Humans of CEMS: Influence the world one step at a time

The CEMS Global Alliance is a purpose led organization, powered by our beliefs that great leadership starts with self-leadership and societal progress requires continual exploration. In this series of interviews, we take a look at CEMS students and alumni that are contributing to make this world a more open, sustainable and inclusive world. Today, we meet with CEMS Alum Kate Zhuzha, currently Global Operations at Meta, where she manages programs and projects aimed at Risk Prevention. On top of her job, Kate co-founded an NGO known as @Union of Help to Kherson in March 2022, as her home region of Kherson in Ukraine was occupied following the invasion on 24th Feb 2022.
Kate Zhuzha

1. Please tell us about yourself. What do you do?

I’m from Ukraine, from the town of Nova Kakhovka in the South region of Kherson. I did my CEMS degree in Prague at VSE and in Lisbon at NOVA in 2017-2019. Currently, I work at Meta, in Global operations focusing on Risk prevention and I also run an NGO. When the full-scale invasion began, on the 24th of February, my hometown of Nova Kakhovka became occupied along with the entire south region of Kherson and since then it has been a different chapter of my life. Once I realized that the war is not ending anytime soon, I started an NGO together with my brother called “Union of Help to Kherson” aiming to support the civilian population in our native region. We’ve now been running it for a year. In addition, I’m delighted to represent my cause within the CEMS Alliance as the Junior Alumni of the Year 2022.


2. Could you please tell us about the Union of Help to Kherson in detail? What drove you to the idea? What are your main responsibilities?

Reality is different from what you learn from classrooms. In the beginning of the war, I just started raising money from my Instagram and sent the money to people that I know who needed it. And when I realized the war was not going to be over, it became clear to me that I could go further and raise even more funds. People are very responsive to humanitarian crises and truly get engaged in supporting others. After fundraising and implementing initiatives for a month, I decided to go beyond and instill something that was more institutionalized. This would enable me to articulate what I was doing more clearly and how I was bringing value instead of just saying “I’m Kate and I’m fundraising for Ukraine”.

The main push to create the NGO was the fact that while the entire world was rallying around Ukraine and fundraising millions of euros, none of that was getting to the Kherson region, mainly because Kherson was occupied and no humanitarian aid could enter the region, due to Russian road blockades. This meant that in 2 weeks the medication was running out, food supplies were not coming in and the region had to become almost entirely self-sufficient. No convoys of help from the EU were able to come in. I realized that I could do something to help my native region and therefore decided to focus my efforts entirely on Kherson. We started fundraising money and then sending that money to volunteers on the ground who would then be able to purchase food from the farmers, who would find shops that still had inventory and buy that out and distribute to people.

The NGO was then officially founded in early March. My brother and I are co-founders and in a way it’s a family initiative. My role from the beginning until now is one of fundraising & partnership lead. I apply for grants to various organizations, fundraise from communities, reach out to companies and handle the incoming funds. My brother, an entrepreneur and in the startup scene, was based in Kherson prior to the invasion. He has a very secure network in Kherson who is in turn able to then spend that fundraising effectively and help civilians on the ground. We are a very small NGO; it’s just 4 of us on the admin team, and we have around 30 volunteers on the ground that are actually doing the work. We focus on supporting the vulnerable and disenfranchised groups of population - the elderly, single mothers, people with disabilities, the unemployed and big families that live in remote villages and are trapped. Depending on the need on the ground - we quickly adjust our work. In May ‘22 it meant buying out vegetables from farmers, in June - bringing medication, in December - electricity generators, most recently - supplies of medical beds at hospitals are in dire need. Until November, Kherson region was fully occupied which meant that we couldn’t openly speak or showcase our work. Our volunteers could not say where the money was coming from because Russia would’ve intervened. The volunteers had to bring the medication by hiding it in bags, distribute food and ask people not to mention where it was from. In November, the armed forces of Ukraine liberated part of the Kherson region - the right bank of Dnipro river. Since November, our work is split between two fronts - we help the de-occupied parts of the region to survive the daily shelling and destruction, and we help the still occupied parts by sending in money to trusted people that can in secret support Ukrainains trapped there.


3. Could you share your personal experience during a time like this? With many tragic events happening around the world, it will be valuable to get the perspective of a CEMS alum.

