The war in Ukraine seems close at a Whittier bike shop with deep ties to kyiv

In a small storefront in Whittier, a worker puts the finishing touches on an electric bicycle. On the floor, wheels, batteries and other parts are arranged in neat rows. Large boxes contain fully assembled bikes, ready to ship.

This Whittier e-bike shop has Ukrainian staff dodging Russian bombs

This workshop is the American headquarters of Delfast, Inc. which started in the Ukrainian capital of kyiv about seven years ago. Last year, CEO and co-founder Daniel Tonkopi moved to Los Angeles and settled down.

The e-bikes are designed in Ukraine, and parts are made in several countries, including Korea, China, and the United States. They arrive partially assembled and are tweaked here.

But Ukraine is the home country of most employees. “In Ukraine we have around 40 people,” Tonkopi said. “And some of them are living under attack.”

They are not alone. American companies ranging from small startups to multinationals have staff in Ukraine, which is known as a hub for tech talent. Some of these companies are owned by Ukrainians, such as Delfast.

In the weeks since the Russian invasion began, the small e-bike company has tried to maintain operations while trying to adapt to the ever-changing and increasingly dangerous circumstances in Ukraine.

“Sleep on cardboard” in the basement

When Russia attacked in late February, “the first reaction was shock, absolute shock,” Tonkopi said. “We couldn’t believe it. The first few days were the hardest days and we didn’t know what was going on.

Then “after about a week we tried to get back to our normal work as much as possible,” he said.

But “normal” these days is relative. Since the start of the invasion, about half of the company’s Ukrainian employees – which includes research and development, IT and support staff – have left the country.

Some have moved from the beleaguered east of Ukraine to the relatively calmer west. Others have stayed put, either by choice or because it is too dangerous to try to leave.

Daniel Tonkopi, CEO of e-bike company Delfast, calls an employee in Ukraine from the company’s Whittier workshop.

(Leslie Berestein Rojas

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The Delfast social media and content manager “lives in the basement of her house” in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Tonkopi said.

“She is sleeping on cardboard, because she cannot sleep in her house because of the bombs, because of the air attacks by Putin’s army,” he said.

Somehow, Tonkopi said, this employee managed to keep working, as others did. But Zoom’s weekly staff meetings are mostly about making sure people are okay.

“Every Monday we have a meeting for all of our staff just to ask them, how are they? Just to hear their voices, to see their faces and just maybe to support [them] sort of,” he said.

Fortunately, everyone working for the company is still alive, Tonkopi said.

Life under Russian occupation

Delfast sales administrator Anastasiia Popova could not flee because she lives in the southern city of Kherson, occupied by Russian troops.

One recent morning, Tonkopi called Popova from the Whittier boutique to wish her a happy birthday.

Popova said she spent the day with her family and was happy to visit her parents, whom she had not seen since the invasion began. She said she is grateful that the city is not currently under attack, like other cities, but she is also afraid for the future.

“I should be happy that our city is not in Mariupol’s situation, and I should be happy that my family is fine,” Popova said. “And at the same time, you are afraid that it could happen at any moment.”

Popova said her internet connection has been stable lately, so she goes online every afternoon to work, when it’s morning in the United States.

“We still try to work, to do everything as before, but there are always small details that remind us that in fact, this is not a normal life,” she said.

A bomb shelter in the bathroom

An example: Russian tanks and military vehicles that are now everywhere in the city. Popova recently joined a crowd that clashed with Russian troops in protest.

She said soldiers fired into the air and one soldier fired what she believed to be rubber bullets into the crowd, injuring at least one person.

Here are four videos that Popova shot in Kherson:

ukraine leslie video source

There are still explosions around the city, as Ukrainian troops push back the Russians. Part of the new normal, since Popova is working from home, is to prepare for the worst.

” I did a [bomb] shelter in my bathroom,” she said. “We put all the rugs and pillows in there, and we removed the mirror above the sink, so that if there was a big explosion, the mirror wouldn’t shatter and fall on our heads. .”

She also stretched duct tape over windows and other mirrors – anything that could break in the event of a bomb attack.

Under attack, an explosion of creativity

While American small business workers are at least out of harm’s way, they worry about the safety of their loved ones.

Tonkopi said his girlfriend, who soon plans to join him in Southern California, was living in kyiv when the invasion began. She temporarily took refuge in Portugal.

Hardware engineer Oleksii Vishnevskyi, who was working on a bicycle frame in the shop while Tonkopi spoke, arrived in Southern California just about a month before the outbreak of war; his family was still in Ukraine. He said his wife and daughter have since arrived in Poland safely, but his parents are still in Kyiv.

He worries about his family “all the time, day and night,” Vishnevskyi said.

Two men, one in a green checkered shirt, the other in a black polo shirt, inside a workshop.  The man on the right, in a black shirt, is sitting on a bicycle.

Hardware engineer Oleksii Vishnevskyi, left, and CEO and co-founder Daniel Tonkopi at the Delfast e-bike workshop in Whittier.

(Leslie Berestein Rojas

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Tonkopi said he does his best to connect colleagues back home with information or humanitarian organizations that may be helpful.

Despite everything, he says, the staff in Ukraine continues. In fact, within weeks of the start of the war, engineers developed a new model of e-bike – a process that Tonkopi says typically takes a year.

“Like it’s crazy, unbelievable,” he said. “They put all their energy into a new product.”

Tonkopi believes this creativity was born out of a need to focus on something positive, “because we can’t just live in the basement and be scared,” he said. “We want to do something.”

The company hopes to launch the new e-bike in a few months and donate some of the proceeds to relief efforts.

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