One of Ronny Eriksson’s first hobbies was basketball. As a youngster, he loved getting out onto the court and shooting hoops – so much so that he played with the national team for a couple of years. Then reality struck: while watching the NBA on TV, he realised that the players were 190 cm tall on average and his less-than-towering height would restrict him from taking it to the next level.
Whilst his enthusiasm for the sport waned, this experience taught him some valuable lessons: life doesn’t always go the way you planned, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to do things. Also, if you have something you are passionate about, do it with love, seven days a week. And start surrounding yourself with the right people.
This spirit has fostered some exciting developments in recent years, chief among them the Nordic African movement Ambitious.Africa, which has ballooned in popularity since launching in 2020.
We spoke with Ronny about the startup scene in the Nordics and beyond, how to amplify the good news coming from young entrepreneurs and what could be the ideal flavour of coffee bean for Finns.
Congratulations on your success with Ambitious.Africa. You have built a community with hundreds of volunteers and teams across two continents in a year. What’s the goal now?
The main goal is to become a platform that empowers young people from the two continents to do more together. Like, Slush here in Finland. Slush wasn’t created to be the biggest startup event of the world. The goal was to empower young people to feel okay to found more startups. Slush brought investors and startups together and gave reasons to young people to found startups.
Africa is at a similar stage as Finland was 10 years ago. There are a lot of hungry, eager young people. They don’t have the right platform, support or trust to do things. This is what we wish to do with Ambitious.Africa.
We did everything without funding the first year. We proved that we are not here because of money; we are here because we want to do things together with people.
How did the idea spread to other parts of the world?
The idea in the first place was not to take it anywhere else, but young people from the Americas and Asia started to contact us saying they do something similar. They liked the model and empowerment a lot. We said, “of course, we will make it happen”. Now we have Adelante Americas and Aspiring.Asia, which are led by local young people. It’s been great to see youth be empowered with the triple-E model – education, entrepreneurship and entertainment.
I’d like to see the Ambitious approach be available wherever in the world you go.
Ambitious.Africa has also seen you become involved in creating new coffee profiles via One Day Coffee Co.
Yes. In short, I met Kaapo Paavolainen, the Finnish barista champion, via connections made through the Ambitious.Africa movement. It’s a great example of how openings create new openings and people get match-made.
Kaapo is a coffee genius, and his idea is to make quality coffee at competitive prices. We want people to drink better coffee but less of it. It doesn’t make any sense why we’re the company doing it. What we’re doing in essence is using technology and IoT solutions to roast coffee in an innovative way. With the right skills, you can create several different profiles from one coffee bean. You can make a bean taste like strawberries. The goal is to change how people see and taste coffee. It is not just black oil that keeps us going.
If you can transform the flavour, what would be the ideal one for Finnish people?
That’s actually something we are experimenting with right now: creating a Nordic coffee profile together with Norders. I don’t know yet, as it’s an ongoing experiment. But I think it’s something lighter, forest-oriented, maybe with some taste of pine trees. Kind of like that taste you get walking in the forest after rain.
No salmiakki, then?
[laughs] No, no salmiakki. Maybe you can have salmiakki on the side.
Speaking of Norders, why did you found the creative agency, academy and community?
During my time at Ambitious.Africa, everyone was talking how the Nordics are so great, so easy to collaborate with and stuff, but when I started reaching out to people it was super easy to get volunteers from Africa. The Nordic region proved to be the bottleneck… It’s actually pretty hard to reach young people here. I started to realise that even though this continent is united and we have the tools, there aren’t too many organisations that are pushing collaboration with young people.
The other thing the Nordics aren’t good at is marketing. We’re good at marketing in our own markets, but the world is where the solutions are needed the most. Together as a region we can reach the world. It’s all based on the realisation that the Nordic welfare model is not only a societal model, but also a model that scales for individuals and companies all around the world.
We’ve been doing it for six months. We’ve been able to work with customers from startups to bigger and bigger companies such as Barona. What we’ve been able to do is really interesting: it’s a community to give the best young creatives the tools to scale their companies with the best practices, to connect North stars with rising stars and give them the tools to realise their dreams.
One of my big goals is to make Finland known throughout the world by telling our beautiful stories to the world, thus Norders. It is the big cumulation of all work done this far. I urge all young people to travel more within Finland, tell stories etc. This is why we helped in creating, for example, the Influencers Academy, which works across different regions creating growth with Norders. It’s time to brand and market Finland and the Nordics so everyone knows about us.
Recently, we also launched a Nordic growth programme for individuals and companies that is completely free. We collected 10 Nordic steps for post-pandemic growth and made a 10-episode video series with real-life Nordic examples to inspire startup entrepreneurs and give them tools for agile growth.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
I am an extremely social, creative, unconventional young man with a lot of energy to do a lot of things I love.
How do you manage everything you do? Do you have time to rest?
Pretty early on I realised it’s hard to do anything alone. Many people like to keep things to themselves, it’s their thing. I’d like to do a lot of stuff, but I need to get a lot of people interested and passionate about the stuff. For me it’s not the most important thing to be the sole founder or the sole guard of something. It’s more about getting a big portfolio of things that I am interested in and keeping doing multiple things. That suits my ADHD [laughs].
Where do these ideas come from, how are they put into play?
First and foremost, I’m a really passionate learner. Within a month, I’m graduating from university, but I never loved university because you are told what you should be learning. While being at the university, I have been wondering how I can learn about things I am passionate about; I don’t want to just sit and read books but combine the theory with practice and get stuff done. The model emerged from learning by doing. When you do one thing you meet people, they have ideas and know people. When you start to have a portfolio of getting stuff sorted, people start to be excited about doing stuff with you.
