How to build your own path in Finland? – The power of communities

Post based on Kamilla Sultanova’s keynote speech at Study & Stay in Turku 2020

One evening in early November, a small team gathered at the Turku School of Economics to broadcast the 2020 edition of Study and Stay in Turku – an annual event targeted at prospective and current international students in the Turku area. It connects international talent to the local job market, and provides insight into the possibilities that Finland offers. This year, the event was arranged as an online show.

During the event, two fantastic keynote speakers and an alumni discussion panel shared their experiences and advice with the audience via a live video stream. The energy of a rare in-person interaction suffused the film shoot, as the guests joked, laughed, and shared their stories of finding a path in Finland.

The first keynote speaker was Kamilla Sultanova, who spoke about how to build a community in a new city. As someone who has moved cities twice in their adult life, this resonated with me. While it only takes a few months to figure out the practicalities of life in a new place, it takes much longer to establish enough of a network to feel that you really belong.

Who is Kamilla Sultanova?

Kamilla is a Helsinki-based international speaker and workforce diversity consultant. A bubbly, energetic person, it doesn’t seem like one project is enough to keep her occupied. In addition to consultancy and speaking, she is a co-founder of Global Dignity Finland (a youth empowerment NGO) and leads Hanken International Talent programme to amplify diverse quality talents availability in Finland.

Kamilla has experienced life as an international student herself. In 2002, she moved from her home country, Uzbekistan, to Denmark to study corporate communication. After graduating, she spent seven years working in Scandinavian shipping companies, a career in corporate sales helped her travel the world and build cross-cultural ties while dealing with sea captains on rough seas and traders. She has moved to Finland to join her husband and has been a proud Helsinki resident for 6,5 years. In 2018 she started her own consulting company ConnectUz, where she is a speaker, event host, and advocate for cross-sectoral collaborations to promote diversity and inclusion in Finnish companies. 

With her business expertise and ability to unite individuals across industries and cultural backgrounds—policymakers to everyday civilians, students to educators, and people of color to less diverse groups—she has empowered countless audiences in 15 countries to volunteer, aspire to become changemakers and create inclusive spaces in their own communities.

The importance of community

We all have an innate need to belong. Moving to a new country is never easy, although it is an adventure. It requires you to be open to change, keep curious, and be proactive.

Finland has a double reputation, according to Kamilla. On the one hand, it’s known as the world’s best country for work-life balance. It’s the third-best in innovation, and has been ranked as the happiest nation in the world three times over. On the other hand, it can be difficult to find your place in Finnish society – and a job – as a foreigner. According to 2019 research by The Shortcut, 85% of jobs in Finland are not advertised: it is essential to build social capital by building ties in local communities.

Luckily, Finland offers a perfect space to engage with people, become part of an association, and join a network online or offline on the basis of interests, hobbies or professional aspirations.

How Kamilla built a community in Finland

When Kamilla first moved here, her Finnish husband expected that she would be able to simply “plug-and-play”. However, this wasn’t the case. She found it tough to move to a country with a strongly individualistic culture, where you have to fend for yourself. Despite the hurdles, she has managed to create strong networks in Finland by doing the following:

  • Connect with people before you arrive. Before moving here, Kamilla joined some Facebook groups of Uzbek and Russian immigrants in Finland. This allowed her to connect with local people in her own language. They helped her get to know this environment, and gave her a lot of unconditional help.
  • Learn the language. Kamilla spent 8 months on a Finnish language course. This was useful, and even though it wasn’t always a fun experience she is grateful that she took the time off to do it.
  • Volunteer. If there is one message I took away from Kamilla’s speech, it is that volunteering is a powerful way of forming networks. She volunteered extensively and managed to connect with many people in the process.
  • Sports. Getting into sports is a big deal! Try out trail running, skiing, kayaking or any other sport which is super Finnish. It does start conversations!
  • Activism. The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought us all back into our local communities, and over the last several months Kamilla has become extremely attached to her neighbourhood – the nature, the shops, the people. This inspired her to launch a community-building webcast called #RiseInUnity. The webcast shows how you can tap into collective action and get resilience and a richer life experience exactly where you are. And the best lesson from the webcast so far is that each of us is shaping our community with our actions or inactions – it’s that simple.
  • Attend free events. Many free events are organised by local libraries, the Finnish innovation fund Sitra, and other groups. Have a look – you are sure to find something that interests you.

Why go through all that effort?

“In addition to the ring”, Kamilla laughed, “there are many other reasons to stay in Finland.” Life, she explained, is about more than a job and a salary. It’s also about other values. She feels valued in Finnish society, has the opportunities to live a fulfilling life as a woman. Moreover, she feels she contributes to Finland and her international audience. She also loves Finnish nature. Moreover, she added, Finland can be a strategic location. People take you more seriously when you are pitching start-ups or social entrepreneurship ideas, if you are based in Finland. Funding and support are easier to come by here than in many other countries.

Kamilla has worked with some renowned individuals, including Pekka Himanen, Crown Price Haakon of Norway, Jenni Pääskysääri and Ronja Salmi. Working with such amazing people, she says, gives you a true sense of equality and what Nordic values stand for. As a member of the European Young Leaders network, she also walks the talk on building communities on a national and European context and she hopes for more people to recognize their opportunities and potential regardless of backgrounds and go from consumers to become creators.

Finland needs more representation, and Finnish companies need lots of talent to stay competitive and prosperous. All sorts of research shows that workers have more fun, innovate more, and respect their customer base more when they work in diverse teams. Kamilla encouraged participants to dream higher and imagine their best lives as presidents, journalists, NGO leaders, youth workers, teachers, career counselors and diplomats. You may be starting over again in a new country, but Finland is a great spot for first movers as well as introverts. She left the audience with this message: “Are you ready for your Finnish adventure? Because I am ready to serve you! So let’s connect, and belong.”

Kamilla’s tips for building your own community

See the whole Study and Stay in Turku 2020 event recording

Or skip straight to Kamilla’s section