The idea is a solution for a real problem
My father was from Egypt but I was born and raised in Finland. Although coming from a multi-cultural family, I feel much more Finnish than Egyptian. While my dad has been very lucky with his career in Finland, it’s not always the case with the majority, even those with high levels of education. That’s partly why we came up with Integrify, to offer a solution to this problem.
Integrify is the third company I’ve founded. The first company was a staffing and recruiting agency when I was still a student. The second was a refugee centre and lasted for about two years when there was an influx of refugees into Finland in 2015. In many ways, the knowledge and experience from these previous companies were the sparks for Integrify. I learned a lot about the experiences of those coming from other countries, especially their attempts to integrate into Finnish society. People are not only students, workers, or refugees, they are individuals with dreams, motivation and unique potential.
Immigrants are not a homogenous group of people. Some move here as refugees, some for studying or because of work. They also have different social backgrounds, educational experiences, and professional careers, so we should talk about different people in the most appropriate way for their background.
Opportunities seem to never knock on the doors of some immigrants
One of the biggest obstacles in the labour market in Finland is that talent is not recognized. Everyone is supposed to be treated equally but sadly it’s not always the case. For some people, opportunities seem to never knock on their door. This creates a lot of inefficiencies which can then lead to personal struggles and economic disadvantage.
I’ve always been determined to run my own company. I was still in school when I told my parents I was going to start my own company when I grow up. I have no idea where I got that idea from, at that time there were no entrepreneurs in my family, but even back then I was determined to pursue this journey. Of course, entrepreneurship is something that you can learn but some people are more predisposed to the lifestyle than others. If you can enjoy uncertainties and have a tolerance for high-risk scenarios, then this is for you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say everybody should be an entrepreneur.
Startup life is not glamorous at all
I love being an entrepreneur but I do not always love everything it entails. Personally, I am motivated by trying to solve difficult problems wherever they come from. You need to have that kind of mindset so you can overcome challenges, move forward and enjoy the ride while it happens, whether it goes smoothly or not.
I think there is a misconception about the life of startups, it’s not glamorous, at all. You see people on Facebook and Instagram posting stories about how things are going but that is only one side of the story. In every phase, there are different challenges. And this is not exceptional, it’s typical entrepreneurship. I realized this after meeting and talking with other entrepreneurs, they do experience the same thing. Struggles are certainly a part of the game.
Connecting people with their dream job inspires me
I exercise regularly to get my mind off the struggles of the day, mostly CrossFit. Many from our team actually go to the same gym near our office. It keeps my mind occupied, giving me space to think and usually, that helps me come up with new ideas as well.
The satisfying moments are when you feel like you have completed or achieved something that you’ve set your mind to. That could be anything from securing a new client, successfully recruiting someone you wanted to hire or launching a product. Lately, connecting people with their dream job has been my source of happiness. We’re not like an educational institution which just teaches topics following a curriculum, we are about getting people started with their careers.
So far, around 170 people have taken part in our training. We have constant ongoing training and the latest one started at the beginning of February. 80 percent of our graduates are working as software developers or data scientists, which is a number we are very proud of. We cannot promise anyone a job after the course because we cannot do the job interviews for them but what we can do is provide opportunities for people to prove themselves.
The problem-solving mindset is what entrepreneurs have in common
The role of an entrepreneur is to identify real problems and come up with solutions or a way to do things better and then execute. There is this problem-solving mindset that I see a lot of entrepreneurs have in common. I’m simply interested in solving problems, whether it’s a social problem or any other challenge. Integrify is sensible as it solves the problem relating directly to people, which helps the government, companies and society as a whole. The challenge is how to integrate highly educated newcomers in more efficient and better ways. This is not just a problem in Finland. There is a shortage of software developers and computer scientists all over the world.
Integrify was founded in 2016 and sparked from the European refugee crisis. At the time I was running a refugee centre and the company originated from a small pilot. We did not have a clear plan or business model at first. We saw a problem and wanted to test our idea. That time was a bit hectic when there were 30,000 people coming to Finland.
“Do you want to be a cleaner or do you want to be a coder?”
Basically, we just called refugee centres and asked them to advertise our visit. They collected all the people fluent in English who had some educational background so that we could interview them. We went there with three founders and delivered a speech welcoming them to Finland. We explained that it would be hard to find a job and even harder to find a meaningful job. Of course, they were smart, educated people so they had already done their own research and they knew the facts.
