Chiara Costa often punctuates her sentences with a chuckle, a light-hearted, self-aware punctuation in the midst of her natural free-flowing, effervescent conversation. Yet she didn’t always have a smile on her face.
Moving to Finland seven years ago, Costa started working in an English-language office here and life was good. Then, after three years, the workplace closed and she was thrust into the world of unemployment, without not only knowledge of the local language but also a good network. Without a job and a clue what to do, she was at her lowest ebb.
Costa’s university degree in plurilingualism and multiculturalism from the University of Naples reflected her long-standing interest in other cultures and finding ways to bring them together. Help to further develop her interest in this came from a public sector career coaching programme, with which she started to build her professional identity and hunkered down to learn the local language. Within three months she had a good enough grasp of Finnish to survive in the workplace.
Fast-forward to the present day and her fortunes are very different indeed. A vocational coach in the public sector, she is also a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, specialising in the integration of foreigners into working life. When not doing that, she is the administrator of IWWOF – International Working Women of Finland, whose members number 5 000. In addition to all of this, she still has time to contribute as one of the members of an art collective called +Collective, which focuses on awareness, inclusion, multiculturalism and different ways of being.
We spoke with her about her forging a successful career in Finland, what sauna means for networking and the importance of sleepovers when it comes to the Finnish language.
Congratulations on your success here in Finland. You certainly didn’t take the easy road.
It has been quite a journey learning from my mistakes, but what made me who I am now is never giving up and never forgetting what my goal is. And another thing is surrounding myself only with people with positive vibes. I’m not saying that people should live in this pink fairy castle, but if you surround yourself with people that are going to drown you with “you are never going to find a job”, “this country sucks”, you will end up drowning with them even if you are the most positive person ever. So, I decided: no party poopers, no deadbeat drowners. It has worked. If you start getting anxious about what you can and can’t do, in the end you also start forgetting who you are. You only concentrate on the bad things.
Your career is very involved with helping other people. When did you develop an interest in taking care of others?
I have always loved more to give than to take since I was a young girl. When I was in university, I would go with foreign students and help them find information about the university, find an apartment and so on. I really liked it and thought why not to do it as a job, to help people. I am the type of person who is empathetic and really feel their struggles. And even more so if I have lived the same thing. I myself have been a foreigner and unemployed. I think learning from my experience and learning from my mistakes and my successes, I shouldn’t hold the secret but should try and share as much myself. My attitude to sharing is what has made me professionally.
What inspires you?
I am a stupid believer. [laughs] I am very idealistic; I believe in ideas. I am a bit of a dreamer. I believe in the power of doing things. The words ‘I can’t do it’ are not in my vocabulary. Small changes mean a lot to me. I always aim for the stars but even if I get a cloud in the path, it’s OK. I like doing things and seeing results, even if small. I believe in making other people believe in themselves. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I want to help people to see that light.
What advice do you give people for finding work here in Finland?
An HR person once told me that they really like it when a person writes a private email to them, instead of obviously sending out many job applications. If someone writes that they are interested to get to know you and, in the future, to see if there is a position available, the employer knows it’s not a copy-paste; they know what we do and want to get it.
Another tip I can give is to be focused on quality over quantity. This is a mistake I made myself actually. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted; I was just randomly spamming my CV around. Not focusing on one job or workplace. HR workers recognise this. It’s better to do fewer applications and be focused and concentrated and do your research about what you will apply.
Another thing I have been doing is called an informational interview. Basically, you check LinkedIn for people you are interested in. You don’t ask a job from them. The point is to get some inside tips. You might schedule a meeting with this person online or a coffee or whatever and ask them a list of questions like, do you read a newspaper that helps you to learn more about what you do? Do you follow any blog? How did you build your network? Do you have any practical information for keeping my network active? And so on. This makes your name known.
When I started, nobody knew me. Now I can humbly say that 90 per cent of the foreigners in Finland know my name. [laughs] I’m nobody special, I’m very average. It’s just that I learnt the right tricks about how to network.
How important is networking in Finland?
There is a research done by The Shortcut that says that 83 per cent of workplaces in Finland are hidden, not advertised online. There is this expression in Finnish to describe the way job openings become known here, which roughly translates as ‘sauna friendship’. This means that it’s about who you know; it’s possible that you hear about new possibilities in the sauna, or someone passes your name on to their friend or acquaintance in a similar situation.
