Minaë Tani-LaFleur, Food Entrepreneur & Activist, Japan
After over a decade in corporate life in the manufacturing sector, Minaë Tani-LaFleur wanted to start studying again. She applied to various schools outside Japan and found the perfect match in London, UK. The only obstacle? Her partner was headed to study in Oulu, Northern Finland. Minaë decided to prioritise family life and follow her partner.
It’s a shock to the system to leave Tokyo, the Japanese capital of 14 million inhabitants, for a 200 000-person city near the Arctic Circle. But it also gave Minaë time and space to unlearn the big-city hustle and embrace the Finnish way of life. After 2.5 years in Oulu, she turned her passion for food and sustainability into a company which runs a platform offering opportunities for talented domestic cooks to showcase their skills and develop their own entrepreneurship. Today, Minaë lives in Helsinki and co-runs a cafe and a catering business in addition to working on the collaborative platform.
I wanted to start a company here because… I was realistic and pragmatic about my positioning and competitiveness in the job market. When you are a foreigner, your experience, skills and expertise are all somewhat reduced or dismissed – for there is no reference to back you up, transferable soft skills are hard to present and there is always a language barrier. So, the viable choice for me was to start something of my own in an area I’m passionate about and where being a foreigner can be a strength – that was in food, cooking and sustainability.
Foraging mushrooms is one of Minaë's favourite hobbies in the autumn.Minaë Tani-LaFleur
Eventually, I met many other internationals who were skilled and qualified cooks and who were struggling to find dignified employment opportunities. Thus, our company was set up to support their food entrepreneur journey and to collaborate to amplify our opportunities together while incorporating local sustainable food – inspired by principles set out by Slow Food International – into our menus. Now, our company runs a cafe with two other collaborators in Helsinki.
Having worked as a full-time employee for 13 years in Japan, I was ready to change how I work. Finland inspired me in entrepreneurship. So much encouragement and support was available for free or a low cost to prepare your mindset for entrepreneurship and learn how to start.
There is a strong union culture for mutual aid in many industry sectors, and you can apply for “starttiraha” (a start-up grant) to make your take-off less fearful. When you stop having a passive attitude toward your relationship with work, Finland has your back for entrepreneurship.
My previous work experience has benefited my career in Finland by… I worked in the manufacturing sector of high-end consumer goods. My role in that corporate career was product development, marketing, branding and coordinating business activities with diverse international stakeholders – suppliers, colleagues in subsidiaries all over Asia and external collaborators.
I learnt about the importance of communication when working with a diverse group of people, and my experience in the product development process (from ideation to roll-out) still helps me grow as an entrepreneur.
Minaë also runs food workshops.Minaë Tani-LaFleur
The main differences in Finnish working life compared to other countries where I have worked are… I appreciate the less formal and hierarchical workplace culture here. In Japan, particularly in corporate business relationships, courtesy and formality matter a lot, and I feel too much energy and effort is expended on those things. In Finland, we don’t have to suit up for every occasion, and remote work is more acceptable as long as we get things done.
As a small business provider, my experience has been that clients generally treat us in a fair, respectful and friendly manner, while in Japan there is more of a sense of hierarchy between clients and suppliers.
Another thing to note is that I see more gender balance here in decision-making positions.
Working in the culinary industry in Finland is… it’s an exciting time for international food entrepreneurs. Many Finnish customers are either environmentally conscious, facing some dietary restrictions for health reasons or well-travelled, curious and open to new flavours. Diverse international food knowledge and cooking methods serve all those customer groups – plant-based meals, gluten-free sweets and authentic use of spices, herbs and condiments, just to name a few.
Finland also has an increasing number of international expats. When they move to Finland, they all crave the taste of home. They appreciate food entrepreneurs from their home country tirelessly putting effort into recreating those familiar flavours. Seeing a mix of local, international and home-country people enjoying my food is an absolute delight as a food entrepreneur.
Minaë became an entrepreneur in Finland.Minaë Tani-LaFleur
Finnish food culture, I feel, is tucked away and kept hidden inside household traditions. As an international expat, it took work to discover the rich Finnish culture of foraging, hunting, fishing, smoking, baking and preserving. Also, big supermarkets import so many items from all over the world that it isn’t easy to learn about Finnish produce and its seasonality. You will get a grasp of what Finnish food traditionally was and how it’s updated through amazing chefs’ artisanship in high-end restaurants.
I wish Finland had a much stronger network of distributing and serving locally produced ingredients to support cultural representation through food and cooking and promote sustainable local food consumption more.
What I enjoy most about being an entrepreneur… is that my work is a strong form of self-expression.
Moving to the new place, you are just an anonymous individual. If you have a business, you make your reputation and name around what you do for your livelihood. It becomes easier to connect with people and be recognised through the work you do and what you can offer to others. It brings interesting and creative opportunities and fun challenges, and you decide what to do and how to do it.
The challenges I have encountered and overcome while adjusting to my career life here in Finland are… related to work-life balance. It’s very hard to pause entirely from work when entrepreneurship is your life, and you only succeed by throwing yourself into it. I haven’t overcome that yet, but I try to take decent time off of my day-to-day work routine. Exposure to things outside your regular work area is extremely important to stay creative and keep motivated in entrepreneurship.
Minaë lived in Oulu for 2.5 years and got to experience proper snowy winters.Minaë Tani-LaFleur
The organisations that have been helpful for my professional growth in Finland include… Startup Refugees in Oulu. My co-founder Holly and I participated in their Business Programme to learn entrepreneurship basics.
Also, The Shortcut provides space and opportunities for networking and training programmes. I joined their Spark Academy module for programming skills. Working with passionate and supportive teachers, organisers and course mates made for an amazing four months.
In addition, Tech Nordic Advocates is a strong supporter of female-led tech businesses and entrepreneurs. We were part of their 2022 cohort and received numerous practical workshops from time management to business administration, funding and leadership.
What I enjoy most about living in Helsinki is… the city’s connectivity through bicycle paths and public transportation. Roads and public transit are well maintained to function even during heavy snow in winter. We can go directly from parks, forests and islands to urban attractions like cultural venues, fancy shopping streets and bar and restaurant districts. Accessibility to all those places in a matter of 30 minutes from each other cannot be expected in all cities – and transportation is never crowded like in Tokyo.
The hobbies I have enjoyed practising in Finland are… nature walks in the forest and foraging wild plants, berries and mushrooms. They are the best hobbies I’ve started in Finland. Everyman’s right is a beautiful concept of sharing nature’s bounty with the whole society and a way to provide opportunities to learn how to preserve and respect nature.