What makes Helsinki region especially good place for starting a business? In this episode in conversation with Reggie Rusan and Aicha Manai we discuss the offerings from Suomen Yrittäjät and how the community helps and supports the immigrant entrepreneurs in Finland.
Length of recording: 26 minutes
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Namrata Sethi: Hello and welcome to Finnish your business, in our podcast we leave no business unfinished, I am your host Namrata Sethi and this podcast is brought to you by Mege, which is a joint project with Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki Business College, The Aalto University and the Shortcut, and it is funded by Uudenmaan liitto. Today we have two guests joining us from Suomen Yrittäjät Aicha and Reggie. Thank you for joining us and welcome to our show. If you could just tell us a little about yourself?
Aicha Manai: Sure, thanks for inviting me, I am Aicha Manai, I work for an organisation called Suomen Yrittäjät. I am the daughter of entrepreneurs, I am surrounded by entrepreneurs but I’m not an entrepreneur, I am Finnish-Tunisian. That’s about it, thanks for having me.
Reggie Rushan: Hi I am Reggie Rushan, I am an entrepreneur and I also work for a corporation now but I’m part of both, the Suomen Yrittäjät and one of the smaller (-) of it being Helsinki entrepreneur or Helsinki Yrittäjät and in that capacity I’m the chairperson for the Helsinki entrepreneur international and i also get the pleasure to work with (ISS) group which is the migrate entrepreneur of Finland, I always mess up the names.
Aicha Manai: It’s a group of entrepreneurs within Suomen Yrittäjät who help us serve entrepreneurs better and also bring about the viewpoint of (migrant) entrepreneurs in particular so that we can influence decision making for (-) in Finland.
Namrata Sethi: And what does entrepreneurship mean to you and why is it important?
Aicha Manai: Maybe the entrepreneur should answer first. [laughs]
Reggie Rushan: Entrepreneurship, nobody has ever asked me that question before. I spent a very long time in the corporate world and became an entrepreneur when I moved to Finland and was having difficulties finding work within a corporation but now that I’ve become an entrepreneur something that I really appreciate. You have direct responsibility and control over your own destiny as an entrepreneur and quite frankly it is taking your idea and turning it into viable business.
Aicha Manai: Yea, I go from what Reggie said that entrepreneurship means freedom, it means innovation, it means passion, it means solving problems and hopefully more and more about making the world a better place in general. I think entrepreneurship is a key to many big global problems.
Reggie Rushan: And having (–) [0:03:09] express the freedom doesn’t mean that it’s all fun and games because at the end of the day there has to be a vocable customer that’s willing to pay for your services and if you don’t have that your freedom is very limited.
Aicha Manai: Exactly, freedom comes with responsibility.
Namrata Sethi: What does your organisation do and how do they help entrepreneurs?
Aicha Manai: Well, Suomen Yrittäjät as an organisation I’d say helps entrepreneurs in 3 different levels, so the first and I think the major or the most focal point of what Suomen Yrittäjät does is that we influence decision makers in Finland. Regulations dictate what entrepreneurs can or cannot do in Finland and on European level. So we need to have organization that sees that the regulations that we have in place are serving entrepreneurs in a reasonable way and this is done on 3 different levels; on European level, on a national level and on a local level by influencing municipal decision makers and on a national level by talking with constantly having an open communication with members of parliament and with ministries. So Suomen yrittäjät is the organisation that-, if there is a new law being passed, we always see how this law affects small and medium sized enterprises. Is it affecting them negatively or positively? What could be done so that it would affect entrepreneurs in a better way because our aim is to make Finland one of the best countries to do business in. Then the second one is from the networking perspective. So we have about 115,000 members, I would say that wherever you go in Finland you will find a branch of Suomen yrittäjät. It doesn’t matter if you go to Kittila or Espoon keskus, wherever you will find Suomen yrittäjät present there. So that offers a wide range of networks for entrepreneurs. For example, Reggie is a technological person, through Suomen yrittäjät you can meet entrepreneurs that come from a totally different type of bubble and I think that’s also a good thing. And the third one is, we offer training, mentoring, coaching, we aim to educate entrepreneurs. Not that we are the ones who tell like, yes we will educate you , but the point is that once you start a business, if you start small, eventually you start growing, you start employing people, you probably need some help and support with people management, with going abroad, many different aspects of business. That’s where we come in and we try to offer these through different types of training and webinars and different types of educational content.
