Escape to the USA through Mexico, armed robbery and a $1 million startup: how a programmer from Ukraine tried to conquer America and changed his mind
During his 22 years, a guy from Ukraine managed to work as an ordinary programmer, cross the border with the United States, become disillusioned with America, move to India and become a co-founder of an IT company with large investments - and all this in order to realize the dream of returning home, reports AIN.
Evgeniy Rachkovan grew up in a small town in the Cherkasy region and has already come a long way in his 22 years. At the age of 18, he worked as a full-stack developer in a Ukrainian IT company, then joined the American startup Scrimmage as a co-founder and Chief technology officer and underwent acceleration at TechStars.
To participate in the program, Evgeniy overcame many obstacles: he lived in a refugee camp in Frankfurt, crossed the border into the United States through Mexico, survived an armed robbery in Indianapolis, and now lives with his fiancee in India in the hope of returning to Cherkassy.
Meanwhile, the startup, co-founded by Evgeniy, has already attracted more than $1 million in investments: about $100 from friends and family, $000 from TechStars, then another $120 from Eberg Capital and IA Ventures funds, which recently financed the project by another $000.
Evgeniy says that at school he was good only in two subjects - English and mathematics.
“And, as in any typical Ukrainian family, if a child is good at English and mathematics, he goes to IT. I had a computer since I was 6 years old and loved playing games, so I was all for it,” he says.
After 9th grade, he went to study at Cherkasy State Business College for software engineering.
“I had a strict family, so as soon as I broke out of the house and into the hostel, I immediately relaxed. I spent all my time playing games and doing everything except studying,” says Evgeniy.
He completely missed the first 2 years and realized that this was not the life he wanted to live. Evgeniy began to actively learn programming. Six months later he became the best student in the class.
After the second year, students had to undergo an internship.
Many passed it fictitiously, as Evgeniy says, but he decided to take it for real, to take advantage of the opportunity. He got an internship at the IT company Interlink. This is a local company also known as Software Planet Group. They have offices in the USA and in Lviv, and have approximately 100 employees, which means they are relatively small.
“I did an internship there, everything was very good - we made the first commercial application. And I was invited to an internship. I was the youngest there - I turned 18 on the first day of the internship, and after the internship I became the first to be hired,” recalls Evgeniy.
Search for a way
The company specialized in Fullstack development, so he became a Fullstack developer. For the next two years, he worked full time for the company. The college allowed those who worked in their specialty not to attend classes - they just had to take tests. Evgeniy did not go on to study further after college, that is, he has a secondary education.
When he was 19, he already had a year of experience as a programmer, and, as Evgeniy says, he burned out.
“I understood that I could just continue to live as I was living - in 20 years I would have a $5000 salary, I had already secured my life. I got bored,” he said.
Evgeniy began reading books on self-development, such as Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and actively studying English.
“And when you study English, you need to read English literature. And that plunged me into the world of entrepreneurship, startups, the American Dream, that's all. I was inspired by Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, who was just at the peak of popularity (even before he bought Twitter),” says Evgeniy.
Evgeniy talked with his managers at work, they recommended him to become a PM. He took several courses, but then it turned out that his company didn’t really need PMs. Evgeniy says that he worked on one project, but he was given very limited competencies, and there was nowhere to grow. “There began a stage when I had a lot of business ideas, I proposed many different changes, but the company rejected all of them,” he says.
Evgeniy began working on his own ideas while still working for the company.
“It was always such an iterative process: I came up with some kind of platform, made a document, described it, found a team - and gave it all up. Then he came up with a new idea, found a team, launched some small website - and gave it all up. There were about six of these cycles before I quit and decided to fully pursue my own projects,” he says.
“I was 20 years old. As a person who is 90% self-taught, I have seen that what is taught in colleges for IT specialization is not always relevant. This was the only problem that I saw at that moment and thought that I could solve it, because I solved this problem for myself,” says Evgeniy.
He wanted to create a decentralized education system for IT specialists. His idea was to give self-trained people the opportunity to receive full certification without going through a university. That is, if a person has read 50 books, he knows more than people who graduated from university. Evgeniy wanted such people to be recognized like those who graduated from universities.
He moved to Kyiv, found a co-founder, and they worked on it for about six months.
