Roman Vydro: the creator of GarageHub
Roman Vydro is an FLEX alumnus of 2009-2010. He was brave enough to take part in the FLEX program when he was 14, and he was probably one of the youngest participants that year. Living in Westlake, which is not far from Cleveland, he didn't even have an idea how this experience would strongly affect his life.
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What is FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program)? One goes to the United States for an academic year, lives with a host family, attends a local high school, and, basically, gets to know the culture and live the American life. The program is highly competitive—around 2% get in. When you become a finalist, the program covers everything: from the tickets to the US insurance and the monthly allowance. FLEX was created from the belief of the former Senator Bill Bradley that the best way to ensure long-lasting peace and mutual understanding is through exchange programs like this.
Roman Vydro: the creator of GarageHub
About the very close familiarity with the FLEX program

I first heard of this exchange program in the early 2000s, when I lived in Kharkiv. My oldest sister, who was the finalist for that program, was the reason for that. In 2001 she went to the New Mexico, Albuquerque area for a year, which was a rare opportunity back then.

Therefore I have been familiar with that program since my childhood. It just happened that my sister's host family has invited her over to come back a few times over the summer of consequent years. So Lena actually went back to New Mexico four more times after her exchange here at the expense of her host family. Moreover, later, in 2006, her entire host family came over here to Ukraine, to Kharkiv to visit. Her three exchange siblings also came over here. Moreover, they have adopted a child here in Kharkiv, and actually took him back to the States. And we also stay in touch.

Once my sister's host family came over to Kharkiv, I was introduced to them as well. And they have invited me to join my sister on yet another vacation to New Mexico, in the summer of 2007. So before my FLEX year, I managed to travel to the New Mexico, Rio Rancho Albuquerque area, and stay there for a month and a half.

About the sister's impact Roman's life

My sister was a role model for me because once she got back from FLEX, she was never the same person. She got to travel a lot and got to participate in a whole bunch of other exchange programs, such as the European Voluntary Service, and a couple of different ones as well. This has influenced her career, and it has a huge influence on life. And I was observing it live as I was growing up. I had a misconception about what this exchange program could actually do and how it can actually impact your life. So I was there. The first year I could apply.

I was there not just for this miraculous opportunity to get away from Ukraine for a year but rather for this opportunity to become a different person because I've seen what this program is capable of.

I have seen the potential impact that this program could have.

About the FLEX expectations

To be honest, I didn't have any particular romantic idea, and I did not want to go specifically to Hawaii, or New York City or anything like this. My sister's exchange experience was the thing that managed my expectations, which were met at the highest possible level because her host family was incredible. I understood that it was pure luck to get in such a family when entering the program. In some miraculous way, I ended up in an incredible family, which was, in many ways, identical in terms of the loving environment and all the communications and the way I was treated.

Once entering the FLEX program, I knew that it's not that important what day you're gonna go as long as you end up in an incredible family. My expectations were focused on the host family.

About host family

I lived with the host father and the host mother, Dave, and Diane, and three children, all of them were and are older than me. By the time I arrived in the States, my two older brothers, Mike and Matt, were not living with us. But the only sibling that I had in the house was my host sister Laura, who was one year older than me and was a senior at that school. She played an important role in my exchange experience in a lot of ways, as I got to interact with her friends, share rides to the school, take part in a lot of common activities, and so on. She was awesome!

As for the parents, my host father, Dave, was working a lot. He was working with the aircraft industry, so he got to travel all over the world. But at the same time, he managed to be present and attentive. Whenever something happens like some cultural thing pops up, he would describe this cultural difference very specific and informative. Dave was always this person who got me covered in that respect. Whereas Diane, my host mother, was an incredibly caring and kind woman who really played the role of my mother for this entire year.

I never felt like I was separated from my family because I really felt like I was in my family. And I considered Dave and Diane as my father and mother.

We are still in touch. We managed to Skype every season to catch up and see what's happening. They always expressed a lot of interest in what I do, in a lot of ways, they support me, and they are big fans of my work. Sometimes I feel like I get more positive feedback from my host family than from my actual real family here in Ukraine. I also visited them a couple of years ago.

They've changed my life dramatically. This exchange program was the pivoting point for me, and it's impossible to forget.

What was unusual in the USA to Roman?

The first thing and an obvious one is that everybody drives, which brings a new level of mobility to the group that you hang out with. Also, this brings a new quality of leisure and new quality of activities that you can do. I was extremely surprised, when a couple of friends and I gathered, took out a coin, and flipped it ten times consequently. If it's heads, we turn right, if it's tails, we turn left, and then we would drive and have a road map ahead of us. We would get some pizza or something and then just do something else. I could never imagine that spontaneous fun on some random Tuesday, happening back here in Ukraine with my peers, because we did not have that level of mobility here.

