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Readers’ views: The Slush controversy

Sifted readers' views on Slush's decision to revoke the pitch award it gave to Immigram, following a wave of outrage

Immigram CEO Anastasia Mirolyubova pitching at Slush. Credit: Polina Kuklenko
Sifted Readers

By Sifted Readers

Earlier this week, we asked you for your thoughts on Slush’s decision to revoke the pitch award given to the Russian founders of UK startup Immigram. Thank you to everyone who got in touch — and to entrepreneur Sven Jungmann who shares his views on what the decision means for European values with Sifted today. 

One message came through loud and clear from the messages we received: most Sifted readers think there are no grounds to discriminate against Russians in the startup ecosystem simply because of where they happened to be born.

“My feeling is that we don’t make progress in the Ukraine-Russia war by casting every Russian as the enemy and punishing them,” said one reader. “This is unfortunately a new form of racism emerging,” said another.

Others, however, said it’s not who these particular founders are that is the problem. It’s what their company does. 

“[Immigram] were taking advantage of people who were fleeing”

“The Ukrainian community on LinkedIn […] were outraged by the award given to a company that made a success out of a war (even indirectly),” one email read. Immigram charges people from multiple countries around the world, including Russia, several thousand pounds to help them get one of the UK’s global talent visas. “They were taking advantage of people who were fleeing,” the reader said.

But there are other views. Alex Pospekhov, “the first guy to get a Latvian startup visa”, poses this question: “Should we spend more resources to help the brightest minds escape Russia? And should we also stop any attempts to support people who are trying to leave Iran and other autocratic regimes to do so?”

“Any talented family leaving Russia leaves the Kremlin with far less taxes and far less resources to continue this war,” he adds. 

Other readers, who grew up in Russia and are now building companies elsewhere, shared the challenges they’ve faced this year. “Since the war in the Ukraine started, I had several VCs pulling out from investment rounds openly citing that ‘your company/you are too Russian’ and ‘hope you understand that given the political climate we can’t justify investing in a Russian founder’,” one founder who’s lived in the Nordics for almost a decade told us. They’ve also recently been told by their bank that it can no longer provide banking services to them. 

All this is not that easy to swallow in Ukraine, however, where millions of people are living without power, heating or running water — and facing very real threats to their lives — or in other countries in eastern Europe that have had to fight against Russian influence for years. 

“We don’t make progress in the Ukraine-Russia war by casting every Russian as the enemy”

These groups have been the most vocal with their criticism of Immigram’s award. For many of them, any kind of recognition for a startup with the slightest connection to Russia is completely tone-deaf and unacceptable. “After Bucha, Mariupol, Izyum… tortures, rapes and bombing of our cities every day, it couldn’t be accepted,” said Iryna Supruniuk, communication lead at TechUkraine, a tech group. 

Some of them stress that if Russian founders and investors are to be accepted by the European startup community, they should have openly condemned the war and the Kremlin, with words and deeds, for years now. 

“If you’re a Russian against the war, show me your [social media] posts, and, more importantly, actions from 2014, when the war started,” said Borys Musielak, partner at Smok, a Polish VC firm. “Russians against the war in late 2022 feel like Germans against the war in 1945: ‘Oh shit we’re about to lose, so let’s side with the winners’.”

There were also those who said Slush shouldn’t have put Immigram’s founders — or the investors who’ve had to backtrack on the €1m pitch award given to them — in this position in the first place, by making the rules of the road far clearer from the off. “A PR backlash was always in the books,” said one reader. “Slush is the culprit here.” We’ve got another opinion piece coming on this on Monday. 

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