Courtesy of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

As Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s viral list of companies ending their ties with Russia continues to gain traction, a small army of students are driving the operation behind the scenes.

The face of the operation is Sonnenfeld himself, who has garnered headlines in major media outlets across the country — coverage of the now-1,000 company long list trended as the most read article on the New York Times for 36 hours last week. But, behind the scenes is a team of over 20 Yale College and SOM students who research and run the database. The News spoke with three Yale College students and five SOM students on the responsibilities and work they have been doing to curate Sonnenfeld’s list, which now encapsulates roughly 25 percent of Russia’s GDP. 

“Our goal is to disrupt and shake the Russian civil society out of its complacency,”Wiktor BabinskiGRD ’22 said. “This list is supposed to make the Russian public feel the consequences of what its government, that they have elected in the last 20 years, is doing to them.” 

According to Steven Zaslavsky SOM ’22, he and many of the other SOM students who are involved in the project are currently taking Sonnenfeld’s strategic leadership class. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sonnenfeld shifted to discussing the war in his class, bringing in CEOs of oil and banking companies as well as Eastern European history professor Timothy Snyder, Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former Obama Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ’76 and former Obama Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

When Snyder visited the class for a panel about the Russian invasion, Sonnenfeld asked Zaslasvky, who is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian since his father is Russian and mother Ukrainian, to ask Snyder a question in Russian about whether the Russian people were falling for the ruse that their government had put up around the circumstances it used to justify the war.

“We really connected during that exchange,” Zaslasvky told the News. “And then right before spring break … Sonnenfeld reached out to [the class] asking if anyone had time to help because, you know, just just a handful of folks on the team doing it … So I started digging deeper on that, and studying. Alright, [what are the valuations] of the companies on the list?” 

Originally working as a researcher for Sonnenfeld’s project, Zaslvsky has since shifted his focus and is now working with Yash Bhansali ’23 to understand the revenue stream impacts of companies leaving Russia as well as how the publication of the list has influenced the stock prices and market values of the companies that have pulled out and those that kept their doors open for business in Russia. 

Bhansali told the News that he and Zaslsvky have been analyzing what percentage of Russia’s GDP has been cataloged by this list. He added that he joined the team after reading about work Sonnenfeld had done surrounding social responsibility in the corporate world.

“We are looking to quantify the impact on the Russian Economy,” Bhansali said. “We are also looking at the way markets are rewarding those corporations that have led the withdrawal effort. … We have leveraged various financial databases such as Bloomberg, FactSet, CapitalIQ, MSCI, Thomson Reuters in addition to data from original source documents pulled by our team across 10 languages and 166 countries.” 

Zaslvsky and Bhansali were not the only students to answer the call. 

Georgia Hirsty SOM ’22, another student in strategic leadership, has a history of activism and has spent much of her adult life working for Greenpeace and other service-based organizations. When she received Sonnenfeld’s email, she too leapt to join the project. 

The repository of companies originally had a binary metric of pass or fail. If a company was pulling out of Russia — and the group could verify it through public statements, press coverage and public filings —  it would be listed as “passing,” while companies that were still doing business were listed as “failing.” 

However, the group eventually created a grade-based system, ranging from A through F. Companies that dig in and refuse to exit Russian operations, or who are simply adhering to sanctions, receive an F letter grade. Companies that have committed to suspending future planned investments are classified as “buying time” and given a D grade on the list. Companies that scale back or curtail operations, but who are hedging their bets, receive a C grade. 

Companies that suspend all or almost all of their operations — including not paying their Russian employees — receive a B grade. A company only receives the top grade, an A grade, when it commits to wholly divesting from Russia and ending all operations in the country. The group comes together and works through the metrics they have set up to come to a consensus on what each company’s grade should be. 

Hirsty said that she is responsible for looking at the companies that are currently classified as failing and evaluating whether or not they can move up on the curve. 

“Every day I was updating all the Fs,” Hirsty said. “So if a researcher sends me a company, and they say, I think this company has a D, because they’ve said that they’re suspending new investments. But then I go … and I’ll basically look up the article that they linked to verify that that’s what it in fact says, then I’ll check the company itself and see if they’ve had the statement that was maybe hard to find, maybe they have put out a new statement or said something in their SEC filings and so it’s just kind of another layer.” 