“Cool programmer, but bad businessman”
Evgeniy says that he managed to create a platform, launch it, but sell it, organize marketing - it didn’t work out. He ran out of money, he returned back to his town, and began working as a freelancer to save money and return to this idea again.
“I’m a great programmer, but a bad businessman,” he says.
Evgeniy managed to find a project quite quickly. He knew that the company he had previously worked for was selling programming services for $50/hour, and he realized that he could easily charge $30/hour—and that would be a competitive rate.
“I was approached by some startup related to online gambling. I didn't want to work there, but I couldn't refuse, so I decided to ask for more money. If they refuse, then ok, but if they agree, well, I’ll work a little, I’ll earn extra money,” says Evgeniy. “And they agreed.”
These were Matt and Dan, his future Scrimmage co-founders.
Matt and Dan attended the University of Pennsylvania, Ivy League, and then worked on Wall Street as business analysts. They developed a framework that helped them bet on sports and win.
“They made 40% profit for the year, which is really cool. And they decided to make their own startup: something like a sports betting investment fund. They wanted to save investors’ money and multiply it by investing in sports betting. For this they needed an IT platform,” says Evgeniy.
Matt and Dan raised up to $100 from their relatives and began looking for programmers who could implement it all.
“Before me, they had 32 different people who coded something there and left. I became their first full-fledged IT specialist,” says Evgeniy. “After successful work, I offered to take me as a co-owner and the service station.”
Evgeniy read somewhere that this is the ideal option for people like him: first become a co-founder in someone’s startup, gain experience, and then found something of their own.
At Scrimmage, he was first a backend developer, then he started working on the frontend, took on more and more responsibility and became a team lead. As Evgeniy says, at some point he was already deciding who to fire, who to hire, how to develop the product.
Matt and Dan agreed, gave Eugene a share of the company, and cut his salary. So he became a co-founder and STO Scrimmage.
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“Back then there was already news that Russia was gathering troops around Ukraine. That’s why no one was worried in Ukraine, but in America they were already preparing for World War III,” says Evgeniy. – And so, one fine Friday evening, when I was smoking a hookah and programming in Kyiv, Matt wrote to me. Like, you are our co-founder, we can’t take risks - buy tickets and fly to us.”
On Saturday, Evgeniy was already flying to Poland. His classmate lived in Poznan, with whom he skipped the first two years of study. He sheltered Evgeniy for a while.
In winter, Evgeniy’s company was accepted into TechStars.
TechStars is a global investment business that provides access to capital, one-on-one mentorship, a worldwide network and customized programs for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Evgeniy really wanted to get there, but with American visas everything was very difficult. In three months they were supposed to start the program, but only to sign up at the Polish embassy for an interview - there was a waiting list of 6 months, as Evgeniy says. He decided to look where there were no queues. I read that there is a good embassy in Germany.
And so Evgeniy went by train to Germany, but instead of getting to Zurich, he accidentally joined the movement of Ukrainian refugees and went with them to Berlin.
“They simply asked me: “Are you from Ukraine?” I said yes. And they told me: “You should go there,” the guy says.
So he first ended up in one refugee camp, then he was transported to another - in a small town near Zurich. There, Evgeniy was settled with 20-30 other people and even got a job at a local university on a scholarship that fully covered tuition and living expenses - but he refused.
“The woman curator who organized this said that I was the stupidest person she had ever met,” says Evgeniy. – While I was deciding which embassy to go to, I became very ill. I was sick for 10 days, it was very bad, and I no longer wanted anything - just to return home.”
Disappointed, Evgeniy returned to Poland and started going to a local coworking space. There he met a refugee named Vera, who also dreamed of moving to the United States and knew that some Ukrainians get there through Mexico.
Evgeniy decided to try to cross the US border through Mexico with her.
“At first I doubted it, because no one had any guarantees of success, and this is not a very official way, although you don’t need to climb over any fences anywhere, as Americans often imagine,” says Evgeniy. “My co-founders were scared: they were afraid that I would be recruited into some drug cartel and they wouldn’t see me again. But there were no other options.”
Evgeniy and Vera traveled to Mexico through three countries: Poland, Portugal and Spain.
“Mexico turned out to be not as scary as my co-founders imagined it to be. In addition, there were already people there who organized a camp for Ukrainian refugees who wanted to get to the United States. We joined them, signed up for the electronic queue, spent the night in a hotel and crossed the border the very next day,” he says.