Reggie Rushan: Yea, I would agree. Since I get the ability to work both at the Finnish level with Aicha and then at the local level in Helsinki; all those levels are quite important. I would say at the local level information dissemination and networking or key. Although I’m sure there’s lots of influence at the end of local government, our local municipalities but the work that we do at the Finnish level with the parliament and those sort of things, that’s ultra important for entrepreneurs.
Namrata Sethi: At what stage should an entrepreneur reach out to you?
Reggie Rushan: As an entrepreneur I would say from the very beginning. One of the things, when I was building my business, I actually started building it in Espoo cuz that’s where I lived. I went to them and they helped me with my business plan and then I got lots of services from Espoo Yrittäjät. As in Uusimaa area Helsinki is the heavyweight so wanting to help entrepreneurs whether or not they were Finnish or non-Finnish entrepreneurs connect together, so was one of the reasons why I started to work with Helsinki entrepreneurs international.
Aicha Manai: I would say if you are planning on starting a business, you haven’t done anything about it yet, the new enterprise agency would be a good place to start, so Uusyrityskeskus. And then once you have, like Reggie said from the very beginning, once you become an entrepreneur, definitely Suomen yrittäjät, cuz i think we offer support mechanism and advice. Well, actually i forgot to mention that obviously one of the biggest things we offer our members is legal advice, so we have the legal aid that is open everyday from 8 to 8 I think and you can call and ask with whatever problem you have and we also offer legal advice when it comes to employing people because most of the companies are small and once they start employing people, they face different hurdles.
Reggie Rushan: I say it’s almost a luxury being an entrepreneur in Finland because, one, the information is widely available, it’s not always available in your native language but I think they are making great (tries) at doing that and two, the services that are provided to the entrepreneur are better than I’ve seen in most of the countries, I’ve lived in a few countries. And even in the US you wouldn’t get the same type of support as a (body) entrepreneur you get here.
Namrata Sethi: I do feel like, over here the ecosystem is very strong and everybody is very supportive. And how can you join Suomen yrittäjät?
Aicha Manai: www.yrittajat.fi/liito
Namrata Sethi: Great, that’s good to know. And what makes the Helsinki region, especially a good place for starting a business?
Reggie Rushan: One of the things that Suomen yrittäjät, I would say kicked a project a while back ago (-) gains statistics about the demographics of entrepreneurs and I will speak as a migrant or immigrant or international entrepreneur, one of the things, I was really impressed with is that, there’s well over 10,000 of us, based on the study, operating across Finland we represent over 3.5 billion euros worth of revenue every year and one of the things we haven’t talked about that I think is equally important is, there’s this promotion of entrepreneurship. In Helsinki specifically or the Uusiman area, one in every three businesses that started, it started by an immigrant, so international whatever you want to call us and I think because of that you get more support as a non-native speaking Finnish person so I think because of that, we represent such a large population within the entrepreneur community here in Helsinki you have the ability to get a better support.
Aicha Manai: Yea, Helsinki definitely has better networks than other smaller cities. Also obviously it’s the capital, it’s near the airport, it has a good ecosystem, (-) 0-1, Helsinki (think) company, all these different entrepreneurial hubs that help with accelerating ideas and taking your idea to actual fruition, I think the city of Helsinki is very entrepreneurially friendly, at least currently it is. So definitely, there are lots of opportunities in Helsinki and you can also find a lot more services in English in Helsinki than you would in other places.
Reggie Rushan: And even groups like the Shortcut which you mentioned before, they helped me out when i was starting out so i owe a lot to them. I always wanna make sure that they get the respect that they’re doing.
Namrata Sethi: They’re doing really well. And what are challenges which are faced by immigrant entrepreneurs?
Aicha Manai: Well entrepreneurs in general in Finland, like Reggie said, I mean Finland is a good country to do business in. I think in the global entrepreneurship monitor, we are ranked 11 so we are not like a horrible country to do business in but of course we want to become the best country but if you think of entrepreneurs in general, usually the problems are taxation issues that entrepreneurs don’t necessarily properly understand how taxation actually works and where are the places that you pay taxes, what are taxable, what are all of this. But when you compare to migrant entrepreneurs versus so-called native Finnish entrepreneurs, lack of network is definitely one, obviously the language skills and not knowing the finnish, I wouldn’t say Finnish business culture, cuz i think all companies have their own cultures in the end but in general, just understanding how the Finnish system works, it takes a lot to actually understand how this country operates and find you place here.
