In late 2019, the newly formed Finnish Government made headlines throughout the globe. The all-female and youthful party leaders making up 34-year-old Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s cabinet were a sight seldom seen in government buildings.
Developments in Finnish politics rarely lead to batting of eyelids internationally, but the inclusivity and change that Marin’s cabinet symbolised was felt universally.
Whilst the likes of The Guardian declared it as the coming-of-age of feminism, for most Finns it was merely seen as another day at the office. Simply put: maintaining a functioning society requires all hands on deck.
The Finnish welfare model has been recognised for its social benefits including happiness, work-life balance, education and safety. What is often not discussed is the way the strengths of the Nordic model feed into new ideas, solutions and business. As a small, open and ageing society, Finland sees innovation not just as an inspirational quote, but as a national necessity – one that many are increasingly pursuing alone.
The gender representation in the government that turned heads internationally is also mirrored in the foundation of new enterprises, when looking from a global perspective. While Finland has more female entrepreneurs per capita than the European average, the share of female entrepreneurs here has remained at 30 per cent for the past decade.
“Although doing well internationally, we still have plenty of work to do related to flexibility in our parental leave system but also our labour market,” notes Carita Orlando, CEO of Women Entrepreneurs of Finland. “Our goal is to advocate legislation that supports this trend, to make founding companies easier and to develop the social system to fill in the relevant gaps.”
The current abundance of digital possibilities for establishing and running a business part-time or according to one’s own schedule have seemingly greased the wheels for female self-employment.
“There are signs that modern entrepreneurship might be well suited to fit the needs of a highly educated person in between jobs and with small children,” Orlando states.
Speaking from experience
Looking at female entrepreneurs in Finland from a broader perspective, a number have made a significant mark in the development of goods and services uniquely tailored to the feminine experience. Combining an entrepreneurial mindset with life learnings has made for global success stories.
A few years back, after experiencing post-natal difficulties, Riina Laaksonen began to research physical discomfort experienced after giving birth. The disparate opinions and advice on offer underlined the need for a one-stop-shop for information. This led her to establish Nordic Fit Mama, an online training programme for mothers recovering from pregnancy. Taking a holistic approach to mothers’ wellbeing, contributors to the service are professionals in relevant fields such as midwifery, nutrition and sexual health. Nordic Fit Mama has also cultivated an active online community.
“There are so many topics new mothers talk about with their peers,” Laaksonen noted. “Receiving fact-based guidance from trustworthy sources will make the phase much smoother. Having a baby is about as life-changing as things get.”
Other personal challenges met by female entrepreneurs can be more of the everyday variety. The Lunette reusable silicone menstrual cup tackles the problem of excessive waste produced by traditional feminine hygiene products. While the ecologically sound idea itself is nothing new, CEO Heli Kurjanen was intrigued when she first noticed one of the existing cups on the market some years ago.
“I was really content with the product, but there were small things I didn’t like about the design,” she recalled. “As I was complaining about it to my husband, he half-jokingly told me to make a better one myself.”
And she did. Her company has subsequently gone on to make a significant global impact both in sales and altruistic efforts to aid women in developing countries.
Hacking a way through
Talk of glass ceilings and wage inequality continues to dominate the wider global discussion of women in working life. In the midst of this, there have been grass-roots campaigns started by Finnish women that have successfully challenged certain archaic stereotypes related to gender representation.
“When you look at women’s magazines or read about successful women in business, the stories still perpetuate a very narrow idea of success: that you have to be incredibly confident, tough and always fully in control to make it,” described Miisa Mink, the founder of the Driven Woman initiative. “And that is simply not true!”
Driven Woman offers women from all industries and life situations the opportunity to join a local group to discuss individual objectives and goals in life and find tangible solutions to move forward.
“Success requires a lot of work and time. It’s taking small steps,” Mink said.
While gender stereotypes continue to be prevalent in many industries, cracks are appearing in once male-dominated workplaces. Author and entrepreneur Linda Liukas has done much to challenge such stereotypes through her work in Rails Girls, a global non-profit community that teaches coding to girls and women in workshops around the world.
“Technology for me is about self-expression, creativity and joy. Women have so much to offer to the tech world and often make the mistake of trying to fit in too much,” Liukas explained in 2019. “The moment I decided to step into my own possibility and curiosity, I started to build a career that looks like me.”
Continuing from her Rails Girls work, Liukas wrote and illustrated the Hello Ruby book series exploring contemporary technologies and teaching programming to children. The enterprise has grown into an entire platform of books, games, exercises and apps. This soon led her to clinching a spot on the European Forbes 50 list in 2018.
“In my work, I defend young girls’ and boys’ right to understand an increasingly technological world, but the Forbes list shows that adults too need unconventional role models in the technology industry,” Liukas commented at the time.
Creating business with values
Rails Girls is also having a direct impact on other industries. One of its former organisers, Henrietta Kekäläinen, went on to found mehackit, a global provider of creative technology training, learning content and pedagogics.
Kekäläinen’s most recent achievement came as CEO of Carbo Culture, a Silicon Valley-based startup making biocarbons out of biowaste. This is based on the scientific finding that with better land use, through biocarbons, forestation and other means, a third of human emissions could be removed from the atmosphere annually.
The rise of such companies as Carbo Culture reflects the fact that as the world becomes smaller, the defining questions become bigger. And many have much to say. An urge to answer the big questions is a common feature among young entrepreneurs, regardless of one’s reference group.
When Kekäläinen is asked what she thinks are the unifying traits of Finnish female entrepreneurs, she replies that entrepreneurs should not be differentiated just because of their sex. Finnish entrepreneurs are in her view a lot of honest, smart and persistent people with a lot of integrity for their work.
A broader agenda
For many, the push for inclusion and diversity across industries has indeed moved to the next stage. Both were important themes in the European startup scene in 2018 and at the Nordics’ biggest startup event, Slush, but have since matured into important features of the generation of startups emerging in the 2020s and beyond.
“Diversity alone is not enough,” states Slush president Oona Poropudas. “It must be paired with inclusivity and actual involvement in company processes.”
According to Poropudas, when we’re talking about the role of women or any other under-represented social group, we’re actually talking about a broader phenomenon – biases.
“We all have them. The question is whether we want to acknowledge and challenge them.”
For the emerging globally minded generation of entrepreneurs, the richer the company’s tapestry the better. And diversity is not merely a buzz word on the street. Research points to workplace diversity nurturing enhanced decision making and enlightening blind spots of thought by bringing fresh perspectives to the table.
“It’s good business, you will reach a broader customer base and do so in a better way,” lists Poropudas. “It’s also the right thing to do.”