As the old saying goes: “Time flies when you’re busy doing great things.”

If this is true, then Vira Illiash would create and deliver what would seem like several life-times worth of great work in helping countless organizations and people to move forward and impact Ukraine as whole.

I am one of the fortunate ones who was given the opportunity by Vira to create incredible projects that would go on to help promote Eastern Ukraine. But more importantly, I was one of the lucky who could proudly call her my friend.

I first received a phone call from Vira on Aug. 10, 2019, asking me to meet with her USAID Economic Resilience Activity team for the creation of an investment video that would be used to launch the President of Ukraine’s Investment Conference in Mariupol, Ukraine.

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The timing to deliver this film was incredibly hard, but it was clear from our meeting that all were inspired and that this should be more than just a film – but become a statement to everyone in Ukraine and to the world that Eastern Ukraine was not only surviving, but thriving.

Together with Vira and her amazing team, we set out to go filming a world-class film across Eastern Ukraine in a record 10-days and deliver it one day before the big media conference. Throughout our filming process, I personally got to meet businesses and people in Eastern Ukraine not only surviving, but believing in the future to stay and rebuild their communities.

Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation – Bridging the Gap
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Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation – Bridging the Gap

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This gave me a whole new perspective on why Vira was so passionate about her mission, as it was more than just giving money and help from her USAID project, but more so about being in the ‘trenches’ with them and aiding to grow their region, one business at a time.

The film was finalized at the 11th hour, launched in time for the conference, and got the stamp of approval by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky and all top-level businesspeople and diplomats. After this event, there was no stopping Vira, and her passion to promote, support, and elevate Eastern Ukraine to the world would continue full-speed ahead.

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We have a saying in my business that you are only as good as your clients. Vira was not only good, but she gave me the room to become great. She would give me, as some would call it, ‘Carte Blanche’ by trusting me and my instincts, but would also bring my ego back down to earth and steering the project back into focus when it was needed. I appreciated and respected her direct approach in work and life.

Vira would go on to create project after project with hard-hitting impact. Such projects included:

  • The 2019 Mariupol Investment Forum, attended by President Zelensky, US Chargé d’Affaires William Taylor, and the biggest and brightest minds in tech and business that opened up eastern Ukraine to the eyes of the world, generated one billion USD in investments and secured 4G mobile access for 90% of Ukraine’s enormous territory.

 

 

  • Vira and I would team up again to create and deliver CXID:Reload Eastern Ukraine event which reached 13 million people, 258 news sources, and positioned eastern Ukraine as a center of IT excellence for innovations.
  • 2021 campaign recruiting vloggers to tour the Sea of Azov region, resulting in Instagram stories that reached over 2 million people and showed the world the true beauty of the area.
  • After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the nature of Vira’s work necessarily changed and a 2023 project was simply called “Ukrainian Courage” which, using six emotionally-charged documentaries, helped create the global image that all Ukrainians now enjoy, as hero-defenders, making the conscious decision to protect their family, community and of course, their country.

  • And the list goes on in a career that has spanned more than 20 years with USAID.

“Vira taught us that there are always good things happening around us all the time, even in the worst circumstances. She was always able to find the good things, find the good people and to tell their stories to the world” – Timothy Madigan, Chief of Party, USAID Economic Resilience Activity

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, I received a phone call informing me of Vira’s passing after a long but courageous battle with cancer. To demonstrate her tenacity and state of drive, Vira worked until her very last moments where she was leading a team meeting for her next big project on a Friday afternoon just three days before, without showing any signs that her health was affected.

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The name Vira Illiash should be included in the dictionary when it explains the meaning of resilience. She deserves our applause and heartfelt thanks for all the splendid work she did for Ukraine’s business and promotion, its people in Eastern Ukraine, and for having allowed me and countless others to having been a part of these incredible adventures.

But most importantly for myself, that Vira saw the value in making room for me to be her friend and showing me that business and friendship was possible.

Slava Ukraini. Slava Viri! (Glory to Ukraine. Glory to Vira!)

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