One situation or another, it is just horrendous what is happening to people and the loss of human life. When people woke up on the morning of February 24 th , many Ukrainians didn’t know what was happening because of the level of chaos and tragedy that defined full-scale invasion. Are the invading forces in Kyiv? Where are they in the east, how far in are the soldiers? It was total chaos. I had tens of missed calls and messages from my family saying the war began. At around 6 am Ukrainian time I called my mom to ask what was happening, all she said was “That’s it, we are occupied, Russians have come in, they’ve put their flag on our main buildings of the city, it’s over”. Just like that, all of a sudden, your home is gone. It is hard to understand this feeling for someone outside of it. I describe it as having your roots cut, because you don’t have a place to land, you don’t have that safety of knowing “there is your home, there is your room, there are your plates” just the very trivial things, not having that security - was and remains very painful.

As I was still in Dublin, the first few days I didn’t sleep at all, just like many other Ukrainians because we didn’t know what was happening so we were checking the news the whole time. My brother got trapped in the capital of Ukraine with his family. Kyiv, at the time, was being forced from all sides and those were probably the scariest nights since we didn’t know if Kyiv would withstand, during that time my life was at war and my home was at war and my family was at war and that was a lot to process. However, I remember crying maybe once on that first day and then I started focusing on mobilizing myself and rallying for our country around the world, like many other Ukrainians. I started to think about what I can do, where the help/ support is needed.


4. How did the CEMS environment and community help you on your journey?

I think my CEMS experience has shaped me in great length. Being exposed to so many different people from all over the world was a fantastic experience, but another, maybe a little bit more unconventional thing was that I actually realized how important of a role social impact plays in corporations. We had a lot of thought-provoking discussions both at VSE and NOVA about corporate and social responsibility, about social impact investment. Early on I understood that for me it was really important that I am in a place that is not just focused on increasing shareholder value and that I am doing something that is having social impact. Back in my student years in Prague, I valued my roles of head of CSR in the CEMS Club and the Responsible Leadership Ambassador. As I progressed in my career - I have always sought opportunities where my work can translate into social value for communities.

And of course, the CEMS community is amazing. It is what lifts you up and I have been so lucky to meet amazing people in my CEMS journey and become friends with them. It is one of the greatest support groups I’ve had and when the war began, they were all there - from all the schools and countries. Most of the people donating on those first days were my CEMS friends and their families. They have been nothing but supportive and proactive. I’ve had CEMS folks reach out to fundraise, I have had my classmates promote Ukraine in their countries, in their companies . When I got nominated for the Alumni of the Year, this was fully thanks to my wonderful CEMS friends who took the time to write out about my work and how they perceived it.

Ever since receiving this award, I got even more support. In Cairo, during the Graduation ceremony, everyone was very keen, very involved, very interested in how they can support. That includes the CEMS offices, that also includes the CEMS Clubs. I am now cooperating with CEMS Club Prague as we’re organizing a Running Dinner for Charity across all the CEMS Clubs in the alliance (you can still sign up here!). I’ve also been invited by CEMS Club Dublin to UCD where I got to meet the new cohort and welcome them to Dublin as well as speak to them about Ukraine. In short, the CEMS community has been a rock in this, I am very grateful to them for supporting Ukraine.


5. What 3 things would you advise current CEMS students that want to make an impact in terms of social responsibility?

The first would be questioning the status quo. When you come into a corporate environment, you should always be questioning if things are being done in a sustainable manner or not. “Why is it done like this?” “ Is there a better way to do it?” For me this is my first and foremost insight: we shouldn’t let the corporate world impose on us, instead we need to be empowered to be the disruptive force.

Then second is asking yourself who is really benefiting from the work that you do. No matter which project or which industry. When you’re working on a project, who is really at the receiving end? What is the net impact in the world? What is your effect on the economy? How are you impacting the industry you are working in? If you’re working in automotive or in pharmaceuticals or in any other industry, what is your net impact on society and on the world? And you should then hold yourself accountable to that. You might not be able to stop an entire company from doing something that is harmful, but you can stop yourself. And you can show that example to others and influence more to change the world.

Lastly, the third point would be exercising your voice. You need to know who the shareholders in your company are, who the politicians in your parliament are, what they are promoting or what they want to achieve. The war has shown me that being politically uninvolved is a privilege that none of us should exercise. I would really love to lend that message to all the CEMSies around the world, living in all sorts of environments and political climates. We should be politically involved, we should be going out there and voting, we should know who is running our country or a company because if we don’t know, that means we are not in power to change it. Each one of us can influence where we are and know where the ship that we are on is really going. As one of CEMS values states - professional responsibility and accountability in relation to society as a whole. Let’s ground ourselves in that.

Thank you for having me & Slava Ukraini

Kate Zhuzha HOC flyer