Networking is like a job. You can’t expect to build your network by meeting people once per month for half an hour. It means sacrifice. It’s time consuming, energy consuming and money consuming. It might be attending some event. But it works. You have to prioritise. Then you have to get a mentor. Somebody that can get you into places that alone you couldn’t access. My mentor has been the same person for four years. She would bring me to events where she was invited almost like a VIP, but she wouldn’t introduce me as a mentee or trainee. She introduced me as a cultural mediator. She promoted me around. Again, don’t go with deadbeat dramas, go with those that can empower you.
Definitely you have to be consistent and make a networking plan. Plan upcoming events, focus on who you want to connect with. Don’t just spam your business card, focus on a few good ones. Same as on LinkedIn, you may have 1 000 contacts, but they are all useless. How to connect with the right ones that can give you something. Or that you can give something to them, right?
Right events, right people. Also make your elevator speech. Very important. You have to be ready to present yourself. Not just, ‘Hello, I’m Chiara, I’m 32 years old and I like rap music’. Nobody cares, you have to say it in around 15 seconds – any longer and people get bored. You have to be ready to give the juiciest information about who you are, what you can do and why this person needs you. Even if this person is not a possible employer, just so they have a clear idea of who you are, what your professional skills are. It might mean in the future that this person hears something. It might be that this is a great example of ‘sauna friendship’, as they are a ‘sauna friend’ with somebody you are interested in working for or with.
You mentioned that you like rap music. Which Finnish rappers do you enjoy listening to?
I really like conscious rap, and my favourite Finnish rapper is Julma H. I also listen to a lot of metal music, which Finland is quite famous for.
You have been very vocal about creating workplaces in Finland staffed by people with a range of backgrounds. What do diverse personnel bring to the workplace?
Finland has only really seen waves of immigration for the past 20 years or so. It is something so new it can be seen as an element of disruption. The other Nordic countries have been doing much better than Finland with inclusion in working life. If Finland wants to be in competition with them, it has to do something. I understand that creating a heterogeneous group might sometimes create friction, but this creates new ideas.
If we talk about marketing, we talk about products and we talk about profit. There is no profit if you don’t bring anything new to the table. In art, we say there is nothing that has not been done already. But that’s not the case in business, right? If you want to have a more competitive workplace, you have to renew your modus operandi all the time and you have to have people that are capable of doing that. We are not just talking about soft and hard skills, we are talking about the kind of background that can be brought to the table.
Anyway, a lot of employers want flexibility, ability to adapt to new situations, sensitivity to differences – these are the qualities that most of the foreigners have to deal with when moving to another place. Why don’t you then hire a foreigner, who already has those qualities. I think that is the biggest point, that inclusion and diversity bring profit. It’s not that it looks good; at the end of the day, it brings money and that’s what companies want.
Your work with IWWOF is truly something to applaud. What are some of the positive sides of working in Finland that foreign-born women enjoy here?
I feel that as a woman I am more respected for who I am and what I can give rather than my looks. Also, the working rights here are better respected. If not, you can ask the trade union for help. Or third sector organisations that can help you. Finland is no El Dorado of opportunities, as nowhere in the world is. But at least professionally I feel that my professional skills are more respected as a woman and my working rights are more respected.
Also, I am a mother and I have a child and I feel that I have never felt my motherhood as a burden to my career. Of course, it is not as easy as not being a mother, but I have never had a boss that made me feel that it’s wrong that you have a child because then you can’t think 100 per cent about your work. In other countries, even though it’s illegal, they might ask you if you have plans for a family. Here I have never been asked, nobody cares. That’s very Finnish, I know, nobody asks you about anything. [laughs]
What have you observed about Finnish working culture that is different to other countries where you have lived and worked?
From my own experience, in Italy it’s a bit of a problem that they often mix friendship and work. It’s very easy to become friends with your colleagues. In Finland, it takes a little more time, because generally with Finns it takes more time to become friends. Then I have the feeling that once they are friends they are very good friends.
You can speak six languages. What is your favourite word in Finnish that captures something that you have not been able to express so succinctly in other languages?
In Italy we don’t pronounce the ‘h’; you put it there to change the meaning of word. We don’t have ‘ö’ or ‘ä’ or ‘y’ whatsoever, so one of the first Finnish words I learned was yökyläilemään, which means to go to sleep over at someone’s place. My friend said that once you know how to pronounce yökyläilemään you know how to pronounce all the letters in Finnish.
You do so much for others, but what do you do just for yourself in your spare time?
I draw a lot; my favourite subjects are surrealistic horror figures. It relaxes me! For my own wellbeing, I like going to sauna and to a steam bath. I also do some sports and activities with my son.
You have many tattoos. What is going to be your next one?
Yes, I do have 14 tattoos. The next one is planned for when I am able to be back in Italy. The subject won’t be revealed until it is be done.