Russian-born billionaire tech investor Yuri Milner is pledging $100 million to launch a new initiative that will help Ukrainian refugees amid the ongoing war with Russia. It’s the latest effort by the Silicon Valley magnate – whose value is estimated at $7.3 billion thanks in part to early investments in Facebook and Twitter – to show his support for Ukrainians and distance himself from sources linked to the Kremlin who helped him build his fortune over more than a decade ago.
As announced Thursday, the initiative, “Tech for Refugees,” involves a partnership between the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, a nonprofit group co-founded by Milner and his wife, Julia, in 2012, and leading tech companies, including vacation rental giant Airbnb, freight forwarding company Flexport and audio streaming service Spotify. The initial money from the foundation will be used to support efforts currently underway by these companies to help Ukrainian refugees, such as Airbnb providing free short-term housing and Flexport arranging humanitarian shipments to refugee sites. refugees. The partners also plan to support new aid initiatives in the future.
“We have been devastated by the heartbreaking suffering of the Ukrainian people,” the Milners said in a statement. “We believe this initiative, in partnership with some of the world’s most creative tech companies and organizations, can provide practical assistance to people living in turmoil outside their home countries.”
Notably, Milner’s investment fund, DST Global, the source of his immense fortune, has already backed the three companies with which he collaborates for this effort. He participated in Airbnb’s Series B in 2011 and also invested in Flexport and Spotify.
Although “Tech for Refugees” will begin by focusing on the more than 11 million people who were forced to flee Ukraine, Milner and his partners plan to make this a broader effort that will help refugees in other parts of the world. Alice McGillon, a spokeswoman for Milner, said the foundations linked to Yuri and Julia, who signed the Giving Pledge promising to give at least half of their fortune to charity, have committed more than $700 million to scientific and humanitarian causes over the past decade.
According to the announcement, “Tech for Refugees” was inspired by the fundraising campaign launched in March by actress Mila Kunis, originally from Ukraine, and her husband, actor Ashton Kutcher. That of the pair Support Ukraine GoFundMe raised nearly $36 million, which is also being donated to Flexport and Airbnb through their nonprofits. Susy Schöneberg, the director of Flexport.org, said in an April 11 post video that the group had facilitated 33 shipments of humanitarian supplies to Eastern Europe which are dispersed by more than a dozen aid organizations including Unicef, Save the Children and Project Cure. During that time, Airbnb had housed more than 5,000 refugees, according to Katherine Woo of Airbnb.org.
The Milners previously contributed $5.5 million to Stand with Ukraine through the Breakthrough Foundation and Yuri’s investment fund, DST Global. They too promised An additional $3 million in March to support Ukrainian war victims, as well as an additional $3 million for organizations helping scientists, mathematicians and physicists fleeing Ukraine. The Breakthrough Foundation and DST Global issued statements condemning the war.
These actions come as Milner struggles to undermine associations with the Russian government, which have returned to the spotlight amid the war in Ukraine. The billionaire was revealed in the Paradise papersa treasure trove of leaked documents whose findings were published in 2017 as having received money from the Russian government-controlled VT
B Bank and a subsidiary of majority state-owned oil and gas giant Gazprom – both now under sanctions – to buy its shares in Twitter and Facebook, which it then sold for a huge profit. Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who has been sanctioned by the EU, UK and US, was an early investor in DST Global’s first two venture capital funds to bet on Facebook and Twitter.
Milner, a dual citizen of Israel and Russia who lives in the United States on a special visa, quickly sought to to clarify that he had not acted on behalf of the Russian government when he took money from VTB Bank, which was often used for politically strategic transactions, and invested it in social media platforms (there is no evidence suggesting otherwise). He continued to downplay his past ties to the government since the start of the war, stressful that he has not received any money from Russia since 2011 or made any investment in the country. World Summer Time refunded its investment with VTB Bank in 2014, the year the bank was sanctioned by the United States fact sheet posted on Milner’s website is quick to note that Milner “never met Vladimir Putin.”
“According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, you can only travel back in time, never back. So we can’t change the fact that we took money from Russian investors from the start,” he said. Milner said in a statement to Forbes. “But given that the whole world stopped taking Russian money just two months ago, our decision to do the same many years ago was apparently quite smart.”
As for his support for Ukraine, Milner says the cause is important to him, not least because of his personal ties to the country. “My own family is Ukrainian on my father’s side, and I spent many summers there growing up with my cousins,” he says. “Our current responsibility is to respond to the urgent needs of refugees by focusing our network and resources on this humanitarian catastrophe.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article described Alisher Usmanov as a major shareholder of DST Global. It has since been updated to clarify that he participated in DST’s first two funds as an investor.