Diversity, Inclusion & Finland’s Startup Ecosystem

Kim Oguilve is the chief marketing officer at Maria 01; a not for profit startup coworking community in the center of Helsinki that hosts over 150 tech companies and VCs and is now the Nordic’s largest startup campus.

We discuss what marketing means to her, how and why she is making diversity and inclusion a part of her organisation’s business strategy, and also, I ask her to name a few of the coolest Finnish startups that she has recently come across.

Listen to the full audio or read the selected excerpt below.

➤ When somebody asks you what do you do for work, how do you respond?

What I do in a nutshell is that I try to build a brand around the startup ecosystem here in Finland and the way I do that is through my job at Maria 01 where we bring together all the different ecosystem players to basically help each other – especially the startup companies to grow their business in a big holistic scope. And Maria 01 has been the tool for that because it has become this kind of showroom for the ecosystem here in Helsinki. Then of course, my job as a marketer basically is about spreading the buzz about the companies that we have in-house, the activities that we do with our partners and investors and make people feel excited and want to do things with Maria 01. 

➤ So now, speaking of the startup ecosystem, I think even the year before, Helsinki was the top startup ecosystem in the world or it’s always, you know, ranked high. Why do you think that is? What makes Helsinki especially welcoming to startups?

Yes, I think this is something that has to do with Finnish culture a little bit. Finland is so successful with these ecosystem initiatives because there is so much trust. You need to see that something works before you risk it and I think within the past 10 years we have seen these organizations that have been successful in producing accelerators but also all their startups that made it and have become successful or as we call them – the unicorns. I think that is something that people have seen and people have become very hopeful that you know if this can happen once then why would it not happen like, two or three times more. I also like how you can see that for example in Maria’s model as a not-for-profit that we are partly owned by the city and the enterprise agency and also the Startup Foundation so I think this kind of model is something that I have not seen anywhere else in the world. And it has not needed me to visit anywhere else in the world because people actually come to Maria to understand how we make it work. 

➤ Right now with your work, what is at the top of your mind? What are some of the issues that you’re urgently trying to solve?

Well, Maria 01 has gotten so much better with time, we have become more professional and focused in everything that we do. I actually just got an intern joining our now two-person marketing team so I’m super excited about that. But, of course some of the things we can do better is with diversity and inclusion. It’s something that people do not prioritize or do not see the benefit or it’s kind of the one thing that is always on the side. For us at Maria, it has become something that is really taking a front line in everything that we do. [That means] you know, being more strict with our partners in the usage of, for example, inclusive language but also the kind of guests that they invite for their events. It’s bad to see all these all-white male panels when people share their events because at the end of the day, if we say that we want to be a diverse and inclusive organization but then we have you know members or partners really not having the same kind of guidelines, in a way, it is something that can harm our brand in the long term and makes us seem hypocritical. You know it’s nice to talk about this but it has now come to the point where we have to start enforcing these guidelines that we believe will bring the ecosystem forward in terms of diversity and inclusion.

➤ Now this podcast is called Noticing the Obvious, so I want to ask you a really obvious question. You’re saying people are not appreciating the benefits of diversity and inclusion. How would you describe the benefits for having bigger diversity and more inclusion?

Yeah that’s a very good question. You know, one story that I like to tell is about this company in the US who was manufacturing period underwear for women. And that company, they went through so many venture capital firms and they could never really get investment. They eventually were able to get off the ground because they were crowdfunded and basically that proves that well, it could be that people did not really understand the kind of product that they were selling nor the actual need that it covers. Maybe the people that were in those boards making those decisions did not really understand that women have periods and once the company went through crowdfunding they were able to continue building a big business so that proves there was a real market need. I think that if you do not have a diverse team sometimes you might miss on really great opportunities. The learning point from a venture capital perspective is that sometimes really great products and ideas might be misunderstood or perceived differently depending on the kind of people that you have making those decisions.

We have a goal that we really want to see more women starting tech companies but the thing is that in the ecosystem, we do not have enough role models for these women. Many of the companies have been built by, you know, this group of friends who met during university times and that’s how you actually end up having a company co-founded by two or three white males because in the first place with these networks inside university, you make friends with the people that you really know so you would never at that point consider starting a company with someone that is not your friend, for example. So [it’s important to] break this stigma with many initiatives to help people get to meet each other and find a co-founder if you have an idea. 

