Students Work for Free Enterprise

Spurring entrepreneurship in Northern and Eastern Europe is as much a cultural battle as it is an economic one.  I am spending the rest of this month traveling with a group of students throughout Eastern Europe.  One of the lessons I hope they will learn is about the entrepreneurial transformation underway in countries formerly under the shadow, or more often complete domination, of the communistic USSR.

We are starting our visit in Finland, where we visited Aalto University’s amazing entrepreneurship program.

I have been a fan of Aalto’s Startup Sauna (formerly known as Venture Garage) since it launched a couple of years ago.  I finally had my first chance to visit this program yesterday.

While Finland was never under communist control, socialism has long controlled its culture and economy.  As we heard about the genesis of the Startup Sauna it became clear to us that it is part of a movement not just to spur high growth entrepreneurship, but to change the way people think about free enterprise.

Our guides were a twenty-five year old on-and-off-again Finnish student named Antti and a former Belmont student Shirah Foy, who is now doing graduate work at Aalto.

As we toured the co-working space that includes incredibly creative and flexible working environments, I had to remind myself that the Startup Sauna was a student initiative.  Students created the program and students still “run” it.  In universities in the US, such a program would be run by faculty and an army of staff.  But this incredible space and its myriad of programming is all guided by the creative hands of undergraduate and graduate students of Aalto.

Antti stressed that Startup Sauna is as much a cultural initiative as it is an economic one.  The highly entrenched socialism of Finland has created a culture that is highly risk averse.  The students running Startup Sauna hope that they can be a part of a movement to change this by creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Finland.

Antti told my students about how the media in Finland reports on entrepreneurship.  When a Finnish startup gets to the point of a successful exit, it is reported as yet another local business “being taken over by the Americans.”  The Finnish media seems indifferent to the wealth that was created for the Finnish founders.  And they ignore the likely use of this wealth to be invested to spur even more new Finnish ventures.

Startup Sauna is more than just a co-working space.  They have started accelerator programs and major entrepreneurship events throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.  They are also working aggressively to create internship opportunities within  high potential startups to get the best and brightest Finnish students to think beyond corporate careers.  They want to open the eyes of these students to the possibility that they, too, can create new ventures and build wealth and opportunity.

While the work being done by Startup Sauna is just one small step, it holds the promise of a brighter economic future for Finland and the rest of Northern and Eastern Europe empowered by free enterprise.