Photo of Killed Ukraine Startup Worker Hits Painful Chord in Silicon Valley

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  • Tatiana Perebeinis and her two children were killed earlier this month in Ukraine.
  • Perebeinis worked at tech startup SE Ranking, which makes search engine optimization tools.
  • Her death, captured in a New York Times photo, brought home the war’s brutalities for her colleagues and Silicon Valley peers.

As soon as Ksenia Khirvonina saw the photo, she recognized her friend’s jacket. 

Just a few days earlier, as Khirvonina and her internet company coworkers gathered in the mountains for a corporate retreat, her colleague Tatiana Perebeinis had worn the same light pink parka. 

Now, Perebeinis, 43, and her two children were dead, killed by Russian shelling as they tried to escape to safety. A photo of their deaths was published by The New York Times.

Russian mortars struck an evacuation route for Ukrainian civilians, killing Perebeinis, her 18-year-old son Mykyta, and her 9-year-old daughter, Alisa, and fatally wounding Anatoly Berezhnyi, a volunteer who was helping them flee. The family had been sheltering in the basement of their apartment building for days and was attempting to escape as Russian soldiers repeatedly shelled their neighborhood. They never made it. 

The image of the family, felled in the middle of the street with their luggage strewn around them, instantly became a symbol of the horror taking place in Ukraine. At least 691 Ukrainian civilians have been killed as of March 15, according to the United Nations, but The New York Times estimated Thursday that figure could be much higher, possibly in the thousands. On Friday, in the western city of Lyiv, 109 empty strollers and car seats were placed in front of the city hall to memorialize the children that have died in the conflict.

As details about Perebeinis’ life and her tech startup job emerged in the days after her death, the tragedy has struck a visceral nerve in many people, adding an overtone both relatable and unsettling to the grim photograph. The woman lying by the sidewalk was not an anonymous victim in a distant, war-torn land; she worked at a startup that looks remarkably similar to tech firms everywhere, with the same work meetings, office routines and corporate retreats familiar to all startup employees.

“She deserves so much more than to be known as the body in the street, killed by Putin’s mortars,” Twitter employee Brian Ries wrote in a tweet. Others on social media decried the loss of a “fellow tech worker,” who belonged to a company whose digital marketing tools “we use every day.”

Perebeinis was the head accountant at SE Ranking, a 9-year-old startup whose search engine optimization tools help websites manage their presence and rankings within online search results. For the past six years, Perebeinis had worked at its Kyiv office, delighting her colleagues with her adventurous spirit, sense of humor, and updates about her children’s latest achievements. 

Her story over those years reflects both the chaos and uncertainty that has riven Ukraine since Russia’s 2013 annexation of Crimea, and the extent to which the forces of globalized internet commerce can provide a veneer of normalcy even amid the most turbulent times.

Alex Iskold, a Ukrainian-born venture capital investor in New York, told Insider that his inbox is full of messages from startup founders in Ukraine and venture capitalists with ties to the country. The tech community in the US and Europe has responded to the invasion with “a truly unprecedented display of unity and solidarity.”

While he didn’t know Perebeinis, Iskold called her death “so graphic, so senseless, so hurtful.”

“There are moments in this war that drive things home even harder and this was one of them,” he said of Perebeinis and her family’s death.

A “big sister” who had already fled fighting 

SE Ranking employees pose in group photo at company retreat in Georgia

Perebeinis, second from right, and her SE Ranking colleagues at a company retreat last month in the country of Georgia.

SE Ranking

For those who worked alongside Perebeinis, the suddenness of her death was jarring.

“Tania was a new friend and colleague with whom I collaborated regularly and as recently as last Friday,” said Scott Irwin, cofounder of San Francisco-based financial firm Camber Partners, in a Linkedin post. “This has been heart-breaking but also evil and unjust.”

Irwin’s firm invested in SE Ranking late last year. Camber Partners hasn’t revealed the amount it invested, and Irwin did not respond to Insider’s outreach, though he told TechCrunch in December that Camber’s typical investment is between $10 million and $25 million.

The Camber Partners investment appears to have been SE Ranking’s most significant direct link to Silicon Valley. 

While Perebeinis has been described in some media reports as an employee of a Palo Alto, California, tech company, SE Ranking’s operations are primarily in Eastern Europe, with nearly all of its roughly 100 employees based in Kyiv or Minsk, Belarus, according to their LinkedIn profiles. SE Ranking lists a Palo Alto address on its website, as well as headquarters in London, but the main London address is a mail forwarding address and the office building in Palo Alto had no listing for SE Ranking in its directory. 

