How Helene Auramo of Prönö Tackles The Extreme Work-Life Balance Of Being A Woman Business Leader During COVID-19
Whatever happens, this too shall pass. We are constantly moving somewhere. I like to think that there are seasons of different things. Since we are constantly moving, nothing stays the same, and I find it comforting. So no matter how hard or awful the world around us gets, things are only temporary and will improve.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helene Aramo, founder of Prönö , a new global recommendation and networking platform. She is a lifelong Finnish entrepreneur who has co-founded Slush (one of the biggest startup events in the world), Zipipop (the first social media agency in Finland), and Indiedays (the first fashion blogger site in Finland). She loves to solve problems and figure out what needs to be fixed in our world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I decided early on in my life that I didn’t want to become an entrepreneur. I saw first-hand the strain of what being an entrepreneur was like from my father. He worked hard, long hours, and also the 90s recession was sometimes felt even at our dining table. I thought that I didn’t want to live like that. I wanted to become a teacher.
However, things started to change when I got into the Helsinki School of Economics (currently Aalto University). I started to have ideas about different businesses, and I had a passion for fixing things. When I saw something that could be done better, I wanted to do it and discover ways to improve it.
I started to realize that maybe I should do what I loved and put my fears away because I really wanted to improve the current state of things. And when I met the right people at Aalto Media Lab, I just couldn’t do anything else than take that jump and become an entrepreneur.
So Richard von Kaufmann,Taro Morimoto, and myself founded the first social media agency in Finland called Zipipop. Soon after that, I co-founded Slush in 2008. Slush started out as just 300 people and now has become the leading startup event, with over 25,000 attendees in 2019.
A bit later, the same team founded the first blogger portal in Finland called Indiedays, which was sold to Kaleva media.
I have also worked outside the realm of startups as a part of the management team and as a partner of a bigger company called Marketing Clinic. In December 2018, I decided to go back to the startup world and get started on my latest venture, Prönö — a new business networking platform based on trust and recommendations.
I’m also a board member at Fodelia, a Finnish publicly listed company. Between all of that, I also ran for the Finnish parliament in the last election for a new party promoting equality and entrepreneurship. I was only 500 votes away from being elected.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
I think more or less everything has changed since I started my company. The only thing that didn’t is that I still have my family and friends, and everyone is healthy. The transformation has been happening on so many levels that it has been difficult to keep up with the pace of everything sometimes.
Where I work and live has changed. I used to work in the heart of Helsinki and lived in a city. Now I live and work remotely at a cottage in the countryside. I don’t have shops or the subway near me. I have a lake and a forest. Instead of going to the gym, I now cut the grass and walk.
I’m not a well-prepared corporate consultant walking into the meeting rooms of big corporations anymore. I guess some part of me is still missing it because I love being well-prepared.
In the early days of Prönö, I had a meeting with a big corporation because I knew one professional who was an expert in sustainability at the company. I didn’t have a really well-planned presentation. It came as a total surprise when I entered the building that the VP of the corporation was also attending the meeting. That made me even more nervous. I almost apologized that I went there and took their time showing them my sketches. When I was there in the past, I had beautiful slides made by graphic designers and well-written text by copy editors. This time, I had done everything by myself and in a hurry. It was scary but turned out well because they are now also users of my platform, and they were friendly and gave good feedback.
Instead, I work more or less in startup chaos, which is all about opportunities, learning, and acting fast to changes. In this chaos, you need to become like water that flows through the obstacles. You need to give so much of yourself all the time that it’s sometimes scary. You also need to let some of the insecurities go. So my life is more scary and uncertain but I’m living more in line with my values: freedom, curiosity, co-creation, peace, and love. So it feels good in that sense.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think everyone can be a teacher to you. I try to think that the people who have hurt me or stolen from me have, in some way, also helped me to become stronger. My roots have grown deeper so that I can aim higher. So I’m thankful for them too and feel no hate towards them. Although maybe once I did.
I love working with people who are much smarter and better than I am in their own professions. I try to see the best in people and their unique talents and build on the top of those. I think everything I have ever done has a big thanks to other people, so the list is very long. In my latest venture, Prönö, I think the key people have been Ella Seppälä (my first employee), Antti Hinkula — the main person behind the visual identity, and Liisa Paasio, who always pushed me forward when I was feeling unsure about things.
However, I think the key success factor has been a supportive spouse. There have been many days and nights when I have been insecure and stressed because I heard the little voice in my mind saying: “I’m not enough,” “I can’t do this,” “this is too much,” and “what if everyone will laugh at me?” When I tell him about this, he’s been able to quiet that voice by acting as a mirror to me. Often even by starting prioritizing my work for me. He’s really good at that. And suddenly I can see the light again.
It’s great to have a person that you can tell all your insecurities to and who can lift you up. As an entrepreneur, it really feels like a rollercoaster, and the uncertainties, stress, and the feelings of not being enough haunt you every day.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family-related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
I don’t know what it is like to be pressured as a “woman leader.” I think the pressure comes as a leader with responsibilities at home. But I’ve always equally divided tasks with my partner.
