As Russian missiles were firing Feb. 24 toward Ukraine, Bret Starr, CEO of Fort Worth-based marketing agency The Starr Conspiracy, received an email from one of the companies he contracts with to provide social media support. 

Hi Team!

Considering our current situation in Ukraine, we need to switch to text communication mode and postpone any meetings. We don’t stop any LLG activities. We will continue doing our job and commit to our agreement.

“That was a really profound moment for me, because I was like, ‘How are they looking at this?’ Are they worried about losing clients when they’re, basically, being attacked by a communist superpower?” Starr said. 

That email set in motion a process to see what actions, if anything, Starr and the company could do to provide some sort of aid or relief to their contract workers in Ukraine. It led him to an unexpected place: setting up a plan to ship body armor to the country. 

For Starr and his company, which has 76 full-time employees all over the world, including in Ireland and Chile, the goal is to have those employees  have the same experience as those who live in Fort Worth, which accounts for about 50% of the company’s workers. 

The Starr Conspiracy itself has been thriving as a result of growing global investment in human resources and work technology. Unlike many companies that have been hard hit during COVID, Starr Conspiracy has been in growth mode and kept all employees but one during the pandemic. The company has more than doubled in size in the past year — from 35 to 76 employees — and this year looks strong, too, Starr said. Like many companies, Starr Conspiracy also has been using contract labor to perform many duties that can’t be performed by full-time employees, thus the Ukraine connection.

“We seem to have this arms-length relationship with these partners that we work with in places like Ukraine, where we almost see it as just a magic machine that turns out work, without really thinking about the people behind it,” he said. 

Moreover, Starr felt as if he knew these workers in Ukraine well, particularly because they were handling his LinkedIn page. 

“It’s like you have to go through this long process of trying to figure out what your personal brand is, and what your style is and how you like your content and all that,” he said. “I got to know a lot of them, and to get that email and to not do what I would do for any other person who I would consider an employee of my company.”

Following the Feb. 24 email from Ukraine, Starr immediately took to social media to write about the subject in a provocatively titled post: “My Ukrainian secret” paired with a photo of the invasion. 

“I started working with a Ukrainian company to run my personal LinkedIn strategy in the summer of 2020. The company is called Respect.Studio. And they are amazing. Truly amazing. After they kick Putin’s ass … I highly recommend you work with them,” he wrote.

According to TLNT, a talent management and human resources website, Ukraine has developed a strong presence in the human resources technology space with several startups, such as Skyworker, NuWork and PeopleForce providing services around the globe. 

Starr asked some of the people at Respect how Starr Conspiracy could help them. “Every single person I’ve talked to in Ukraine has said the same thing: body armor.” 

Actually, Starr admits, they said they need money, guns, bullets and body armor. 

“They said, ‘We can get food here. We can get humanitarian aid, but we need money for body armor, because there’s no body armor in Europe. Is there any way that you can help us with that?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know,’” he said. 

The Starr Conspiracy had donated money, and the company couldn’t really send guns or bullets, Starr said. 

“But, after research and many calls, it turns out that we can help with body armor,” he said. 

Europe may be short of body armor, but it turns out, according to Starr, Texas has plenty. And there is a lot sitting in warehouses unsold, unused, he said. 

“I made a few calls, and it turns out that we’re in the application process to get what’s called a SNAP-R license that gives us the ability to export body armor,” Starr said. “It’s possible, and the government is expediting it. Anything for Ukraine. It’s possible that we’re going to be in a position to not only supply Respect.Studio with body armor for them and their families, but also make a significant contribution to the effort there by actually shipping all this body armor that sits in warehouses in Texas, because we got tons of it, and they can’t find it in Europe.”

Barring any roadblocks, Starr believes they will be set up soon to ship the equipment to Ukraine. Starr has set up an online funding site at Fundly to accept donations for the supplies.  

The whole process has Starr rethinking and re-examining the whole process of the relationship between a company and its employees. 

“I think there’s just an underlying basic question of decency,” Starr said. “How should you treat people, especially people who are under your charge as a leader? They’ve got other clients and all that stuff, but that account manager works for me and that content writer works for me. I’m part of the chain of human responsibility around that individual’s experience in life.”

A lot of companies are doing the right thing, such as offering to help relocate employees, he said. But he thinks businesses are mostly concerned about bottom line issues such as business continuity. 

“I just think that’s like whistling past the graveyard,” he said. “We should do more.”

Other businesses are also gathering supplies to ship to the Ukraine. In Dallas, Ukie Style Embroidery Art, a shop that sells clothing and accessories manufactured in the Ukraine, is gathering supplies to shop to the country. 

“We are gathering survival food items, personal water filters, hygiene products, first aid kids and other supplies,” said shop owner Olena Jacobs. 

The supplies are then shipped by Meest, a logistics company to the Ukraine, she said. 

“We’re getting a lot of supplies, but we need more,” Jacobs said. Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Bob Francis

Bob Francis is business editor for fortworthreport.org. He has been covering business news locally and nationally for many years. He can be reached at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org

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