“Everything went fine. They didn't ask for anything, just a passport. So simple. I didn’t believe that I would pass, but at that time it was not very popular, not many people did it,” says the guy.
It would seem that Evgeniy’s dream has come true - he has wanted to get to the USA for so long!
Disappointment in America
Evgeny immediately came to Texas, his co-founders live in Austin. He bought a plane ticket and flew to them. Evgeniy says that he didn’t like it in Texas - it was very hot, he couldn’t breathe.
When the time came for the TechStars program, the company moved to Indiana (the program takes place in the state capital, Indianapolis).
The accelerator invested $120 in the project, and the guys wanted to save money, so they rented housing a little further from the city center.
“It turned out that our area is a local ghetto. And one fine Saturday evening I was robbed,” says Evgeniy. – My co-founders were at work in a coworking space, and I decided to go to the store by bicycle. As soon as I left the house, a car cut me off, several African-Americans got out, one of them had a gun. They took my backpack, which contained my passport and phone, and I ended up in the USA without documents.”
Evgeniy says that then he realized that living in the USA is very expensive. In his first startup, he had a co-founder from India. “When we worked together, we started dating online. There was little chance to expand – she was in India, I was in Ukraine, so we separated,” says Evgeniy. “But in the fall of 2022, she flew to Los Angeles to attend college. We decided to meet, I flew to her in Los Angeles. We got back together and started living together.”
According to Evgeniy, the housing that the couple rented in Los Angeles was the most expensive in his life. For a month they paid $2600 plus about another $500 for utilities. They lived there for three months and realized that it was unprofitable. His girlfriend was from a fairly poor family; Evgeniy’s minimum founder’s salary was $2000.
The girl Evgenia decided to leave college and go home to India. Evgeniy wanted to go with her. But there was a problem. The guy's passport was stolen, and now he could not leave the USA.
The only agency that could restore Eugene’s documents was in San Francisco, so he decided to live in California for some time and visit Silicon Valley.
He needed to live there for 6 months until he received his documents. So he decided to take everything he could from the Valley. Evgeniy took courses at Stanford, visited Hacker House, went to several Networking events with entrepreneurs, signed up for a community, and visited Mountain View.
"It was cool. But it's expensive. I think it’s very cool to live in the USA, but when you have reached a certain level of financial independence,” says the guy.
“After moving to India, we increased investments and my salary was raised. My girlfriend and I got engaged and now live in India. Here, $2000 a month is enough for us to cover all family expenses,” he says. “I don’t like India, it’s a terrible country.”
“The food here is very cool, but God knows what’s going on on the streets. Everything is very abandoned, there are no sidewalks, for the first few months I thought that a car would hit me - there are simply no traffic rules here, you show with your hand that you are crossing and then run,” says Evgeniy.
“There’s a problem with cows in general. They are sacred here and cannot be killed. But people keep them as long as the cows give milk. When a cow gets old, it is simply put out on the street, and that is why in India there are stray cows roaming the streets,” he says.
After Evgeniy joined Scrimmage, he hired his friends to join the team. He now has 4 programmers on his team, all Ukrainians. Three of them are from Cherkassy, including Evgeniy, and one girl is from Chernigov.
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“I dream of an office in Cherkassy, on the banks of the Dnieper. As soon as the war is over, I will return. Ukraine is the best country I have ever visited,” says Evgeniy.
“I’ve gone through a rather interesting path: now I’m 22, I’m a CTO at an American startup. And although I work full-time at Scrimmage, I have a dream – to change the education system in Ukraine,” says Evgeniy. – I want Ukraine to be in the top 10 economies in the world by the time I die. I have several projects that I am doing just for this purpose.”
“For example, on Kavun UA I share my experience in IT and help people find co-founders in the American market. I hope that there will be more people who will not just write code in galleys, but will build startups in Ukraine. Although this is a risky path, it is necessary for economic recovery,” he says.
It seems to Evgeniy that Ukraine lacks institutions like TechStars.
“TechStars changed my life, where I turned from a programmer to a technical founder. There I met 15 other companies. We worked in a shared office every day and went to dinner parties with each team once a week,” he says.
Evgeniy believes that this was a turning point in his career. And now he wants to change the lives of others the same way people changed his life.
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