Hailing from the northern Finnish city of Oulu, Mia Kemppaala has been described as a fountain of fresh ideas. What underlines this statement best is her brainchild, Polar Bear Pitching. Words such as ‘cold’, ‘icy’ and ‘dark’ are easily associated with the Finnish winter. Yet, it was Kemppaala who first took the initiative and turned these somewhat unpleasant adjectives into an advantage. The resultant annual startup pitching competition, which had taken place since 2014 in a hole in the ice in the middle of winter, faced its biggest crisis at the beginning of March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the event a week before it was supposed to commence.
Harnessing reserves of resilience, Kemppaala and her team of organisers bounced back, changed perspective and created a virtual experiment in just seven days.
Kemppaala wasn’t done. After weathering the storm, she set out to produce a new discussion series, Freezing Moment, which aims to bring light and spread hope to a world in the midst of a shared crisis. This is yet another feather in the cap for this inspirational master of science and teacher of geography and biology, one of fresh ideas and businesses once again being developed through a positive mindset, creativity and joint effort.
In the midst of global uncertainty and great change, we spoke with Kemppaala about breaking free from traditional ways of doing things, what learnings has she incorporated for future events and what she thinks of the particularly Ouluan habit of putting mayonnaise on pizza.
You managed to build the virtual experimentation in just a week. What did it consist of?
After we had to cancel Polar Bear Pitching, we were devastated. It was a total freezing moment. However, after a sleepless night, we realised it’s over only if we let fear guide us and refuse to act. So, we decided to take the initiative, invited everyone to join us, rolled up our sleeves and challenged ourselves to create a free and open-for-all virtual event in seven days.
We figured out that it is possible to create an online conference in this time frame that has an online matchmaking element included. We began to contact potential participants and stakeholders and managed to get some 20 startups, representatives of entrepreneurial ecosystems and other business people with remote connections established in Japan, Israel, Estonia, Sweden and the US on board. Moreover, we got inspiring keynote speakers such as Chris Heivly, VP of innovation at Techstars, and author and startup growth consultant Gregory Shepard from BOSS Capital Partners to participate. With all these pieces in place, we constructed the programme together with Brella, our partner, whose platform made it possible to broadcast our live stream and store earlier recordings.
We were able to bring the identity and uniqueness of Polar Bear Pitching in by promoting the themes of coldness, sisu and overcoming fear virtually via social media campaigns by using hashtags such as #FreezingMoment and #KissFearGoodbye. We attached a physical ice hole experience to the programme as well. There celebrities, entrepreneurs and other volunteers such as former freestyle skier and the founder of FighBack, Pekka Hyysalo, and Salla Lamminpää, a double world champion in winter swimming, gave tips regarding practical matters while in freezing water, such as the breathing techniques that are helpful both when panic takes over and in freezing environments.
How did you manage to make it happen so it made an impact?
I have been trying to bring up these freezing moment themes earlier, but my attempts haven’t resonated with the segments that lead civil dialogue on a similar scale as now – it is now high time, because people need sparks of hope in this coronavirus age and people are more focussed to hear our message: once you choose hope, anything is possible.
What I mean is that surely there will be even more problems after we have gotten over this crisis at hand. But when thinking of all the anxiety and fears stemming from sustainable development issues, for example, we have a different approach. We want to embrace megatrends and bring hope to the table. At the same time, while there are major global issues, there are heroes as well. I am talking about all the startups out there constantly looking for solutions and alternatives while creating and sustaining hope about the future. It is our goal to highlight such startup cases. During the virtual event, we heard, for example, about a Japanese startup, Zamila, which has developed a concept for one-size-fits-all underwear that has proven to be an invaluable resource in humanitarian aid packages delivered to typhoon areas. Another great example was NE Devise SW from Finland. Their solutions to measure the respiratory rate and pulse of patients, using nothing but a camera and computer vision, comes in extremely useful during these hard times.
How have you learnt from founding Polar Bear Pitching that you have to adapt and support one another in times of adversity?
