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Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
April 11, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Doctoral student working on dissertation while also helping young people in her native Ukraine

Nataliia Yakushko is a student at UT, Knoxville in the in the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations program who collected Christmas presents for the past two years and has created a coloring book and puzzles.

“I’m trying to do as much as I can,” says Nataliia Yakushko, a doctoral student in the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations program in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

As one can imagine, the life of a graduate student is challenging enough – everything from traditional activities like attending classes, serving as a Graduate Research Assistant, and working on a dissertation. Yakushko also is part of a four-person Haslam College team that won a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study how small business owners in Ukraine are coping amid the ongoing war there.

Nataliia Yakushko

That study and other efforts that occupy her time beyond being just doctoral student are felt deeply by the Ukrainian native who left the country eight years ago to pursue her Master’s in Business Administration at Valdosta State University. She arrived in Knoxville in 2021 to start working on her doctorate.

As we learned during a recent interview with Yakushko, her emotions are just below the surface when she talks about all that has happened to Ukraine since Russia launched a full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. Those emotions are particularly evident when she talks about the young people – many that are now either orphans or at least separated from their parents.

“My heart is for those kids,” she tells us. So, what does a doctoral student studying entrepreneurship do? She becomes a practitioner of the very thing she is studying.

“I made multiple trips back to Ukraine in the first year of the war,” including the 2022 Christmas season when she gathered 400 packages in her small apartment in Knoxville to take to Ukraine to provide some cheer in an otherwise dismal period for Ukrainian youth.

The program, which she named “Santa for a Day,” is the equivalent of the American angel tree where underprivileged kids are granted wishes to brighten their holidays. Yakushko repeated the gift gathering in 2023 and collected 800 presents – two per child –  that year to take to Ukrainian kids.

During one of her many trips back to her native country, a bomb destroyed the bedroom in her sister’s apartment in Kyiv.

Her sister transitioned from being a celebrity journalist to one now reporting on the war with Russia that has entered its third year since the full-scale invasion and now a decade since Russia invaded Ukraine. As far as Yakushko’s parents, they are entrepreneurs who manage hotels in Ukraine.

Along with Anna Hutsul, Head of Operational Marketing at Solmar, she created a coloring book for Liberty Ukraine, an Austin, TX-based nonprofit, which provides inspiration to young people. All of the proceeds go directly to that organization. “It’s a way to talk to these kids,” Yakushko says.

In addition, there’s a Kickstarter campaign that just launched seeking to raise $10,000 to publish a book titled Through the Eyes of Courage. It is based on asking the children of Ukraine to tell us their stories through both pictures and words. From tales of escape and survival to reflections on loss and longing, each contribution offers a unique perspective on the crisis and its impact on individuals and families. There’s also a puzzle that she is developing, and there are two-week camps where she is helping Liberty Ukraine raise funds.

Fortunately, the NSF grant is closely aligned with her dissertation topic which is how entrepreneurs in Ukraine are dealing with the war. Others involved in that project were Haslam Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Melissa Cardon, Professor David Williams, and Peter Harms, a Professor of Management at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

When Yakushko said that she did not consider herself to be an entrepreneur, we asked her to describe herself. “I’m a researcher and Ph.D. student who has a passion for resilience and compassion. I always have to do stuff and take care of people.”

Noting that she loves living in the U.S., Yakushko added, “I have so many good people around me.”

With everything she has on her plate and the approach that she has taken to helping those in Ukraine, we would certainly characterize her as a budding servant entrepreneur who devotes as much time as she can to helping others less fortunate. That is pretty special.












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