My daughter, as a kid, notices that she’s different because she’s a bit like you know dark skinned just like me, she knows she has dark hair and then of course the things that she sees on TV. There are not that many people that look like her and I think that is really how it works with entrepreneurship. Kids growing up seeing different kinds of role models really affects their perception of the things they can or can’t do in society so those are my takes on why I think diversity and inclusion are important.

➤ So okay now the opponents – I mean, I don’t think anybody would go out and say we don’t want diversity and inclusion, however, the people that don’t place it at the top of the list of priorities – do you know what they would argue?

Well… let me think …

➤ …because I have one in my head.

Yeah you can go ahead.

➤ Well I think the argument that I’ve heard is: It should be based on merit. So, if you’re qualified and he’s qualified and they’re qualified, whoever’s most qualified no matter what the background should be selected, right?

Well that could be a valid point but it depends how you are recruiting the people. I think you should, of course, hire the best person for the job but I think the problem is in the way that recruiting is done and the places where we do it. It is often from our own networks and we utilize, for example, not so inclusive language sometimes in job posts so I think sometimes we are unconsciously attracting [a narrower set] of people.

It should be based on merit because nobody wants to be a diversity hire and that’s obviously not cool. [It’s about] having diversity and inclusion as part of the strategy and to work on trying to find people outside of the usual networks and really audit the company as a whole to see what kind of images we are utilizing in our social media and in our websites because I think that it’s a very unconscious problem.

Everyone says they want diversity and inclusion so it’s about making sure we’re actually attracting the right kind of people in the first place so you have a more diverse set of applicants. So, I think you should always hire the right person with the right skills but let’s make sure that we are going outside of our own networks to try to find these people.

➤ Yeah. I like it, that was very nicely said.
➤ OK, you’re such an encyclopedia for startups in Helsinki, I would love it if you can give me some startups that come to mind that you’ve recently come across, that have captured your attention in some way.

Well, I think one startup whose story I’m totally living for at the moment is Brella, who has such an inspiring story because you know they were part of Maria when the crisis hit. They had a very hard time to the point where they were thinking like, ‘OK, now we have to leave’ but in a blink of an eye they pivoted their whole product offering so that they could basically respond to the current market need which was virtual networking. Basically they just put together the platform and in a matter of, I believe, four to six weeks they were like, ‘Hey we are staying because now we just recorded our highest sales ever.’ Last week they launched like eight different open positions at the hub and they’re recruiting like crazy. They have a super nice international team and I really admire Brella so much at this point in time for everything that they have been able to prove.

➤ Wow! Can you quickly explain the pivot? So what were they before and what did they become?

Yes, so Brella used to be an events networking tool so it was really focused on you going to a physical conference and utilizing their mobile application to network with the people.

➤ Yeah, to set up meetings.

Yes, so as you can imagine when the crisis hit, all their conferences got cancelled and it was just like super uncertain. But something that was clear was the need for virtual networking because, right now, we have these tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts which have a chat on the side but that’s not really the ideal way of doing it. So now Brella has this integrated hybrid platform… and it’s like a nicer integrated virtual events networking tool. So yeah, it is very nice.

➤ That’s a really nice example of somebody using adversity to not fold but to grow and that’s what being in a startup is all about, right? Just pivoting. It’s hitting a wall and then pivoting instead of crashing into it.

Exactly! Another story that I really like – I think his name is Jesse from Rens – the coffee sneakers. I just really love the whole setup. If he listens to this, I hope he doesn’t take this the wrong way but for me I just love the fact that it’s not like, you know, a Finnish male who created this thing, do you know what I mean? Because even the kind of companies that we are used to seeing, from foreign people building here in Finland, you can see that there is a pattern but I love how he was able to break that pattern. And that’s what really changes people’s misconceptions on what a person from X country should be doing. I think his story is super inspiring. 

➤ And they’re not based at Maria, right?

They are not at Maria, unfortunately [laughs].

