We have talked to Elina in Startup Sauna, one of the key places of the whole Otaniemi region. We have discussed not only main AaltoES projects and “start-ups VS corporations”, but also how important passion is in our lives.
Hi Elina, thanks that you’ve found time. Can you tell me a little about yourself and what you do?
My name is Elina and I am running AaltoES this year. I got involved here 1.5 years ago through my friend. I am from Rovaniemi, which is near the Arctic Circle – I am not from the capital area. Moved here 5 years ago to work for a non-profit organization, I then decided to stay. I’ve been working several jobs and then started my studies not long ago – in 2011.
I am not actually studying at Aalto University, rather, I am from the University of Helsinki, where I study communicational and social sciences. I’m also trying to do a minor in Computer Science, so we’ll see how that works out! Here I started doing communications in one project and ended up doing operations at Slush last year, and this year I became the president of AaltoES.
Tell me a little bit more about AaltoES – what are the main goals of it?
We want to create more entrepreneurship in Finland – we feel that young people should actually not think of their working lives as step-by-step careers, as many people do. Many people see it like this: I’ll get a first job, then I’ll get a promotion to the second step, and then, after several years and at the end of the road, there’ll be a magical dream job for the rest of my working life. Well, it is not going to be like this, especially in the future. We want young people to see entrepreneurship as an option and see their working life as a path that has ups and downs, various curves and surprises.
On societal aspects, we wish to keep Finland innovative. We need to have more entrepreneurs to keep us competitive on the world scene. Entrepreneurship is the most agile and the fastest way to create something new, to make it available for wider audience. That is the main reason we think there should be more people in entrepreneurship and also into tech.
What do you think of a classic “startups vs corporations” war?
Working for a corporation is an easy solution and, if we are looking from a money perspective, a better solution. Entrepreneurship is a gamble, a game where you have to fail a couple of times before you can actually succeed, so there is always a risk. From that perspective it is a very insecure world and I very much understand why people who prefer stable companies as great places to work in, but I think there are more and more people who don’t find satisfaction in that. There are people who see that after working for several years in a corporation, all they’ve got is a promotion, which only brings them more money along with more work, and they are not a step closer to their dreams and the things they want to achieve in life – for those people, entrepreneurship is of course a better option.
We have just arrived at the concept of passion. How important is passion for an individual?
Of course, it depends on people. The way I feel is passion is everything and maybe an individual’s life is all about looking for the passion. I think people who say it is not important to be passionate about something are the ones who still haven’t found the thing they are passionate about. And there are usually several things you can be passionate about – and they motivate you more than all the money in the world. That consists of the experience you had, the experience you want to have, and of all the things you want to achieve or see. It is the combination of everything, basically.
Have you found your own passion, or are you still on your way to it?
Well, I have several passions! Dreams and passion go hand-in-hand, but the way I see it is when I get passionate about some topic, it is a way for me to get a step closer to realizing what I dream of. So, I have been passionate about education and still am. I have been passionate about animals’ rights when I was a teenager, was a vegetarian for one year… it didn’t work out for me, and now I eat meat. Me and animals, we didn’t get along. After that I got passionate about entrepreneurship. Looking back, I have always been passionate about working with great people who inspire me.
Yep, I think Startup Sauna is great place to grow both as a professional and as a person when such people surround you.
Yes, of course. We are not here to tell you how to create a successful company. Actually, no one can tell you, although there are people smarter than us who can give some guidelines. Anyway, the main thing we can do is to pick great people, put them together, shake it up a little bit and see what comes out. What we actually are able to do is help good people meet each other.
What is your general outcome? What are the successful projects of AaltoES?
We do some great projects. We have StartupLife, where we send the most talented people to Silicon Valley; we organize one of the leading tech conferences in Europe, Slush; then there is a well-known accelerator program – Startup Sauna, which is all about hand-picking startups from Nordic countries, northern Europe, Russia – the areas no one else covers. We are super-proud to do those projects, but before all that, we have our “grassroots” level activities, for instance, the “Pitch It” event. Once there were around 20 people, three of them pitching. People may wonder – why organize such small-scale events? Well, during this “Pitch It” there were two more pitches after first three, because people were inspired and decided to share their ideas. When I see this, I realize why we do it. It’s because we give people a spark to take the first step, which is the most important one.
Yes, as far as I know you organize big events like Global Entrepreneurship Week franchise or Ilkka Paananen’s talk, but at the same time you are interested in small events with warm and hospitable atmospheres.
Yes, I think this is the family-like atmosphere we want to create around these events. For example, we had a “Get Involved” event yesterday. I can’t say it was super-organized, but what I think we succeeded in delivering was this feeling, when people understand there is no pressure, it is what it is, we can talk about entrepreneurship, different projects, their goals and just eat pizza and drink cold beer. That is actually the first step people need.
As I understand, AaltoES is not focusing on monetization or scale as is. Can you speak about how you see AaltoES in the future?
That’s a hard question, since of course it is a day-to-day thing to work on, so things I say today might be old tomorrow. Well, what I hope to see is that more and more people who are pro-active and into organizing things see AaltoES as a place to get the experience for their working life, and will come and work for this organization or participate as volunteers. We are interested in people who want to do the things we do.
So far we have established a local portal, which covers the Otaniemi region with its startups, events and infrastructure. Perhaps you can talk about the people you need here?
We always need someone, who is totally different from others, who already works here. Also, the most important thing here is that it doesn’t matter what you have done before. We need hard-working people. People who can show via their volunteer work what are they made of. Working on the projects we already have is not necessary – if you come to AaltoES with a new project that supports what we want to do, that’s totally fine. We also look for people with an entrepreneurial mindset, of course. People who think outside the box and are eager to learn new things. You can be afraid to fail, but here the most valuable experience is to get rid of the fear of failure.
With me having a background in software development, I feel you use some principles and practices of Lean methodology in a way. These ideas – prototyping “grassroots” events, gaining feedback, not being afraid to fail etc. And you have a sense of freedom here – freedom and responsibility.
Yes, for sure. If you come here to organize a project, no one is going to hold your hand all through it; no one is going to send you e-mails everyday asking if this is done. When you ask for help you always get help, but it is different approach. It is a bit difficult to speak about Lean methodology as we are not a startup, but yes, I understand what you mean and I think you are right. We are trying to be Lean in a way. Of course, we don’t think of who our customer is or anything like this, but we want to prototype things. Another key principle we follow is if there are no people willing to organize the event, we probably shouldn’t organize it.
So, you’re not trying to make someone do something here.
We of course try to get people out of their comfort zones. But you know what – there are around 30 active members here and if all of us think that, well, “Pitch It” is shit… then why would we do it? So, that is probably one of the key lessons we learned and try to follow. At some point we realize what works and what doesn’t.
Can you name your favorite project, the most successful project in your opinion? We are not speaking about the most profitable or the biggest one, but instead about a project you really love.
I think it is more of a case of first love. The first project I did here was called “Founders week” and that was my greatest experience so far for one reason – I learned a lot since I had no previous experience on the startup scene, in fact I basically didn’t even know what a startup was before that. During “Founders week” we brought in several entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley to Finland and organized events around that. This project was about entrepreneurial culture.
We strongly believe that Otaniemi is the region of opportunities and the place to find yourself. Maybe you have a message to all young people around this region?
Stop planning and just do it! It sounds like a Nike quote. Basically, we all have our ideas, but ideas are nothing until you start doing. Ideas are worthless. Ideas start to have some value when you start to execute them.