Reggie Rushan: All of those are really important, I would highlight that. I’m (-) believe that Finns typically don’t buy from and they don’t hire they don’t know and so building your network is really important and as an international entrepreneur your don’t come in with that network that’s built in and Finns sort of take it for granted, they have all gone to the same schools, they’ve very tight networks that are being pulled together. Especially if you are offering a service that there may be more competition in the marketplace, it’s hard to unravel those networks where people wouldn’t want to buy from you if they don’t know you. If you have a new service then that’s something different.
Aicha Manai: A 100% of what Reggie said, it is true that Finland is very tightly knit, a cluster of different networks who hire each other. Not obviously always the case but this is very common in Finland. So for a person who comes from a completely different background, different language, it’s gonna be very difficult to find their place. Because we have the problem, we statistically know that people of foreign background and even people who are born in this country who just have so called foreign sounding names actually don’t get hired so then entrepreneurship becomes the only viable option for many people and this is also why it’s very important that this country is more entrepreneurial friendly and at the same time we need to get out employers to actually widen their perspective and see the possibilities and hiring a diverse group of people.
Reggie Rushan: I think the big multinationals, they get it, the (-), Nokia, those companies we don’t have to work with, but Finland is a country of small or medium sized business so- so is it 98%?
Aicha Manai: 93%, hire less than 10 people.
Reggie Rushan: So that’s where the larger amount of work need to happen.
Aicha Manai: And the fact that, we have about 283,000 companies, and out of those companies 180,000 are actually solo entrepreneurs, so they don’t have any employees and these entrepreneurs usually work with other entrepreneurs. Like Reggie said, they then buy like, I need to get my website, so I call a friend and then I need to get my marketing plan, I call another friend who is an entrepreneur and then all the entrepreneurs are basically employing each other and then for a person who comes from a migrant background, it might be very difficult to get into that group so that they can also start selling their consultancy services or IT services or whatever they are.
Reggie Rushan: And being a part of the yrittäjät, it helps you expand your network very quickly.
Aicha Manai: Finnish international entrepreneurs on Facebook, I recommend that you join. We have about almost 2000 members there and it’s for entrepreneurs only and that’s how we would like-, except I’m there [laughs], mostly entrepreneurs and people who work with entrepreneurs, that’s a very good place to also get to know other entrepreneurs and widen your networks.
Namrata Sethi: Also maybe aspiring entrepreneurs who would like to be.
Aicha Manai: For sure.
Reggie Rushan: We also have Helsinki entrepreneurs international Facebook page also where there’s also, I think we are over 2000, 3000 now, maybe even much more than that, I need to check, but I think there’s a lot of communities and support and usually if you know someone that’s in a network, they’ll point you to two other networks that can help you build your network.
Namrata Sethi: Networking is definitely very important. Everybody’s advice is like, focus on your network.
Reggie Rushan: I can tell you that, your network can provide everything from housing, banking to customers and as well as mentors and advice.
Aicha Manai: And just remember that, when networking, it’s a give and take process. Never go into networking thinking that you’re gonna use all these people for your own gain cuz at the end you’ll find yourself alone. So remember that it’s a two way street.
Namrata Sethi: Definitely. What changes would you like to see to support immigrant entrepreneurship?
Aicha Manai: I’d say the thing that mostly, which is very hard to just make happen is the change in attitude. So when we look at media, when we read news articles about migrant entrepreneurs, it’s very often that we find, either the story of the great startup entrepreneur who came to Finland and wants to invest millions and was somehow told to leave, the case that happened a few months ago or then we have the case of, oh all of these Nepalese restaurants are taking advantage of their employees and you should be very wary of these restaurants and all of them are part of an organised crime ring basically to kind of-, obviously I’m highlighting here but we need to have a multi faceted story. So it’s very dangerous if we just keep repeating this one narrative of what migrant entrepreneurship is, that it’s only restaurants, it’s only ethnic stores and it’s only masseuse people. I think the media has a big responsibility in this that we have to broaden the perspective and this is something that we actually-, cuz Suomen yrittäjät, we have our own media. So we really focus on the fact that we bring different types of stories, we want to showcase that, like Reggie said, more than 10,000 migrant entrepreneurs are here in Finland and almost every third business is opened by a migrant here in the capital region, that it’s a diverse set of entrepreneurs that we have here.
