It only takes one quick glimpse at Sophie Michaud's LinkedIn wall conversations to see that Finland has an issue catering for international talent. The country needs high-skilled international professionals but fails to cater to them at an elementary level. Inspiring tales of bright summer nights, thousands of lakes, and a stellar work-life balance won't get you very far if searching for employment is a never-ending story.
Before Sophie Michaud embarked on her Finnish journey, she was an anthropology major working in finance and accounting. It was her hometown of Montreal where she met her spouse, a Finnish engineer stationed in Canada. Even if her first visit to Finland landed on a miserably cold Midsummer's Eve, the couple started to plan their move to Finland shortly after. The two married in 2015 and moved to Finland with their first child in 2016.
After staying home with their child for her first year in Finland, Sophie decided to go back to school to study business.
'There weren't many English-language programs around then, and a certain level of Finnish proficiency was a prerequisite for many interesting programs I could have considered applying to,' Sophie says.
She ended up choosing a business program at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. The unbearably tricky search for an internship — an integral part of the program — turned out to be a watershed in her professional life in Finland.
From cold applying to personal branding
'I had worked in finance and accounting for years, but landing even an unpaid internship seemed impossible. The problem wasn't that I didn't have enough experience in accounting, but as the experience I had wasn't from Finland, they thought that I needed to be trained from scratch — even though I had worked for the biggest bank in Canada! I was even ghosted for an unpaid social media position for an organization helping immigrants integrate in Finland — oh, the irony.'
Sophie did the whole spectrum: networking events, career fairs, sending over fifty applications in the space of two months. As her recent LinkedIn post reveals, it often takes international talent several months to years to land a job in their field.
'I started to understand that it isn't because of me, and it isn't even because of the companies — cold applying doesn't work here. That's when I started to get active on LinkedIn. And by active, I don't mean active as in reaching out to recruiters, but spending time creating content to showcase my knowledge while connecting with like-minded professionals, learning about their companies and how the ecosystem works.'
This brand-building was Sophie's initial stepping stone to the Finnish startup ecosystem.
'I had already met Lasse Lehtinen from Icebreaker.vc while doing a pitching event as a part of a school project, and then I connected with Mari Luukkainen on LinkedIn. I got accepted to their growth hacking internship program and secured a spot to do my internship at Flowhaven doing performance marketing. I was still there when I heard about the position at Supermetrics. I already knew Supermetrics team members due to my LinkedIn activity — I had spoken to them about their ways of working to help Flowhaven build their marketing team.'
Beyond the startup bubble
Sophie has found the startup circles of the greater Helsinki area welcoming: as startups tend to aim for global scaling by default, their structures are often built international-first.
'They don't really have any other choice than to hire non-Finns, as they want to be global from the start and have no recognizable brand name to attract talent. They will take anyone qualified — that's great, but working for startups can be very volatile. How long will they last? If you're slightly older and have family, it can be very stressful.'
'SMEs, on the other hand, are completely closed to foreigners. If they look for an international employee, it is for a highly-specific role where it is all about the language and not the general skillset — like a French-speaking communications person, as an example.'
The startup scene has worked well for Sophie, and she considers herself one of the lucky ones: she has a Finnish-speaking spouse, a great job, and a network of friends.
But the local startup ecosystem certainly shouldn't be the only place where international talent feels seen, appreciated, and welcome.
'Initially, I was hoping to land a job in HR — but the course on Finnish Employment Law wasn't offered in English because the law itself is in Finnish. Where I come from even though it's far from perfect, diversity is a norm. Private businesses can't afford to say they can only speak to you in one language.'
Companies, build an international-first mindset from the very beginning
Supermetrics is a great workplace — and very diverse due to the company's international-first mindset. This is what startups should do from day one — even if they only have one international person working for them. This was the case at Flowhaven, as well. It should be the case for any startup that aims to have offices worldwide. A company should be able to offer all of its contracts in English. Even if your company language is still Finnish, this way, you are ready for your first international hire. It doesn't have to be the case for the whole company, but start with one role or team!
Managing diversity conflict is key
You need to understand what diversity conflict is. Suppose you need an engineer, a designer and a marketing person to work together. In that case, you have to endure potentially high conflict, as they approach the problem differently — and we're not even mentioning what happens with people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds yet.
For the best possible outcome to happen, you need to be able to keep the personal conflict at the lowest possible level. Mitigating personal conflict is the key to successful collaboration between different people. When entering a new market, it is not just about the language — language is just the tip of the iceberg of the cultural environment. Language is what you see, but what you don't see is the cultural sensitivity that needs to be ingrained in the core of your decision-making, culture, and processes. Cultural clashes will always happen, but those need to be taken with the least possible ego and understanding that they're not personal. We are experiencing conflict because we're different — and that's okay. You need people to have that conflict, but it must be handled constructively.
If you want to have true innovation, you need different perspectives, which brings conflict. So you just need to learn to manage that.
VCs, help your portfolio companies to fix the simple issues
VCs can do a lot for their portfolio companies. If the problem is that contracts are all in Finnish, fix the problem — provide your portfolio companies with translators. Simple as that. Create them yourself and have them base their contracts on them. It is about providing a service. This also lets you see whether the problem is with providing services and processes or whether diversity issues lie deeper than that.
VCs can also help by setting up matchmaking services between international talent and their portfolio companies, as they have the ability to assess where people would fit in.
For international talent… don’t give up, but be open to change
For me, the perks of having studied anthropology was that I was never securely set for just one career — I've been able to go with the flow and be open to many kinds of opportunities.
As the Finnish TE Employment Service is not great for high-skilled workers, things can get very weary. Try to be as flexible as you can — and put your ego aside as much as possible — even if it's hard. Take things differently than you would back home. There are alternatives to cold applying — for me, it was building my presence on LinkedIn, creating content, and networking publicly. LinkedIn is a great place to learn about different industries and communities. For me, the startup scene has worked well — my mentality is very much "just-get-it-done," which works well there, and Supermetrics was the right choice for me.
Try to stop thinking about your background and what "should be your thing" — and try to accept that it isn't always a possibility. Finance was never going to be an option for me in Finland. Accepting that it is okay is the key: "I trained to be X, but that doesn't mean that I'm incapable of doing something else that I find interesting."
It's okay to change course. Even though you do one thing great, it doesn't mean you have to do it forever. And it can be tough to change, but remember you're not alone and you probably can't imagine what's waiting for you at this moment. And when you look back once things settle, you’ll be proud of your journey.