Anyone who has read about the war in Ukraine on social media, or donated to charities there has likely come across a striking illustration of Saint Javelin. Designed to reference the religious icons in Eastern European Christianity, she’s draped in green, staring serenely back at the viewer.
But she’s holding an anti-tank guided missile, a Javelin, diagonally across her chest. Saint Javelin’s blue halo is adorned with a yellow tryzub, the three-pronged symbol of Ukraine, floating around her head.
On Feb. 16, 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine looked to be imminent, Christian Borys, based in Toronto, Canada, replicated the very niche meme of Saint Javelin on stickers. He began selling them via a simple website as a way to raise funds. Borys, a former journalist who ran his own marketing firm at the time, had hoped to raise $500 in total from his Saint Javelin sticker sales. He was stunned to make $1,000 on the first day. And the sales kept coming.
Over the past year Saint Javelin evolved from a scrappy sticker operation, to a full-fledged mission-based business. Saint Javelin now employees 15 people, nearly all living in Ukraine, and produces a line of apparel and products adorned with symbols in support of Ukraine, from tractors pulling tanks, to NAFO dogs, another humorous internet meme created by Ukraine supporters, to the classic tryzub symbol.
Borys estimates Saint Javelin has donated $2.5 million over the past year to humanitarian charities, and paid nearly $1 million to suppliers in Ukraine for goods and services used by Saint Javelin.
Despite the violent Russian invasion with its reported 65,000 war crimes and crimes against humanity, Ukrainians continue to work amid missile strikes and power outages. The country has a robust startup ecosystem. Saint Javelin is one of 200-plus startups listed on the sleek Spend with Ukraine to Stand with Ukraine website. Others are grammar platform Grammarly and the face-swapping app Reface. (Grammarly’s co-founders are Ukrainian, two live abroad).
Borys is of Ukrainian and Polish descent, and was a working journalist in Ukraine from 2014 to 2018. He spoke with Times of Entrepreneurship about why he created Saint Javelin as a for-profit enterprise, its future, and the company’s social mission statement, “We are in business to re-build Ukraine.”
Nina Roberts: Did you ever think about structuring Saint Javelin as a nonprofit, or did you always know that you wanted a for-profit business?
Christian Borys: I grappled with it a lot. When I started Saint Javelin, there was no big vision or plan. It just went crazy, right off the bat. Once I understood what was happening, I said I’d do whatever I can to keep it going. I hired really smart people in Ukraine who I either knew, or were referred.
I put it to our team: do we want to be a nonprofit or in business? Nobody on our team comes from a charity or nonprofit background. We basically decided that we would rather be in the position to make money and decide what to do with it, rather than asking people for money so we can do things with it.
Also, our realization was that if you’re a charity or nonprofit, set up on a whim and relying on people donating—that will probably dry up, significantly, once the violence ends. But there’s a whole country to rebuild, not just economically, but all the other aspects. I’ve always been interested in, and an advocate for, PTSD programs. So then here we are a year later and we’re thinking, how does this evolve and become sustainable for years?
NR: So, how has, or will, Saint Javelin evolve?
CB: We decided that in order for us to be sustainable long term, ultimately, people will want to buy our products because they’re made, manufactured, or produced in Ukraine and of high quality.
We’re experimenting. For example, we are trying to create a coffee product now—you buy coffee every month, or whatever it may be—we chose a well-known supplier in Ukraine, kind of a hipster coffee brand. We’d ship it from Ukraine, using a Ukrainian shipping company. If it works out, it can help us achieve that goal of being sustainable for longer.
NR: Who doesn’t love coffee? Another initiative you have is a photo book by Sasha Maslov called SAINTS, correct?
CB: Yes, Sasha is a well-known photographer, he’s been shooting in Ukraine since the summer and will continue through the spring. The book will be printed in Kharkiv, hopefully ready by late August or September.
NR: And you manufacture your products in both Canada and Ukraine?
CB: I’m hoping that we can manufacture 50% of our products in Ukraine this year. We just shipped 500 shirts from Ukraine to Toronto, which are almost sold out.
We’ve also contracted a clothing designer who is guiding us on how to make quality products using excellent fabrics. I know it’s a crazy thing, but we’re trying to compete with companies like Patagonia that make really good stuff and have a strong social mission.
NR: How much money has Saint Javelin given, and to which organizations, over the past year?
CB: In total, I think we’ve given around $2.5 million. I think we’ve given $600,000 to Help Us Help, close to $1.5 million to Ukrainian World Congress, an NGO that’s been around since the 70s. I have supported some funds that friends of mine from Kyiv created, like the 2402 Fund, which specifically supports Ukrainian journalists.
We bought a tractor trailer load of generators being used in field hospitals, as well as winter jackets and sleeping bags for soldiers. We bought six or seven trucks, some have gone to the front, others are being used to evacuate civilians. One group sent us a video of their truck three days after they got it, they drove it into a tree because they got shelled during an evacuation. It’s very rare for trucks to last longer than a month.