Khirvonina, who is SE Ranking’s head of public relations, said the company has investors and partners based in the US, but said she could not disclose their names.

Soon after joining SE Ranking in 2016, Perebeinis rose through the ranks to eventually oversee all of the company’s finances, both in Ukraine and internationally, effectively taking on the role of chief financial officer.

She and her husband, Serhiy, had moved to Kyiv in 2014 after fleeing an uprising by Russian separatists in Donetsk, a city in Eastern Ukraine. In 2018, they bought an apartment in Irpin, a community just outside Kyiv — they hoped the apartment would feel like “a fortress, their home for many years to come,” Khirvonina said. 

Khirvonina described Perebeinis as bright, always smiling, almost always in a good mood, and always willing to help out her colleagues, even with their personal finances: Perebeinis had recently helped Khirvonina upgrade her credit card, explaining how to call her bank and how to fill out the paperwork.

“She was a big sister to a lot of us,” Khirvonina said. 

When Perebeinis’ son Mykyta was applying to colleges, the whole office became invested in the process, offering advice on his exams and which university he should attend. 

A spreadsheet with evacuation plans

In the build-up to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, many of SE Ranking’s employees in Europe fled to other countries such as Poland and Dubai.

Perebeinis had delayed leaving however, and was still in Irpin as Russian tanks rolled down the street, according to Khirvonina, who spoke to Insider from Dubai. Perebeinis had stayed back because she was concerned about her mother, who The New York Times reports has Alzheimer’s disease, and because she didn’t want to leave her son — at 18, he was required to stay in Ukraine for possible military conscription.

Anastasia Avetysian, another SE Ranking employee, told The Times that Perebeinis had been instrumental in distributing emergency funds to employees to help them evacuate, and that her sense of humor was intact even as she hid in her building’s basement.

“She was optimistic and joking in our group chat that the company would now need to do a special operation to get them out, like ‘Saving Private Ryan,'” Avetysian told The Times.

SE Ranking had been tracking employees’ locations and evacuation plans on a spreadsheet and was aware that Perebeinis and her children were hoping, finally, to flee on March 6. 

On that day, a Sunday, Khirvonina was monitoring an employee channel on the messaging app Telegram when she saw that Russian soldiers were firing on the same evacuation corridor Perebeinis planned to use. 

“My heart squeezed,” she said. “I was praying that it was not them.”

The company’s HR manager called Perebeinis repeatedly but she didn’t pick up. Eventually, she confirmed that Perebeinis, Mykyta, and Alisa had been killed. Soon after, the photos appeared online. 

“She was an innocent person, she did nothing wrong. She was not carrying any weapons. She was not saying any bad words to those Russian soldiers, nothing,” Khirvonina said. “She was just running to the bus.”

Silicon Valley’s Ukrainian ties

cars of evacuees line a road leaving blocks of burnt out destroyed apartment buildings

A line of cars leaves behind apartment buildings destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict, as evacuees leave the besieged port city of Mariupol on March 17.

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

In the nearly two weeks since Perebeinis and her family were killed, Russia’s attacks on cities in Ukraine have intensified, with reports of Russian forces shelling civilian areas in Kyiv and other cities. 

Iskold, the founder and managing partner of 2048 Ventures, recently launched a fund called the $1K Project, which is giving money directly to families impacted by the war. “These are war crimes, these are atrocities, baseless and senseless killing of people of the country where I was born. This needs to stop,” said Iskold, who lived in Ukraine until he was 19. 

Employees and executives at tech companies including Meta, Uber, and Apple, many with direct ties to the country, have sprung to action. Grammarly, a San Francisco software startup that was founded in Ukraine, said it is donating $5 million for organizations supporting people in Ukraine, while employees have shared photos of friends’ and family members’ homes in ruins.

Lyft, the ride-hailing app, which reportedly has nearly 60 employees in Ukraine, told Insider it’s providing financial support and extra time off for those who want to temporarily relocate.

For SE Ranking’s Khirvonina, the loss of her colleague is part of a much larger tragedy affecting Ukraine, but one that is still difficult to process.

“It was very hard because it’s a person you knew and a person you just talked to several days ago,” Khirvonina said. 

“What could have happened if they were, I don’t know, 10 meters away from that spot, or if they were not running so fast, or if they were taking some other side of the street? Maybe it could be avoided.”

With additional reporting by Shona Ghosh.

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