offer it to others.

“My life changed when I came to London two years ago – if there’s a place that will help your potential, you should be able to go there. We’re building a home for exceptional immigrant founders who want to come and build the most successful companies in the UK.”

Introducing international Founders

Take a look at Blue Lake’s new open-hours initiative in collaboration with Tech Nation. International Founders is especially for immigrant founders in or on their way to the UK to be connected with local VCs. The aim is to help founders understand if the UK is for them and if so, getting advice on how the market works. It’s also a great way for VCs to meet new startups to expand their deal flow. Coming from more than 20 countries, founders can have conversations with top VC firms like LocalGlobe.

Do you fancy taking on both Fundamentals and the Fellowship? See which one’s for you here.

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