It is vital to adapt fast during times of crisis. The fastest ones will thrive in global competition. I firmly believe that Finns are well-placed to do so, because this is a matter of sisu, the Finnish mindset of resilience that keeps you going even when you are faced with challenges. Moreover, darkness, coldness and long distances have taught us Finns to operate in challenging conditions.
Fast adaptation is especially true here in the Oulu area, where it is always windy and sometimes feels that there is a headwind both literally and figuratively. The story of Polar Bear Pitching began from a freezing moment caused by the fall of Nokia’s mobile phone business back in 2013. Us Ouluans are born into this mental ice hole of sorts, where it is necessary to adapt fast, since if you are frozen and won’t active yourself, hypothermia strikes quick as a wink. Now we were facing a similar situation, yet the freezing effect of the coronavirus is even greater. We had to rediscovered ourselves once again, and we went through a total transformation during these last couple of weeks.
Both of these crises gave birth to unconventional ideas that could have been impossible to implement alone. I have been extremely fortunate that I have been surrounded with talented people who not only have expertise I don’t have, but who are also committed and promote the feel that we are all in this together. For example, Saha Prod, a company from Oulu, has been with us since the beginning of Polar Bear Pitching. This time they came to our aid to plan and execute the technical implementation of the production of the virtual experimentation on Monday, and on Thursday morning all was set to start the show. Similarly, the Ouluan coding wizards from Signet came to help us out by establishing international connections and virtual stands within three days.
What do you mean by saying you went through a total transformation? How will this all effect Polar Bear Pitching in future?
This was the best thing that could happen to Polar Bear Pitching, actually. Since we started, we have faced similar issues time after time without been able to solve them, as we have been stuck in old ways of doing things. First of all, we have been doing a yearly public event in Finland, on a winter evening, when it is dark and cold. Thus, the masses haven’t found us on a large enough scale, even though we have put lots of effort into that. Secondly, we have always found it important to bring investors and startups together. But as we have kept this as our primary mission, it truly interests only a very limited crowd. Thirdly, it has never been an issue to get enough startups to register as participants. But eventually, quite many of the registered companies withdraw at the last moment. I understand them, as many startups operate with very limited resources, but this not only annoying for us, but produces uncertainty and inconsistency regarding the competition.
This uttermost external shock that forced us cancel the physical event was an extreme eye-opener. It made us to pivot to a new and peculiar course, and the transformation is necessary for us to overcome those issues I addressed earlier. In the future, we will be focusing on finding solutions to global problems instead of holding a startup pitching event solely targeting investors. This means that Polar Bear Pitching will be more of an invite-only type of event, where we choose startups to attend that are a doing great things in fields we want to emphasise. This requires us to utilise our ecosystem partnerships to a much greater extent than before. This way we can find and reach suitable startups, and those invited could get financial support to attend from their ecosystems and partners. It requires a big audience to increase the presence and usage of partnerships, but we won’t be aiming for a big physical crowd. We learnt from the virtual experimentation that people are willing to participate online. There is no doubt that we can create a visual spectacle that is mainly focussed on live stream and attracts wide attention online.
Clearly, if one decided to see the bright side of things even in dark times, it is possible. Can you come up with another silver lining to the coronavirus?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. This sudden crisis caused by the coronavirus can be seen as a tremendous threat. However, if you choose to look at things through the lens of positivism, there is a great chance to discover new opportunities, and I am pleased to see people coming closer to each other and general empathy increasing. Above all, this is an ultimately unifying experience that gathers different generations, as well as nations, together without exceptions. There have been plenty of conflicts between people and with nature, but now is a perfect time for reconciliation. Humankind now has momentum which should be utilised. Together we have the power to write an inspiring next chapter of resilience and recovery, and of love and unity, instead of a devastating chapter of despair and destruction, and of conflict and chaos. Let’s seize the moment!
After the event you came up with the idea of starting a new discussion series, Freezing Moment. How would you describe it?
Our freezing moment and the way we bounced back inspired us to open a platform where others could share their freezing moments as well. Harnessing the same passion, we began to plan the new series on the very same night after we were done with the virtual experimentation.
