Originally from Bologna, Italy, Silvia Gaiani describes herself as a Bolognese with a suitcase and a bohemian gypsy deep in heart. Prior to moving to Finland, she worked for several international organisations and universities all over the world, including as a consultant at The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Twenty years ago, wanting to learn an exotic language, Silvia decided to go for Finnish, taking a course at the University of Bologna. Later, she moved from Italy to Joensuu, Finland, for her post-doctoral research but had to go back after it was complete. Years later, when a dream position opened in Seinäjoki, she returned to Finland to lead ground breaking research in the field of food innovation and entrepreneurship in South Ostrobothnia.
The reason I ended up in Finland is… my love story with Finland, which began a long time ago. I started learning Finnish at the University of Bologna something like 20 years ago. Only three students at that time were attending the Finnish class, and I found it intriguing. I wanted to learn a new language and for me Finnish sounded exotic enough to give it a try. What I knew about Finland at that time was that it was the land of reindeers, Santa Claus and aurora borealis (I still laugh when I think about how ignorant I was!).
I took two exams in Finnish, and I loved it! But then I forgot about my Finnish for a long time, until I saw an advertisement from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was offering scholarships to post-doc researchers willing to do their research in Finland. I found it interesting, but at that time I had no connection to Finnish universities. So, I did some online research and sent emails to professor Erkki Sutinen, who was carrying out research in the field of ICT for a development project in Joensuu. He replied to my emails, and I ended up working at the University of Eastern Finland as a post-doc researcher (at that time it was still the University of Joensuu). Erkki was (and still is!) really a brilliant, smart, enthusiastic person who taught me a lot, also about Finland. I fell deeply in love with the country, with Finnish food, especially Karelian pies and Finnish bread cheese (leipäjuusto), its forests and silence, and the easy-going lifestyle in Finland.
When my research period ended, I was very sad to have to go back to Italy. I swore to myself that sooner or later I would go back to Finland. The opportunity happened this year in January, when after a selection process I was nominated to be a senior researcher at Ruralia Institute in Seinäjoki. To me, it was like a dream finally came true!
What I enjoy most in my current work as a researcher is… having a chance to participate and contribute to an important historical period in regional development through my research activities. I am leading a five-year research on food innovation and entrepreneurship towards a sustainable transition at Ruralia Institute, which is part of the University of Helsinki. The focus of my research is on South Ostrobothnia, the region with more than 110 food companies. Some of them are really big Finnish companies, like Valio, Atria, Altia, but the majority of them are just small, family-run food companies, which employ between one and four people.
South Ostrobothnia is called the food province of Finland. Currently, there is a lot going on in the region in terms of entrepreneurial activities, new business models and new policies. At the same time, local companies are facing a number of challenges, including high production costs, a low level of internationalisation and a lack of networking activities among companies. I find my research extremely interesting: it comes at a time when South Ostrobothnia is going through a new development phase and trying to figure out how to increase competitiveness while opening up to innovation, especially in the food industry.
During these five years, I am responsible for bringing tangible results to the region and actively supporting local food companies in becoming more sustainable, innovative and resilient.
I was truly honoured when Sami Kurki, Director at Ruralia, called me on the phone and said: “If you are still interested in this job, it is yours!”
The main differences in working life in Finland compared to other countries where I have worked are… To me, Finland is the best place not only as a place for work, but also, in general, as a place for living and having a family. Finland has topped the World Happiness Report, and I can see why. People find pleasure in little, intimate things in life, taking the best from it and enjoying a great welfare system and effective policies.
It is also a very safe country. I cannot remember how many times I have left my mobile phone or wallet somewhere and found it! Finland is full of natural beauties, and it has excellent working conditions. In general, working environment in the country is characterised by low hierarchy, high autonomy of employees, equality and co-operation.
And, of course, salaries are higher in Finland when compared to the countries in Southern Europe. People working in Finland enjoy such benefits as sick leaves, when their child gets sick, as well as long maternity leaves.