I think the biggest challenge, in general, was to keep it together because the pressure was so high and coming from so many directions.
When the lockdown started, my husband and I started to work 100% from home. It was a new reality. We needed to reschedule and rethink our work and free time because we had two small kids suddenly at home instead of at daycare.
The schedule was challenging but we made it work. I was with the kids from 7 till 10 am, then working till 2 pm, then with the kids and work from 4.30 pm to 8 pm, then with kids. It was exhausting, and I felt like we were living in survivor mode. I hoped every day was a bad dream but it wasn’t.
I was lucky and happy that we decided to divide the home tasks evenly. It’s always been like that in our relationship anyway — that we are very equal. My husband has stayed at home with the kids as much as I have, or actually longer. In Finland, relatively long parental leaves are quite common and are subsidized by the government. My husband was at home for 9 months and then for 6 months with our other child when I have been working, and all this time has been subsidized.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When most of your time is suddenly taken away, and some of your hobbies or activities have been wiped out, you need to really think about how to prioritize your time.
That’s why I started to work on my values to prioritize my work and life. I worked on this with Canay Atalay’s Heroine’s Journey course, which came my way more or less by accident. I managed to crystallize my values: co-creation, peace, curiosity, freedom, and love. And also to think more about my purpose and what I wanted to do in my life and how.
As an end result of my value work, I realized together with my husband that we wanted to make some big changes to our lives. We decided to move to the countryside. We sold our house, packed our things, and got in the car for the 200km drive to the countryside. After experimenting over the summer under self-quarantine, we left our city life behind, the convenience and the bustle, to a place that was better for us. A place I could be more productive and step out into the forest for breaks right out my door.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
I think I need to be grateful that I was born in Finland, where I have experienced equality in my career — I understand that this is not the case everywhere.
I have never experienced that being a woman has been a negative thing in my career — actually, I feel the opposite. The only thing I can remember was that when I was just starting 13 years ago, I wanted to look for role models, and I didn’t find them. Back then, I made a decision that if one day I could inspire other women or help them in their early career, I would do it.
Overall, I think the biggest challenge was related to my mind and how to keep everything together at work, how to lead, and keep the team’s spirit up.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
For me, the biggest step I took as a leader was becoming radically transparent. This change happened many years ago when my company, where I was working as the CEO, suddenly lost 50% of its business because of some things that were happening in the market. I was shocked by this because we had just hired more people, and I knew that we would be in big trouble. After thinking of different scenarios and ways to get out of this situation, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to fix this myself, not this time. I would need the support of the whole team, and I would need to be totally open about how serious the situation was for us to survive.
So I decided to tell my team that: “I need all of your help now more than ever because I can’t fix all the challenges we have as a company by myself.”
It was amazing to see how my team started supporting me and how we managed to fix so many things within a month. A year later, our business had grown more than 100%. And the only reason for that was the change in my leadership style and how we co-created the new future for us.
So I think that real feelings and insecurities should be present at work — especially when people don’t see each other and work remotely. If someone feels down, I try to help, because I genuinely care about my team members. I also suggest having video calls and phone calls on a regular basis so that people will feel a connection.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
During the lockdown, I was very stressed. I was thinking of quitting being an entrepreneur so many times in the evening just before going to sleep because I felt that it would be so much easier to do something else. But because Prönö is about helping entrepreneurial-spirited people, which is my passion, I couldn’t quit it. It’s what I really want to do, so then when I woke up in the morning, I was always ready to continue the path I had chosen.
I think that all these feelings and desperation made me also really go so deep within myself that something new started to emerge that led me to learn and see things from different perspectives.
I think that working remotely has a challenge embedded in it. I think it is about energy. When you meet people and work with them physically in the same place, you can sense their energy and attitude, and you feed off of it. This is much more difficult when people are working in different premises or online. If you work at home, you can sense the energy that is there and if your spouse or the kids are in a bad mood, you also get that same energy. So I always recommend that you have a separate space where you can work. I also have noise cancellation headphones.
Breaks are also important to implement to your calendar to make sure you have the time to work on your energy. For example, yesterday, I decided to take a 15-minute break and went for a swim in the lake. When I swim, I try to think about how the earth supports me so that I don’t drown. I see it as a form of meditation and also a way for me to connect with nature — we humans are part of nature, although we seem so often to try to be more like machines.
When lockdown started, my husband and I decided to plan our time and routines together. Unfortunately, our schedules were so full, and because we prioritized the children, we didn’t have much of our own time. I think it was fair that we made the plan 50–50 so that both needed to work and be with the kids for the same amount of time.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Having two young kids made my life very hectic during lockdown, and hearing your own thoughts was difficult from time to time. But kids can also help you to understand something about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise know. They are so honest, curious, and present. Think about what a gift it is for you if you truly manage to listen to them.
