Dustin Ross, BBA ’18: Forging a Culture of Purpose Through Humanitarian Aid in Ukraine
When Russia launched a hostile invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022, Dustin Ross, BBA ’18, dedicated himself to helping those affected by the violence.
As the founder and CEO of Sunflower Network, Ross helps provide essential aid to Ukrainians in need. Sunflower Network is a nonprofit organization that, in the past year, has provided more than $3 million in critical aid to Ukrainian citizens, from medical supplies and hygiene products, to ambulances and other vehicles.
In the beginning, Ross says he had no idea that anything like Sunflower Network would come to be. He never imagined quitting his job to run a nonprofit full-time. Around the time Ross started the group, he was working as an associate at Hines, a global real estate investment firm. When the violence in Ukraine first began, all Ross knew was that he wanted to find a way to help people caught in the chaos.
“I was obsessively reading the news for the first two days, and on the third day, something clicked, and what clicked was like, ‘I have to do something to help,’” Ross said.
Ross called humanitarian relief organizations around the world for days and found himself disappointed that the most they would allow him to do was donate money. Eager to do more, Ross made a decision that would change the course of his career — and life — forever: he traveled to Ukraine.
“I went first to Romania, then to Poland, and then to Ukraine. Right before I went over, I got connected with someone, a Ukrainian woman living in Washington, D.C. And she said to me, ‘Great, you're going to the border? We're gonna start ordering supplies for you to bring and someone will meet you to take them into Ukraine,’” Ross said.
“I flew this duffel bag from Los Angeles to Warsaw, from Warsaw up to Bucharest, and from Bucharest, I drove it eight hours north to the Ukraine-Romania border where I handed it off to someone to bring into the country. The next day, I got a video of my bag with my check luggage tags still attached, being unloaded in the city of Kharkiv. And that's when I realized we could really make an impact.”
That first trip changed the trajectory of Ross’ life. In the summer of 2022, he left his job at Hines to support Ukraine full-time under a new group he created with a few fellow University of Michigan alums: Sunflower Network.
Since its genesis, Sunflower Network has created numerous connections across the United States and Europe that allow it to obtain and distribute aid directly where it is needed. It’s also created fundraising spaces and events that promote Ukrainian arts and culture and the war's impact on these facets of life. In order to raise the money needed to provide aid to those in need, Ross and the Sunflower Network had to find creative ways to fundraise and increase awareness of their cause. To do this, Ross said he took inspiration from his time at the Ross School of Business.
“I think the University of Michigan is the best school in the world, and I really believe that. The community's amazing, the academics, the intellect, it's so powerful," Ross said.
But for me, the most important thing Michigan Ross taught me is how to exist in the real world. Self-advocacy was a big, big lesson that I learned from Ross.
Throughout his career so far, Ross has excelled as a go-getter. With the skills he learned during his time at U-M, he was able to cold-call a Michigan Ross alum and secure a first job after college with a company that wasn’t even hiring candidates straight out of undergrad. With experiences like this one under his belt, he knew he would be able to rely on the Michigan Ross and greater U-M alumni network to help him with his new venture.
“We are an organization of all Michigan people. Literally, we're all U-M alums that are just throwing ourselves at serving others and making an impact,” Ross said. “Early on, before my third trip to Ukraine, I was like, I need someone to help me with documentation. And so, I asked my little brother's college roommate, Jack, who also went to U-M. He's a photographer. I said ‘Come with me to Kyiv,’ and he said, ‘Sure.’”
With help from other U-M alums like Jack Chase, BA ’21, Ross was able to come up with numerous creative ideas, from documentary-style video projects to fashion shows that not only helped fundraise for Ukrainian aid, but also helped spread the word about things like the impact of war.
“Jack’s dad is a gallerist. He studied history at LSA, and he had this crazy idea to set up an art gallery,” Ross said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, let's do that. I'm here to empower you to get that done.’ Then I got to watch as we took this person's vision and made it a reality, and did so in such a way that actually impacts the lives of those in need.”
After hard work and collaboration from Jack as well as Dean Ross, BA ’21, Sunflower Network’s director of operations, Ross and his U-M connections were able to put together the art gallery they had envisioned. The project, called Sonya, is a charity art gallery exhibiting the work of contemporary Ukrainian artists to raise money for Sunflower Network’s humanitarian aid efforts. The gallery not only helps collect donations but also builds exposure for Ukrainian artists.
Going forward, Ross says he plans to continue doing everything in his power to positively impact the lives of Ukrainian people in need and making connections that matter. At the end of June 2023, Ross unveiled Sunflower Network’s Project Horizon, an initiative to build a hospital in Western Ukraine. He’ll be partnering with a few big connections, like the Ukrainian architectural studio SavytskyyDesign, to build a world-class medical center for those wounded and in need.
Ross says none of these projects they’ve put together would be possible without the dedication and passion of the incredible U-M alumni team he works with, including Emma Bernstein, BA ’18, the Network’s director of marketing, Zach Steinfeld, BA ’22, and Barrett Baker, BBA ’21, who are pushing the team’s Project Horizon initiative, as well as Uma Chalik, BBA ’21, Emma Greenebaum, BFA ’21, Leah Glimcher, BA ’18, and Leyla Dogan, BA ’18, who helped turn the Network’s cultural installations into reality. And, last but not least, Spencer Ezralow, BA ’18, who helped get Sunflower Network off the ground during Ross’ first few missions to Ukraine.
Beyond their plans to build the hospital, Ross says he's not sure what’s next — and he likes it that way. The Michigan Ross alum has been taking it day-by-day since 2022, and in true Michigan Ross fashion, he’s been learning the skills he needs to succeed on the job.
“It's been hard. I think it's really challenging to be a leader and I think it can be really lonely, too. But I think it's deeply gratifying. I feel more aligned, more fulfilled, more joyful than I've ever felt before,” Ross said. “The people who change the world are the ones who are crazy enough to think they can. We have to try.”
The most valuable thing I learned at Michigan Ross was that mindset. If you knock on every door and no one answers, you break one of them down. You keep pushing. You see an obstacle, you go around it, you go through it, you go over it, you go under it. But you don't just stop.