About the religious peculiarities in the USA

I don't consider myself a religious person. My family back in Ukraine is Orthodox Christians, and my host family visited a Protestant church. During the pre-departure orientation, they told us that visiting a church is a really cool opportunity, because it's not like the way that things are done here in Ukraine, where you just go there early in the morning, stand there for three hours listening to some people sing.

In the USA, I had an incredible experience when the entire family would get in the car and drive to church. It was like a pretty cool community bonding thing. There was a separate program for children, where I got to meet some more people and my hosts. Then we got to go on the way home, get some hot dogs, and then we would go home and have an entire Sunday in front of us, which was really cool.

About school years in Ukraine and achievements in physics

I was always fond of math and physics, so I entered the physics and math Lyceum, one of the best schools in physics in the country. I had dozens of extracurricular hours for physics per year. By the time I was applying to the FLEX program, I had already won the national level Olympiad in physics for high school students, which is pretty much as high as you can get within this academic contest discipline area. In order to participate in such things, you need to use every free minute that you have. Therefore, that was pretty much how I was spending my free time - a little bit of sports, playing guitar, and something else. But 75% of my time was dedicated to science and learning something new.

GarageHub: from idea to a project with a huge budget

At some point, we actually managed to win the most prestigious academic contest for young physicists in the world out of a rented garage. That was one of the highlights of the early years for GarageHub. At some point, we understood that this one tiny rented garage that we have could provide us with more opportunities in a lot of ways. I remember we were literally building interactive coffins as in wooden boxes that people are buried in. And we get paid for that.

We could actually use our creativity to sustain the operations that we have here. That was enough for us to go out and announce this thing. Then we went out looking for funding. We got supported by UCBI, a Ukrainian Confidence Building Initiative. It's a program funded by USA ID, United States Agency for International Development, that was an $85,000 grant. This program was implemented within four months and was mostly focused on us moving away from garages into a new space that we rent, up to this day, that 200 square meter workshop with pretty cool machines.

The main things that we have discovered were that things like equipment, the platform itself, are not as important as the community you build on that platform.

Roman's attitude to grants

A lot of organizations are working in a purely altruistic fashion with no strategies for monetizing their added value, with no product-oriented strategies, and this kills me. Because when you are just chasing a donor ambulance, and you fully rely on grants, it's really hard to stay focused on your mission and have this another thought in the back of your mind.

What about surviving during the end of the world?

Whenever people discuss the end of the world when some nuclear thing explodes, or some asteroid hits the Earth. A small group of people who remain to survive a typical perception of these people who would rule the world. At that point, there are huge muscular people with guns. These people would drive trucks, like a Mad Max movie, who would dominate the earth, once if this end of the world scenario ever happens. But we joke that it's not even a joke. Still, we are pretty confident that whenever that crap happens, the true group that would be ruling the world, would be the people who would actually have access to technological development and who can make stuff able to rebuild.

Creativity is the best resource.

Any organization that facilitates creativity has higher chances of survival, not only in this kind of bizarre scenario as the end of the world but also in more day by day scenarios such as in COVID situation. We have proven that fact. We have designed and successfully sold a few products dealing with COVID.

Roman's thoughts about the successful workshop launching

In order to become a successful resident, any person has to overcome acquired helplessness. Once you overcome acquired helplessness, you pretty much understand that you are at the point where you can pretty much build anything. Any issue that comes your way you are able to solve, and it's just a matter of money and time.

Once you enter that state of creative lifestyle, there are no limitations left. Your life converts from a fight or marathon to something that could be perceived more as a dance.

A lot of our residents are really setting themselves free by finding a particular maker's specialization, and it could be electronics, embedded programming, or metalwork. But a lot of them are able to come in as just hobby amateurs, and within a couple of years, find this maker's specialization, start taking on some commercial projects, and actually transform their hobby into a micro business.

About the FLEX year experience and influence on further life

I can trace all those expertise, qualities, and experiences that I use today in my daily work. I can really trace every single one of them to a set of interactions and experiences that I had back in the States.

I can say without any doubt that they would never happen to me in that intensity and variety without the experience that I had on my exchange program.

And I'm incredibly thankful to my host family, to people who have surrounded me over my exchange year, all my peer students and people I hang out with, and people who administered this entire program. I cannot express enough gratitude to everyone who actually makes that possible.

I strongly believe that all those wonderful things and this entire philosophy that I have for what I do, simply not be here with us today without that exchange year.

And if someone is considering going on an exchange program and listening to this right now, I strongly advise giving this a try, always say yes to this kind of stuff!

Therefore, saying yes to everything that comes your way, at least to every potential positive thing that comes your way, is something that you are absolutely obligated to do.

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This episode is supported by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy to Ukraine. The views of the authors and guests do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.