Startup Life/Opinion/

Is the European startup scene in a values crisis?

After Slush's decision to revoke Immigram's prize, Europe's startup scene could be losing sight of the morals that make it great

Sven Jungmann

By Sven Jungmann

“Culture is about actions”

— Ben Horowitz in What You Do Is Who You Are

Being a European citizen born and raised in Germany, few things in life are as precious to me as the core values that our societies subscribe to. 

A few days ago, Slush, a major European startup conference, decided to reverse its controversial decision to award Immigram, a startup founded by two Russian citizens, the top prize in its pitching competition. The decision came after a flurry of criticism over the award, with many arguing that Europe’s tech scene shouldn’t back companies with any Russian ties. Slush said only that they had revoked the award “in light of new information on the extent of the Slush 100 Pitching Competition winner’s operations in Russia”. 

This decision should be alarming to us. Here’s why.

A particularly important day in my home country’s history is May 8, 1949, when the Parliamentary Council adopted the Basic Law — our post-war constitution. The most important goal of this legislation was to draw lessons from the Weimar Republic and the National Socialist dictatorship by emphasising the basic rights of citizens.

Article Three contains the following beautiful sentence: “No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political opinions.”

For a continent that managed to leave behind an unbelievably violent past and built something as remarkable as the European Union, words like these are not hollow phrases. They are informed by the darkest memories and carry an implicit warning.

It is, therefore, no surprise that you will find similar phrases in other constitutions, like that of Finland, which just hosted Slush: “No one shall, without an acceptable reason, be treated differently from other persons on the ground of sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason that concerns his or her person.“

Immigram helps tech talent (including Russians) relocate to the UK. As this very publication reported: “The company says it doesn’t have an entity in Russia or any employees based there, and has not taken any money from Russian investors. It says it hires people in Russia but only under the condition that they immediately relocate to another country. [The founder Anastasia] Mirolyubova has said that she’s against any Russian warfare in Ukraine.”

“What happened at Slush is not just a big step backwards in our efforts to overcome discrimination, it is an insult to our core constitutional values that we have for very good reasons”

As you all know, we are unfortunately still far from our declared goals of achieving diversity in the startup community. Much has been done to promote ethnic, religious, neurological, gender and other forms of diversity in Europe’s startup community — and many of our efforts should be lauded. But admittedly, we have a lot left to do to make this ecosystem truly inclusive.

And what happened at Slush is not just a big step backwards in our efforts to overcome discrimination, it is an insult to our core constitutional values that we have for very good reasons. 

A decision by an event with the size and importance of Slush has real political weight and meaning. It sends a signal to the market. 

It has been reported that Immigram’s founders even received “death threats and more”, and there has been a concerning amount of vitriol on social media levelled specifically against the founder herself. These are personal attacks — not just opinions about a company — and they come from a loud and aggressive minority.

Why is there no outcry against this in our community — which otherwise is so outspoken for diversity, equality and inclusion? Has it suddenly become okay to discriminate against individuals based on their passports if they happen to come from the wrong country?

Grand statements in favour of diversity are important, but also easy to make, especially when times are easy. But they must be followed by meaningful action, not corrupted the minute things become difficult.

“We cannot allow our anger to let us betray the core values on which our modern societies are founded”

I know that this community is capable of action because I saw how we rallied behind the Ukrainian tech community when the war started in February. VCs and startups sprung into action to relocate employees and their families — both in Ukraine and Russia — deliver necessary supplies and hire remotely. 

We all are angry about this unprovoked war against Ukraine. We are all terrified. And we are also in sheer disbelief of the war crimes and atrocities happening every day. 

We all want this to finally stop. And we want to do whatever we can to help bring this to an end.

But we cannot allow our anger to let us betray the core values on which our modern societies are founded. It is dangerous and a big victory for Putin and his regime, because, as Clayton Christensen warned us: “It’s easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.”

Meanwhile, the US is taking a very different approach. On September 27, Reuters reported that the White House press secretary said: “The United States welcomes Russians seeking asylum from President Vladimir Putin’s ‘unpopular’ war, on Tuesday […] We believe that regardless of their nationality, they may apply for asylum in the United States.”

“Leaving ethics aside, are we not hurting Putin’s regime more if we make his opposition stronger and help his intellectual elite find a meaningful life in the West?”

Rather than discriminating against individuals who wish to contribute meaningfully to our society and publicly express their opposition against Putin’s war crimes, should we not do our best to make them feel welcome in a free Europe, where we pride ourselves of treating every human the same? Have we forgotten that it is not illegal to help these ordinary citizens and do business with them? 

Leaving ethics aside, are we not hurting Putin’s regime more if we make his opposition stronger and help his intellectual elite find a meaningful life in the West? A recent Economist article already illustrates how Russian journalists in exile are helping citizens in Russia get the real news. 

Instead of discriminating against all Russian passport holders, we should understand that many of them are our allies—and treat them accordingly.

Sven Jungmann is a doctor-turned-entrepreneur and CEO and cofounder of Halitus.

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