Having said this, I am above all enthusiastic about the working environment at Ruralia Institute. I feel part of a family where everyone is supportive and encouraging, where I have an opportunity to grow and learn while doing the job of my dreams. I love the weekly meetings I have with the director, coffee breaks with colleagues and the possibility to rely on an excellent professional network.
Between Joensuu and Seinäjoki, to be honest, I have not noticed big differences. I was told that people in South Ostrobothnia were a bit close and conservative, but I have only met friendly and open-minded people. Though my Finnish is very poor, every single person I have met has tried his or her best to understand me, help and be welcoming.
The qualities that international talents can bring to the Finnish workplace are… Finland does not have a long history of hosting international migrants, and I know that now there is a big debate going on about the need to attract more workers and, in general, more talent. I think work-related immigration could improve Finland’s employment, bring economic growth, compensate for a lack of labour force and assist the ageing population. I also think that immigrants can benefit a lot from working in Finnish workplaces.
I expect that in the future we will see a growing number of Finnish companies run by foreigners in co-operation with Finns, more mixed and international marriages, and more people willing to move to and live in Finland. I have to say that among the many foreigners I have met while working in Finland, not one has gone back to their home country.
Finland’s strengths for sustainable food system transformation are… immense. Finland is a forerunner in terms of policies and legislation. For example, Finland is the only country in the world to have launched a national food research mission for 2035. The Finnish food system is based on sustainable, flexible and competitive food and feed production. The country is a pioneer in sustainable food innovations and runs pilots on research, innovations and new operating methods for sustainable food systems.
In the coming years, based on the Finnish innovation ecosystem agreement, Seinäjoki will promote the sustainable regeneration of the food ecosystem and an intelligent regeneration of the food industry. One of my dreams is that sustainable food transformation is accompanied by a growing interest in the Finnish food culture and the promotion of its cuisine. If this happens, I suspect Finland will dominate the food scene in the future!
The words of advice I would have for someone thinking about moving here for work is… bring some warm clothes and expect the unexpected. Finland is the land where you can see your dreams coming true.
What I enjoy most about Seinäjoki and South Ostrobothnia is… that the city offers good services and plenty of activities to do with kids. I love farmers’ markets on the main square, and I love spending time in the library which was designed by Alvar Aalto. Aalto has definitely left his imprint on the city of Seinäjoki.
The organisations that have supported my research interests in Finland are… Seinäjoki has no universities and therefore a very peculiar “academic” history. In 1960, the University Association of South Ostrobothnia was built to provide university-level education (summer schools, mostly) and to promote research work, development and co-operation in the field of higher-education policy in the region. In 1999, the South Ostrobothnian University Network (Epanet) was established with the aim of forming research groups of high quality on the branches needed in South Ostrobothnia – welfare and creativity, smart technology, sustainable food solutions, entrepreneurship, and growth.
My position is an Epanet professorship, partially sponsored by the University of Helsinki, but also by a number of South Ostrobothnian municipalities and some food companies, including Valio and Atria. The focus of my research is on food, sustainability and innovation in the region. I find the Seinäjoki University Consortium a unique and successful mechanism that has been able to strengthen the local academic society and create links between academics and the regional economy. I also love the idea that the campus established in Seinäjoki is so vibrant – it combines universities, enterprises and public authorities. There are always interesting events to attend and many people to network with!
The hobbies that I have really enjoyed practising in Finland are… I love going to forest, picking mushrooms and berries. I especially like the everyman’s right according to which you can go outdoors and even pick berries from a forest without the need to ask permission from the landowner.
I enjoy taking long bicycle rides (in Italy you risk your life each time you jump on your bicycle), having a sauna and then splashing into a frozen lake. But I did not pick any of the extreme sports for which Finns are famous: I have competed neither in a mosquito-swatting competition in the northern town of Pelkosenniemi, nor in the Air Guitar Championship.