Hirsty added that much of her job has been dealing with companies that accuse Sonnenfeld of being “defamatory” or “libelous.” She explained that many companies that are listed with F or D grades have reached out to the initiative demanding that they be moved up. 

Moreover, according to Babinski, some companies have even reached out and told the initiative that they had not consented for their publicly-available information and statements to be used in the database. Sonnenfeld told the News that the group regularly sends the threatening legalistic notices to media outlets or posts them publicly. 

As the initiative has expanded to include more companies, the team has also expanded to include individuals with specialized industry or linguistic skills. 

Cate Littlefield SOM ’22 worked in the fashion and jewelry industry and has focused on following cosmetic and fashion companies and their stance on business in Russia. 

“I’m basically just looking at essentially like the biggest companies by revenue so far in the fashion sector and the consumer goods sector,” Littlefield said. “From a name brand like Chanel that we all recognize to something that’s slightly more obscure. … I’ve been starting with basically a list of these large companies in both sectors and then just kind of systematically going through them one by one looking at their press statements or social media feeds … to see what statements they’ve made on the war in Ukraine and how their operations have been impacted by it, whether they’ve chosen to totally shut down operations or scale them back.” 

Littlefield also told the News that she has been receiving videos and pictures from people in Russia showing her companies that still have shops open in Russian malls, and she has been using this evidence to piece together who is still selling consumer goods in Russia. 

Camillo Padulli ’25 has focused on Italian companies and their operations in Russia during his work for the initiative.

According to Adriana Coleska SOM ’22, who is also an Assistant Medical Director at the Department of Emergency Medicine at the School of Medicine, it can be difficult to determine whether or not a pharmaceutical company exit is ethical, especially since many of the medications that pharmaceutical companies claim are for necessary humanitarian missions are in fact just over the counter medications that can be produced by Russian pharmaceutical companies without foreign involvement.  

“Medications and biotechnology are used for the health and well being of humans,” Coleska told the News. “Is it ethical to remove medications that may cause suffering of one population to attempt to stop the suffering of another? This is the curtain behind which many of the pharmaceutical companies are hiding when they declare that they will continue to manufacture in or import to Russia. However, our research has shown that a large portion of medications sold are over the counter medications, which are not life saving, and furthermore are also manufactured by Russian pharmaceutical companies, meaning there is a Russian alternative the country can rely on.”

According to Sonnenfeld, many pharmaceutical companies have been defending their business operations in Russia on a humanitarian basis even though the drugs they are selling are not being used in any humanitarian capacity. 

Franek Sokolowski’25 told the News that a large part of the work they have been doing as a group is sifting through all of the information they are receiving to determine what is true and what is public relations posturing by companies. 

“These companies are very deceptive,” Sokolowski said. “We are trying to outsmart them as much as we can. … So we are in this unfortunate position where because we rely on facts, we sometimes cannot publish something even if it’s true.” 

As the project moves forward, Marina Negroponte SOM ’22 told the News that the initiative will shift towards studying different regions of the world, including the continued involvement of Latin American companies in Russia and Russian investment in Latin America. 

“There’s a data point and it says one in five companies are likely not to do anything in Russia,” Negroponte said. “And so when I dig into Mexico and other Latin American countries, it’d be interesting to see how many companies within a sector are showing positions but also like, Can there be a larger threshold within an industry to actually put pressure on companies?” 

According to Chief Executive Leadership Institute’s Head of Research Steven Tian ’20, the group plans to expand the list as long as Russian forces remain in Ukraine. 

The students involved in the initiative said the experience has been work intensive — each of them has reported spending more than 40 hours a week on the project, and the team faces an almost constant onslaught of emails to respond to and work to complete. 

“A lot of the time, you really do feel a moral impetus to see what you’re doing,” Sokolowski said. “And you really can see the positive impact that you’re having. And this makes it a lot easier to actually just put down whatever you’re doing and, you know, pursue the project because you really know that you’re doing the right thing. And you really know that you are having a tangible impact on the lives of the people. And I think that that knowledge is really helpful for us in accommodating this with our own lives.” 

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

YASH ROY
Yash Roy covers education & youth services in New Haven and is a P&D staffer. He is a first year in Timothy Dwight College and is from Princeton, NJ.