A Love Letter to Finland

The truth is, I have always loved Finland and each year when I return to Slush, I’m reminded of why that is. This year happens to be Finland’s 100 year anniversary as an independent nation so I figured I’d write her a love letter.

Finland’s distinctive aesthetic appeals to me — even in the darkest days of winter. It’s a place with a strong identity. As soon as I land in Helsinki, I know I’m here. Well-designed buildings and objects seem unapologetically different. Services work. The city’s vibe is like a Nordic version of Tokyo — with cleaner air and a lot fewer people. The atmosphere is instantly recognisable, yet hard to describe.

The Finns have the kind of deep attachment to their country that transcends generations — you see it elsewhere in places like Greece, Israel and Mexico. It’s not nationalistic or arrogant. It’s a deep-rooted sense of place. Over 20 years of visiting Finland, this attachment has rubbed off on me. Memories of feelings I’ve experienced there are enduring and vivid. After every trip, I look forward to returning.

My exposure to Finland has largely been through the entrepreneurs and investors I’ve had the opportunity to work with — many of whom have become friends. I appreciate the sincerity and constancy of their friendship and the hospitality they’ve shown me over the years. Despite their enormous success, they’ve all remained humble, open-hearted and genuinely dedicated to helping their country move forward socially and economically.

Finland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is going from strength to strength. But the broader economy has been sluggish, at best, with the media not so long ago referring to the country as the “sick man of Europe”. Nokia’s fall from grace, the decline of the paper and pulp industry, and EU sanctions on Russia — Finland’s biggest trading partner — were a triple blow to the economy. Adjusting to these shocks has been challenging, not helped by a bloated public workforce and powerful unions on both the employee and the employer side, unwilling to make much-needed compromises.

Thankfully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Finland has had six consecutive quarters of economic growth for the first time since the global financial crisis. I admire her deliberate efforts to embracing startups and nurturing a culture of innovation and have no doubt that this will propel the country forward.

Finns can be proud of the hundreds of entrepreneurs who have founded businesses, and the thousands of people who take the risk and join those startups. These people are showing their country how to exploit Finland’s greatest natural resources: talent and teamwork. Finnish bosses at larger companies must also realise that rewarding talent through broad employee ownership, together with agile management, are key to getting the economy back on track.

I’m also keen to see how the arrival of refugees –primarily from Syria — will contribute to the next chapter of Finland’s story. I applaud the Finns for welcoming those families who are lucky enough to make it to Finnish shores. They will love it too. Integrating so many people from vastly different cultures comes with its own set of challenges, of course, but I believe Finland will be all the richer for it in the long run.

I am optimistic about the future of Finland, I plan to do my best to support the Finns by traveling there, investing there and wherever possible buying Finnish products. The one thing I cannot do, as a Canadian born in Montreal, is support their national hockey team, for which I hope they will forgive me.