NR: This invasion is a nightmare.
CB: Yes, February 24 is the one-year mark. It’ll be very emotional. I’ve been looking back through how this all started and it’s really difficult. I don’t think many people have taken time to look back yet, I think it’ll be a really, really traumatic time for a lot of people.
NR: Who are the people buying Saint Javelin goods?
CB: The US is 50% of Saint Javelin support, the EU makes up 40%. Finland is one of the biggest individual countries. What I’ve realized is that the citizens of countries that have dealt with Russia—Finland, Poland, Estonia, all the Baltic countries—they understand what Ukraine is going through. They don’t question why Ukraine needs aid; they don’t question why NATO exists.
NR: A couple months ago Oleksii Reznikov, the Minister of Defense, donned one of your Saint Javelin shirts, and gave one to President Zelenskyy, how did that feel?
CB: I gave a shirt to Reznikov when I was in Kyiv and kind of half-jokingly I asked him to give one to the President. He said, “Yeah, of course.” You know, I just thought he’s going give it to one of his assistants.
But later that day he messaged me, and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, the president has your shirt.”
About 10 minutes later, my phone started going crazy. I think it was Zelenskyy’s TikTok account that shared a video of him getting the Saint Javelin shirt. I remember just shaking a little because it was really, really surreal. That same day I was standing on a balcony in Kyiv and two cruise missiles hit a building less than a kilometer away from me. So, I went from this feeling of “Wow, this is incredibly surreal,” to sheer terror, in a very brief period of time. That’s a day that I’ll never ever, ever forget.
NR: Going back to the business, have you ever sought outside investment?
CB: I haven’t had time to think about it. I still don’t have a full grasp of what this is. We’re trying to turn it into a proper clothing brand, but we’re nowhere close to that yet. I don’t feel comfortable even going in that direction until I have a better idea of what we want to do. But it’s funny you ask because just last week, for the first time, somebody approached us about investment.
NR: At one year on, do you worry that supporters will get tired of the war?
CB: I don’t fear that anymore. I remember the exact moment when I realized that the world wasn’t going to focus entirely on this war. I was I was doing an interview with CNN and they cut it short because Roe v. Wade was overturned that day, which became the biggest story in the United States.
I remember thinking, “Oh, of course, there’s always another thing that happens, and this will not be the biggest story in the world anymore.” It’s still one of the biggest stories, there’s a core group of people who really, truly care, and there’s a lot of them.
NR: What about Saint Javelin’s reliance on social media? Algorithms change, Elon Musk bought Twitter.
CB: Well, Instagram shut us down three times. Whether it’s real people or bots, if you have thousands of reports in an hour, Instagram closes your account. For example, Russian Telegram channels—some have millions of people now—will identify somebody and they’ll say, “Report this person.”
Elon buying Twitter, we’ve seen our engagement drop off considerably. We started to think about protecting ourselves against what could possibly become a really terrible platform.
On social media your audience is owned by another company, it can just disappear at any time. We’ve begun to treat our own email list as much more of a priority than our social media in terms of sales.
NR: I’ve noticed that Saint Javelin has a bit of a dark sense of humor, perhaps it’s one of the reasons it’s so successful.
CB: When I started it, I didn’t think it was funny because it [the looming Russian invasion] was terrifying and incredibly sad to see what was happening. But when the Russians invaded and got their asses kicked—they lost a lot of tanks and equipment—I think people started to realize that Ukraine has a chance. It sparked a lot of memes, people started to use humor as a way to kind of celebrate Ukraine’s victories.
When they sank the Moskva ship, the memes that day went crazy. It’s one of the most impressive military victories, ever, the memes started to ratchet up and everybody got involved.
The Ukrainians have been in this for nearly 10 years when the Russians took Crimea [in 2014]. So, what I say to the dark humor, I think what the world sees is years of people using humor to cope with a nightmare.
NR: Speaking of memes, is it even possible to claim any kind of ownership of Saint Javelin’s designs? Or is it just a free for all on social media?
CB: We do have Saint Javelin copyrighted, but memes, you almost never know who is the original creator. We’ve created lots of stuff that ends up getting taken by whoever else. It’s impossible to monitor, it’s not something that I focus on.
NR: The original image that inspired Saint Javelin was from a 2012 painting, correct?
CB: Yes, the artist Chris Shaw created an artwork he calls the Madonna Kalashnikov [a Madonna holding an AK-47] and then around 2018, someone on the internet created an image replacing the Kalashnikov with the Javelin. It was very niche, the only people I knew who knew about Saint Javelin were analysts, those who follow war and conflict on a daily basis. And then, February last year, I put it out into the world and the world responded.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Corrections: The photo book title, a photo caption and the year Russia took Crimea was incorrect, the current story reflects the correct information.
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