➤ I really like that you’re not just mentioning Maria startups! 

Yeah, exactly and.. do you still want another? 

➤ Yeah, I was gonna say, ‘Who’s next?’ Give me some more!

Well the other two that I could mention within let’s say in the sustainability sphere are Spinnova and Infinited Fiber Company.

Spinnova makes fiber out of wooden materials. These kinds of companies interest me a lot at this point. I think the whole fast fashion industry is in need of these kinds of innovations especially because of how much they harm the environment in terms of waste. Also, I would say the conditions that in many cases they offer the workers is something that, in my opinion, really needs to be disrupted sooner or later.

[I think] Infinited Fiber Company is the circular economy startup in which material from the same shirt can be recycled and that same shirt can be turned into like, many other shirts in the future so basically there is no waste from that manufacturing process.

I think Spinnova is the biodegradable material that is sustainable and then Infinited Fiber Company is the material that is basically used over and over again, like circulating.

➤ I want to quickly ask you about fast fashion. Is it a good or bad thing that clothes are cheap? Because at first you think, ‘Well, having cheap clothes is a good thing’ but then if you look more into it, can you explain why it might not be a good thing?

Yeah, the problem is that in most cases fast fashion companies do not create for quality, they create for seasonal trends. At the end of the day, you kind of forget that the cheap way of looking expensive is really taking a toll on the environment. You know, people buy clothes too often because they need to keep up with the trends and then in many cases these clothes, once they have been worn five or ten times, are not really usable so they have to be thrown into waste. When you bought it so cheap, you don’t care about it. It really does not have any value in the market after that, so it’s basically waste.

You know sometimes people might spend more money on really good quality pants and, like, a blazer. These kinds of clothes that you don’t need to have 10 pairs of – blazers for example. I think it’s gonna happen, it’s a slow process but I think it just has to change because the bottom line is that we are not going to have a planet sooner or later. So yeah, I think it has to be in everyone’s motivation and best interests to do something.

➤ It’s just human nature though. It’s impossible for most humans to think about the long term, you know. It’s that human instinct that we have to fight.

Yeah, exactly. When you start to hear about the meat industry, the fashion industry, the milk industry – the problem is that we got here in the first place because we overdid everything and that’s what people don’t understand. We’ve just been having an excess of things for such a long time. Balance is the key, so you as an individual can commit to a few actions, like you can decide to go vegan or pescatarian or you can stop drinking cow milk or you can live a car-free lifestyle. You can also make the commitment of supporting only sustainable clothing brands. I think everyone on this earth should have this kind of conviction, at least one, because together the change will really be seen in the big picture. 

➤ Agreed. You said, ‘We overdid everything.’ We did overdo everything but it was never with bad intentions. Everything we do is to make our lives easier and that was really important when our lives were difficult – all the way back to when we were being chased by lions across Africa. We needed to make our lives easier, right? And then through the Middle Ages or through whatever, Victorian times, life was still tough so we had to make our lives better for us and for our next generations. 
But now, life is actually okay in terms of global poverty but we overdid it. We wanted to make clothes accessible to everybody so now clothes are super cheap. We wanted to make phones accessible to everybody. We wanted to make cars available, vehicles available to everyone and now we overdid it. So I think everything was with good intentions. We just wanted to improve our lives and the lives of the next generations.

Yeah exactly, I totally agree and with that same thinking there is no reason as to why we can’t change because now…

➤ …now we need to actually ..

..fix it! 

➤ …fix some of the problems that we accidentally caused.

Yeah exactly!

➤ All right, almost out of time. Do you have another startup that you want to mention? A cool startup you’re thinking about?

A cool startup – well I think another one that I can mention with whom I have been lately working with is called Menddie. So, speaking of fast fashion, I think they’re a fabulous startup. Basically what they do is that they help you repair your favorite pieces of clothing. That’s what we were talking about. In a very easy process where you basically just send your broken piece to the mail and then one of their seamstresses will fix it and send it back to you to the exact same drop point. I love that because sometimes you might have pretty good clothes in good shape but sometimes you might be lazy looking for a seamstress. Through Menddie it’s super easy to do this and yeah I’ve already repaired a few of my pieces through them.


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