Country Counter: 3 Cities Visited: Oulu, Helsinki Timeframe: Feb 2016
While going through my MBA brochure, I saw something new, something most B-schools can’t, or don’t, boast of – a learning trip to Finland! Finland, I thought to myself. Why Finland? Why not those other ‘popular’ choices for a B-school learning trip. I almost forgot about it, as it was in February this year and last year was packed with work.
Iron statues in front of Oulu City Hall – the first immigrants
As we finally packed our bags, I didn’t perform my ritualistic “things to do in” Google search. In my mind, Finland was still this faraway snow-land nobody knows much about, except for Nokia (which seems dead now). I wondered what we could possibly learn there. As soon as our flight landed at Oulu, I told myself I’ll at least return with some survival skills. Snow, knee-deep snow everywhere! The place looked like it was Elsa’s personal playground. I can’t believe I just used a Frozen reference (let it go!) but everything, and I mean everything, was pure white all around. Little did I realise that I was about to go back home with a very different mind-set about the place.
We spent the first three mornings at Oulu Business School. Seminars and lectures on the Finnish and/or the Scandinavian way of life kept us hooked from day one. For example, there is only one word for the male and the female in Finnish – Hän. No he/she, il/elle, just Hän. Issues like gender pay disparity and the like are unheard of in Finland and that says much about them as a society. Oh, and saunas everywhere. For a country with a population of 5 million, they have around 2 million saunas. Even business is conducted in a steamy fashion with members of the discussion semi-nude. Everything is also a tad bit expensive, especially drinking water. The Finns are a quiet bunch. They keep to themselves, and the less you talk in a given environment, the more polite and civilised you are considered. No wonder our rowdy bunch got the looks from everyone and everywhere.
One of the most memorable events was the ice diving, which is something Oulu is known for. Finland recently held one of its entrepreneurial fairs in Oulu with an ice diving format. Teams had an unlimited amount of time to pitch their ideas, provided they had to pitch while inside the ice pool. Sounds fun, no?! We had been briefed in school beforehand and by the time we actually came down to it, it was just a small group who went for it. It was minus nine degrees outside (yes -9 Celsius), and the water was close to freezing point. We had planned to compete amongst us as to who can stay in the water the longest. It turns out no one was in the water for more than 30 seconds, except the Finnish instructor, who was swimming as though he was at a beach in Florida. It takes a brave heart to take the plunge and I’m glad I did it. One for the books!
On the way to the ice diving spot
Post ice-diving selfie
It was also the first time I tried reindeer meat, which was part of a traditional Finnish dinner. I didn’t like it, although everyone else was enjoying the game meat. Savages!
The visit to the headquarters of Nokia was an insightful excursion. Sure, everyone knows Nokia is dead, but there was a time when they were unbeatable. My first phone was a Nokia, and I’m proud of it. And the company hasn’t stopped innovating yet. Their spectrum service is still way ahead of others (5G technologies) and they were the ones who made possible virtually everything we take for granted today.
The next evening was a trip to a (frozen) lake for snowmobile activities. We all took turns to drive a snowmobile, cook sausages on an open fire and play other snow-related games. All this while covered head to toe in a baggy suit which looked like those used by NASA and which took half an hour to get in to. The last afternoon was spent on a small guided city tour. The small iron statues near Oulu City Hall (see picture) represent the first arrivals to the country and their journey from being mere immigrants to today’s nationals with their own history, heritage and legacy. The last stop was the local police station, which had a cute statue of a pot-bellied police officer outside (in picture), symbolising him as the guardian of the place. Once you enter the police station, you are also served with an entire supermarket, selling the entire range from food to souvenirs.
Next stop, Helsinki. We had a two-day workshop at Aalto Design Factory, so I figured if I had to explore the city, I could only do it at night. Hence I do not have any pictures of Helsinki during daylight, when the city looks amazing as evident from the pictures of my friends. The Aalto Design University is located close to the headquarters of Rovio, creators of Angry Birds (go Finland!) Again, we were quite amazed to discover that innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep within the Finns. The factory is responsible for coming up with alternative sources of protein for situations where food is not easily available or accessible (deserts, space) and future scenarios where all current sources of protein are exhausted. Solution – crickets! Yes, millions of crickets reared in a shipping container farm, and apparently they’ve already delivered their first orders. Maybe this is the sad (read: disgusting) future we are headed into. Apparently, the solution is WHO approved.
Statues outside Helsinki Central railway station
But bugs aside, the two days at the Design Factory were an absolute delight. We had an entrepreneurial task to accomplish in a team, but it didn’t feel like we were working at all. From drawing giraffes to choose teams, to using anything and everything available on the floor to present our ideas, it was definitely one of the best workshops we ever had. By the time we finished, I finally realised why our school chose Finland. It resonated with the entrepreneurial spirit that my MBA program is well known for and the way the Finns worked, lived and had fun is something which makes them far ahead of traditional societies we come across every day.