Reggie Rushan: Yea, from professional services to pizza and everything is great throughout the whole spectrum. I think the promotion of sort of internationals in general in Finland has to improve. The fact that 99.999% of Finns don’t know that there are over 10,000 immigrant entrepreneurs working in Finland and that we are the fastest growing entrepreneur class inside of Finland and we’re already representing billions of euros of revenue internally in Finland. That should be something that people know as much as these other stories that Aicha mentioned. For some reason, apparently that doesn’t sell the press cuz they don’t publish it.
Namrata Sethi: Yea, that’s true. I think there’s a lot of requirement for the media to throw light on the good cases which are happening.
Aicha Manai: And the good cases don’t always have to be the startup entrepreneurs. I think that’s also kind of, it’s strange but there is this buzz, but not as bad as it was a few years ago but there’s definitely this hyping up and this buzz around startup entrepreneurs even though 1 in a 1000 actually succeeds and we are making such a big deal. Obviously they’re innovative and they’re doing a lot of good things and we need these accelerators and incubators but the reality is that most companies still work in the very traditional sectors such as construction and service and healthcare etc.
Reggie Rushan: Those are great for the Finnish economy. I think categorically, immigrants are looked at as people who come here to kind of live off the system and we have a very different narrative to communicate cuz that’s not really the case. As an international entrepreneur, we’re far more likely to hire other immigrants as well so it really helps the whole ecosystem because those immigrants typically aren’t going to find their first job within a classic Finnish organisation. So they have to (sell) some history of being successful working for other companies.
Namrata Sethi: So what does the future hold for immigrant entrepreneurs?
Aicha Manai: I think for entrepreneurs in general, Finland has to realise this country is becoming more and more diverse. Currently every 10th child that is born in Finland had either one or two parents who are originally born somewhere else outside of Finland and these people are making up the Finnish consumers and if companies don’t start catering to this diverse group of consumers, they will eventually die out in the competition because there will be migrant entrepreneurs who definitely are aware of the diversity in Finland and who are able to cater to their needs. So I think entrepreneurs in general really have to take a deeper look at what Finland is becoming and what Finland will look like, say from today to 10 years.
Reggie Rushan: Yes and I think also as Finnish companies become more globally aware, they would first seek the person from the community that they’re looking to expand to. So they can use the kind of feet on the ground that are already in Finland to help them expand abroad. So I think there’s a lots of positive things specifically for the international entrepreneur as well as definitely-, the immigrant entrepreneur workforces already are forced to be reckon with. Again, 3.5 billion in revenue is not a small marketplace in Finland. That’s quite large and so I think people are already sort of overlooking this community that has a large spending power and it’s only going to increase as time goes on.
Aicha Manai: 100%. I have to give one example of this, like what you said that when you employ someone who comes from a certain background, you also attract-, like let’s say you want to go to Namibia and you hire an Namibian person who knows Namibian people who has networks there. When you go to Namibia the connection will probably be formed much more easily than if this person from Kittila just goes there who has no clue. Is it lestadiolais community in Finland, I mean these are obviously Finnish people but just the minority in Finland. This religious minority in Finland, I heard a story of this company who were selling gardening equipment or something like this. Then they hired a person from this lestadiolais community to work as their sales person and then they noticed an increase in their sales because lestadiolais people, they come from large family communities. So this person who started working for this gardening store told his community members and all of them started shopping in that store. So these are just small examples of what can actually happen when you increase the diversity of the company that you own.
Reggie Rushan: And I can say there’s a lot of markets that-, because we don’t have particular issues here in Finland that Finnish companies are missing out and I can give you sort of a real case in point. I help Finnish (-) companies go to different African markets, Nigeria and Tanzania specifically, sometimes South Africa. In those markets there’s a huge need for a complete end-to-end school management system and as an example there are no offering in the Finnish space because Finns don’t need that and when you look at the market size of a country like Nigeria that is i don’t know 20 times more than the size of Finland itself. I know that Finns could easily develop that if they recognised the problem here and so it’s a benefit in hiring the sort of diverse workforce that can help you, expose areas that we may not need to solve here but those problems are huge globally and if you can be first in the market there, with the local representative, your products will win.
Namrata Sethi: What advice would you give to an entrepreneur in five words?
Reggie Rushan: Start now and seek help.
Aicha Manai: I’d say lead with heart and passion. Get your numbers right. Get a mentor, ask for help.
Namrata Sethi: And join Suomen yrittäjät? [laughs]
Aicha Manai: Yea definitely, join some yrittäjät.
Namrata Sethi: That’s been great. Thank you so much for joining for us and sharing these insights with us.
Aicha Manai: Thank you.
Namrata Sethi: Thank you for inviting.