Everyone has talent, everyone has ideas when you start looking. It’s just how can you conceptualise the ideas so you can actually run with them. That’s where most people fail, get afraid or whatever.
Why don’t you get afraid?
I guess because, “what should I be afraid of”? If I fail, I fail. If I don’t try, I’ll mourn that I didn’t try for the rest of my life. If I fail, at least I did something. I can’t blame anyone else. There is nothing to be afraid of other than yourself.
What is your greatest achievement thus far?
On the doing side, I’d say Ambitious.Africa and the Norders project have been the biggest successes. They haven’t been successes for me in the sense that they have grown big and they have a lot of people on board, but they have become platforms for young people to realise their dreams. I’ve been able to give these platforms and support that I was privileged to get at a relatively young age.
What’s your morning routine?
I’m not really a routine-oriented person. People often ask how I have so many hours in my day, but I don’t have any more than anyone else or good processes to make more hours. For me, mornings are all about getting out of bed and out the front door as soon as possible. If I have a meeting at 10am, I usually wake up at 9.30am and brush my teeth, check that my hair is good, put on clothes and I’m out the door.
It kind of forces you to do things during the day.
Then I pretty much fill my calendar in advance with meetings and workshops. Around 6pm, I try to stop and do some training. Every day, I try to go for a run or go to the gym. I see my friends and family as much as possible. It keeps me healthy and energetic.
What has been your greatest success thus far?
I’ve been able to sustain and create a work-life balance even though I keep doing a lot of things that enable others to do a lot of things. It’s a combination of my own achievements, finding the balance, building things that I’m super passionate about and giving opportunities to others.
How do you maintain work-life balance?
This goes back to something I’ve been trying to teach others: the skill of listening to yourself. People tend to follow what is written or what is stated. If someone says, for example, that you should eat only vegan food or only meat, people tend to believe what they hear and blindly follow their peers. But in a world full of noise, the only fact we can trust is our own perception. People should listen to their own bodies. What is my mind saying? What is my body saying? How is it reacting to this stuff? I think this work-life balance has come from a feeling that the things I’m doing are right. You can combine everything so that it feels like everything you do feels like the best time of your life, even if you work 12 hours a day. You’re doing it because you’re passionate about it, you’re learning from it or you’re doing it with friends.
I’ve been able to find a completely new way of looking at work and free time. It’s about combining them and working with your best friends.
When you wake up in the morning and you decide to stay in bed, I use that as a signal. Do I want to or have to do stuff? That’s one of the easiest things to follow. I’m a really positive person, but if I don’t smile, I know that something somewhere isn’t right.
Which three people would you like to invite to dinner, living or dead?
First, I’d choose Bjarke Ingels, the founder of Big Group in Denmark, an architecture firm that has completely changed the way people look at architecture by starting from people’s perspective. We tend to look at architecture and business as old buildings that are formed as efficiently as possible, but you can turn it around and make statements.
The second person would be my grandpa. He’s one of the people in my life I wish I had spent more time with and whom I feel an extreme connection with. Unfortunately, I was way too young to realise that – to challenge him, ask him and learn from him. He died just as I started to get there.
Lastly, I would go a lot back in time and meet with someone who lived before you had all these modern technological things. Maybe someone like Thomas Jefferson or Einstein. Or it could be Mannerheim, as well.
What can you learn from your experiences?
It is a bit like the thought I had one day about the startup world. The game has changed from football to basketball. In the past, you planned things in the long term, on a playing field for 45 minutes at a time, in a sense. Nowadays you play basketball: you have a lot of things happening and decisions that you need to make quickly. I think it’d be beneficial to learn to think in the long term and execute in the short term – then be open minded about the changing world.
What are your hobbies outside all this?
I’m super passionate about the beauties of the world. It has informed my hobbies. From basketball to Thai boxing, to hitting the gym, they became boring as they are repetitive. Nowadays my hobbies have something to do with nature: I do a lot of hiking, running, nature-based activities. I’m combining going to the gym and being outside. I’m an active person and need to keep moving.
The others include reading and listening to books. They’re good ways to get to know how other people see the world. I also watch a lot of TV series and movies because I like to see different ways to see the world. Music is probably one of the biggest passions I have these days. I help my friends produce songs. I listen for a lot of things in music, like how you can make people feel things instead of making songs that just get into their heads. How can you take people to a Finnish forest through music? It’s an interesting world to play with.
How do you manage to do it?
Everybody knows some stereotypical things in nature. When the wind blows in the trees, you can feel it: the pleasure of the wind, the sounds of it. It’s about combining those sounds of the wind with a melody that takes you somewhere and transports you through those sounds. With unconventional ways of creating music, you can use sounds and vibrations to really make people feel things. It’s fun.
What is your dream for the future?
My dream is to be the Nordic youth-driven Tim Ferris: someone who tests and tries things in a weird, crazy, innovative and open way which is known to be Nordic. I want to be an influencer on life happiness who shares stories through social media, podcasts, etc.
The quote that I have on my LinkedIn profile is that the world should realise that every individual can bloom and re-bloom as many times in their life as they want. It’s pretty much up to themselves what they want to be. We should all be a bit more ambitious. If we are ambitious and not getting anywhere, those who’ve gotten somewhere should be supporting us. This is a world where anyone can do great things if they want to.
Young people are the future, we shouldn’t be sceptical. We should give them other things to do besides PowerPoints in a basic job environment. We should give them opportunities to swim in the deep end, as that’s how they learn to swim.
Originally published in September 2021.