This year I attended Slush for the first time; the annual tech conference held in Helsinki. I managed to combine some client meetings with networking and exploring the Finnish capital, as well as actually attending some of the events from the main schedule - including the Slush 100 final competition...
Set in a huge venue with industrial chrome fittings, the vast blackness is the perfect backdrop for Slush's colourful light show, displayed liberally throughout the entire conference - creating a sense of exciting showmanship for what could easily be an otherwise drab work conference.
Presented by a young, energetic whippersnapper in a hoodie, the only startup hallmarks missing were bean bags and ping pong tables. The Slush 100 final competition was starting, and we were about to find out who'd be the winner of an incredible cash prize from some of the world's top VC firms (including Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Ventures, NEA, and Northzone).
First up was Anastasia Mirolyubova, Co-Founder & CEO of Immigram, the relocation platform for immigrants and employers, helping people move to other countries and empowering hiring companies to employ the best talent - regardless of race or nationality.
How truly meta, then, for this Russian founder of an immigration platform to have found herself at the centre of one of the tech industry's biggest controversies this year.
But let's cut back to last Friday afternoon, where I was sat in this conference-centre-cum-nightclub for what felt like a live performance of Dragons' Den meets X Factor. (It was great!)
Tall, slim, confident, and trendy, Mirolyubova walks out on to the main Slush stage to deliver a live pitch to a panel of judging investors and a room full of 1000s of people. No pressure.
I felt sorry for the other two who had to follow her act. The bar was set incredibly high. Having heard countless founders' pitches and reviewed even more pitch decks, I was truly impressed. "This is what it takes to be in the Top 3 for the Slush 100," I thought.
Delivering her presentation with charisma, energy, confidence and expertise, Mirolyubova impressed me further with how she responded to the panel of investors' questions. Almost like watching a boxing match, Mirolyubova's answers artfully met their punches. Wow.
It was no surprise, then, that her name was read out when it came to announcing the winner.
The surprises were for later.
She graciously accepted her bouquet of flowers, hugged her new investors, and posed for photos with the obligatory giant cheque. What a special moment. I felt so happy for her!
I support deserving, impressive, smart, ambitious, female founders.
But then, sat in the middle seat of a Boeing 737-800 at Vantaa airport, waiting to take flight the following evening, I noticed an official-looking statement from the Slush Instagram account. Classic white text on a black background, they announced they'd be investigating the winner - following the apparent online backlash regarding Russia ties.
Wow, things are getting interesting.
Mirolyubova had acknowledged the fact she'd been up against a Ukrainian business in the final round (the less said there, the better), and that she'd be donating 10% of her winnings to a Ukrainian NGO.
But that was not enough.
Shortly after both Immigram and Slush seemed to simultaneously withdraw - Immigram announcing their departure and Slush revoking the prize.
To be clear, I do not support Putin or his nonsensical, tyrannical war on Ukraine. I do not support war in any country, against anyone. (In all honesty, I thought we'd left this level of physical conflict in the history books, so this all feels ridiculously "vintage").
However: I DO support deserving, impressive, smart, ambitious, female founders.
It turns out the controversy has amplified the usual press a Slush 100 winner would have normally got, resulting in Mirolyubova and her team getting more attention and more investment offers (one VC on LinkedIn offered to "replace" the €1M from the Slush investor cohort).
The news has shone even more of a spotlight on Russia's war on Ukraine, and resulted in many VCs taking their due diligence to new levels - including deeper reviews of where their money comes from (with LPs) to where it goes.
As ridiculous as the whole episode has been, the positive outcomes here are benefitting both Immigram and the industry as a whole - let's see if Slush can get their act together for next years competition now...
Stephanie Melodia is the Founder & CEO of award-winning agency, Bloom, a VC scout for Ada Ventures, and passionate feminist. She is a contributing writer for Startups Magazine and has spoken for the likes of LinkedIn, Roundhouse, Harvey Nash Group, ComputerWeekly, Enterprise Nation, General Assembly, D&AD, and more.