In this series, people from all walks of life come together to share their experiences. The common denominator for all the guests is that they all embody sisu, which has stopped them from freezing and helped them to conquer their fears and obstacles they’ve battled in their own lives. We have aired two episodes already. In the first one, we had three successful athletes – ice hockey player Lasse Kukkonen, Paralympic sit-skier Sini Pyy and paratriathlete Jussi Lotvonen – share how they unfroze and overcame those situations where everything felt lost.
In the second episode, we heard businessmen Peter Vesterbacka, Mika Rytky and Sami Heikkilä telling their stories.
With the virtual experimentation and Freezing Moment series both built from scratch in the last couple of weeks, it seems that you have been fully occupied. What kind of experience has this been?
The last couple of weeks have been wild, but I have really enjoyed the challenge. One of my characteristics is that I flourish in situations where I get to use my creativity and imagination. When the schedule is tight, I get super focussed and become surprisingly effective and fast-paced. Although my best features stand out in situations like this, I have practised slowing down a bit, as others have had trouble keeping up with my stream of consciousness.
During these endeavours, all of us organisers have felt that what was more important than the quality of the end result itself was that we started doing, we kept going and we promoted sisu and the Finnish way of doing things. On the whole, I can be nothing but satisfied with the results! Under pressure, we have found ways to overcome all the obstacles and executed the events professionally while the end results have been successes. The feedback we have received from the virtual experimentation has been encouraging. For example, TechBBQ from Denmark contacted us and expressed their interest to start co-operating with us, because they not only were inspired by our work, but also reckoned that we have lot to teach to them regarding the approach we have created – leading with action. Moreover, we have been able to further important matters and deliver messages of hope. I would say that the most useful learning from all of this is that now we have an idea what it takes to commercialise the concepts of overcoming fear and promoting hope and Finnish sisu.
How do you come up with all of these great ideas?
That is a good question. I think that I have an inherent quality of seeing opportunities where others don’t, and I consider myself good at quickly linking seemingly random things together in a natural fashion. The ability to see several steps ahead and my characteristic of not instantly rejecting the crazy ideas and thoughts I keep having are real blessings. Being a teacher has taught me to approach issues and questions through playfulness and that not everything needs to be so serious. This encourages me to consider the so-called ridiculous ideas more closely.
Besides these activities you are a specialist of entrepreneurship education and community developer at Tellus, University of Oulu. What is this about?
Tellus is a space and a platform for collaboration at the University of Oulu. It brings students, researchers, companies and other stakeholders together and acts as a catalyst for collaboration. We host and organise a lot of events and activities together with other stakeholders. An example of these joint activities is Oulu Business School’s entrepreneurship minor, in which I am responsible for a course that teaches how businesses can be built through creativity and collaboration. The course is based on Improbable Workshops, which are part of Art Thinking, an agile method to create improbable outcomes with certainty. The course invites participants to challenge mainstream values, assumptions taken for granted and traditional ways of doing things. Instead of writing business plans, the participants create artistic prototypes and organise an art exhibition to communicate their ideas and values.
Do you find that your background as a teacher provides you with useful skills that you can utilise in business life?
Yes, definitely. I can’t think of a better training programme for communication and selling than having to convince a group of teenagers at the beginning of every single lesson. If you’re not able to modify your message to meet the needs and interests of your target audience, make it relevant for them and catch their attention right from the start, no matter what you say next has no impact.
Becoming a teacher is a great way to learn leadership skills as well. As a teacher you’ll need to learn how to inspire people to take action, develop their skills and help them to stay motivated even when facing difficulties. You’ll need to learn how to create a safe and encouraging environment where the individuals of the team can grow and blossom. You’ll need to be able to orchestrate collaboration, make individuals work together for a common goal and in general try to find ways to bring the best out of your team members.
Finally, the current global crisis has us thinking about things in very different ways. With this in mind, is it true that folks from Oulu really put mayonnaise on their pizza?
Yes, it really is! I guess this really describes well the Oulu attitude of not being afraid to do things your own way and embracing even the weirdest of things. After all, stepping out of the box and the regular ways of doing things is the way to discover something truly unique.