Meditation can help many, but for me, the biggest thing has been about understanding the meaning of meditation. As I want to have good energy and a balanced life, meditation can give me that. And I can experience this on nature walks, swimming in a lake, or just by listening to music. And remember to add breaks to your day when you can do things you enjoy.
I think that all the negative feelings and experiences can help you grow as a human being. You can learn something new about yourself. On normal days many people are so busy that they don’t have time to listen to themselves. Maybe this is the time when you can hear yourself better, like what are your true values, your dreams, what really makes you happy, and what you’re passionate about.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Feel the feelings. If you feel very bad about all the things happening, try to feel it as much as possible, because behind every real and heavy feeling is something that you might need to hear from yourself. For me, this happened during COVID, and I think I understood many new things about myself and the life I wanted to live. I was able to make many positive changes in my life. One big change we made with our family was that we decided to move away from the city to a cottage in the countryside, close to a lake and forest. I think without COVID, we wouldn’t have taken the step, but now it just made sense.
- When things get difficult, try to change the perspective. A lot about the world and how you perceive it comes from the way you look at things. Although there are many sad and horrible things happening now, it is sometimes good to try to think from another angle. Perhaps we can learn something valuable. For example, we can learn how much we are connected to each other. Or maybe this experience could help you see yourself more clearly. I learned more about what excites me and what things I am most passionate about. For example, co-creativity: to learn from the best and come up with new ideas and empowering people to see what they can come up with if you can give them the courage and tools. It was a very powerful moment to learn these things about myself, and they carried me further.
- Whatever happens, this too shall pass. We are constantly moving somewhere. I like to think that there are seasons of different things. Since we are constantly moving, nothing stays the same, and I find it comforting. So no matter how hard or awful the world around us gets, things are only temporary and will improve.
- Working life has changed, and the sooner you adjust, the better. Many are now working remotely. It has many positive things associated with it: you can design your day a bit differently, and you can also save time because you don’t need to commute. If you need to focus, it might be easier at home than at an open office.
But now more than ever, it also gives you a different responsibility: to be able to work efficiently at home. We are not machines, and we can’t really take meetings from 9–5, moving from one online meeting to the next. We need the transitions that we’d have in real life, moving from location to location. That’s why I suggest you try to plan coffee breaks here and there.
I’m especially worried about people who don’t have the tools to work on their own energy levels. And I’m worried about the employees who don’t get the support from leaders because many leaders don’t understand this yet.
5. Leadership will need to change. We’ve had the right digital tools for a long time now, yet we still didn’t work remotely very much. It’s now becoming a norm; however, I think it will have a huge impact on leadership. Leading teams will need to be more purposeful and empowering, more trustful, and value-based. I see this as a really good chance that is very much needed, and I feel positive about it. I also think that we will have a lot of conscious businesses arising.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We are social beings, so we all need support from each other and want to feel a sense of belonging. Call people and have video calls — listen to them. I have learned a new habit of taking walks outside in nature and calling my friends. I have replaced the coffee breaks at work with nature walking and calls.
It is good to talk with each other, especially about feelings, during COVID. For me, I experienced a lot of feelings because I went through a transformation of value clarification and needed to look for my dreams and purpose once more. They helped me to navigate from the first wave of COVID.
Talking is also important because many can feel stuck in their emotions and feelings. So maybe you can help their feelings transform into something else. For me, humor works, but not for all. If I’m angry or sad, humor can change the feeling to more positive. Also, a problem shared is a problem halved. You’ll instantly start to feel better about a problem or a challenge if you share it with someone else, even if you were unable to resolve the challenge entirely because the act of talking about it is already therapeutic.
Sometimes support can have a huge impact on people. And it is ok to say that you are depressed. I think many of my friends have experienced exhaustion and burnouts because they feel lonely, and suddenly have also started to question if their life has been on the right track in the first place. Many also have monetary challenges when jobs are wiped away. I think those of us who have a job and the ones who may have some answers need to do what they can. For me, it was about creating my business platform to support people in their careers. I have also offered my support to people to find their values or help to support their businesses.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I think it is about living today already the way you wish to live. We must set an example and implement the right kind of changes in order to make the world a beautiful place. In order for others to become more open and transparent, you need to set the example and then others will follow.
For some, it is about becoming something new and for others, it’s about finding something that once was, but now is lost. For me, it is about both, and it’s about a balance you need to find every day, again and again.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Karina Michel Feld is the Owner and Executive Producer of Tallulah Films. Karina has 20+ years of experience in TV, film, and print and is a respected member of The Producers Guild of America. The mission of Tallulah Films is to bring together directors, entrepreneurs, film investors, and screenwriters to produce award-winning TV and film projects. Tallulah Films continues to be drawn towards films that are meaningful, influential, and uplifting. Karina is also Co-Owner and CFO of Fresh Patch LLC (as seen on ABC’s “Shark Tank”).