We were very clear asking, “Do you want to be a cleaner or do you want to be a coder?”. Obviously, everybody wanted to join so we were doing hundreds of interviews on the spot and had to decide quickly who would get in. I think those moments are very memorable as the decisions had to be made quickly and we decided to just go with the flow. You don’t have to make 100% correct decisions every time, especially at the start. It is more important to execute fast, try new things and learn from them than it is to be careful and spend too much time planning.
A super lean technological reception centre
We gathered people from different centres in Finland and brought them to Helsinki. Then we rented an apartment in Töölö for the students and a senior developer to literally live, learn and code together.
It was like a super lean technological reception centre, the first and only one in Europe in this way. Eventually, it was a success! All the graduates from the first program were employed in the tech sector which encouraged us to go further. More and more people started to know about us. For us, the reason why people come and want to stay in Finland is not as important as their motivation to learn about technology and work as a software developer here.
We did put a lot of effort into the first steps. However, our initial business model did not work out the way we had hoped for. At the time us founders had other companies as well, besides Integrify, so we went back to the drawing board. So, the business was on hold for almost a year until we won some competitions and got some funding. This reinforced our belief that our idea would work. The model has changed a lot throughout the years and here we are today – a team of three has become 14 with dozens of students who have graduated and successfully landed the IT job of their dream.
Help people that deserve a chance
There was this guy with a family and one small child. He holds a master’s degree in engineering from his home country and has been in Finland for eight years. For seven of those years, he supported his family by doing odd jobs. But after six months of training with us, he now works as a developer in one of the leading IT consultancies in Finland. I still remember the day when he spoke to me and said, “Did you know that my trial period ended last week and now they’ve fully hired me. I have actually made it, and now I am here as a developer.”
He was super happy and grateful, saying how he never would have had a chance without the work we had done together. This is the kind of thing to remember and really keeps us motivated. In the end, you want to help people that deserve a chance, and when these things happen you forget all about the hardships, difficulties, and challenges because that’s what it’s all about.
We wanted to do this partly because we were pissed
I have always been interested in socioeconomics. I think, in Finland, we have been in denial for too long about the economic challenges our country will face very soon. We have a lot of problems with decreasing numbers of babies being born, as any western country. Whereas we also have an increasing number of people in the workforce retiring. People are also living longer after they retire and the country was structured in the 70s when things, like life expectancy, were completely different.
Finland also has a system that provides a lot of benefits for those living here but it’s a system we simply cannot afford anymore. With what we have here in Finland some things need to change, and it’s not going to work itself out. Firstly we need to be honest about the challenges and then start looking for solutions. There are many reasons why we started Integrify, but its ability to impact society was definitely a big one.
Foreigners struggle to integrate into Finnish society
A topic discussed in the media lately is about attracting international talent to Finland. Politicians have also started to talk about how to open the door and make it easier for people from overseas to work in local companies. It’s a positive movement. What frustrates us is that the labour market for immigrants is still cryptically inflexible.
A great number of qualified professionals with a proper degree from back home are relocating here and end up unemployed or doing basic jobs that don’t belong to their field of expertise. If the foreign engineers move here to do a cleaning job, then it’s a waste of workforce. Not to mention thousands of students coming every year for higher education, after graduation with a certified Finnish university degree still struggle to land their first job. It does not make sense why it is hard for foreigners to be able to integrate into Finnish society.
The best motivation for change is having no other option
The Finnish language is considered as a common barrier. A long time ago in Nokia’s glory days, English used to be common within businesses and a requirement from Nokia for its subcontractors. In its hay day, the company directly accounted for 4% of the total national GDP, so that made sense for others to play by their rules. After its collapse, unfortunately, the Finnish language orientation was retrieved.
It wasn’t until recently, especially in the metropolitan area and the tech industry, that English has again become widely accepted for communication. There are some good initiatives, particularly Espoo has raised English to be the third official language after Finnish and Swedish. For us, it serves as a positive signal of what we appreciate how things should be like.
Talking about the international workforce, we can’t force individuals or companies to change their attitude. Usually, the best motivation for change is having no alternatives. Probably when the lack of a proficient workforce or the problem scope is big enough, we can expect the majority to change.
Undeniable need for software developers
As I already hinted in the beginning, we are not solving a specific challenge. What has been done so far only scratches the surface of what we are planning and going to do. There’s a huge undeniable demand worldwide and especially in Europe for software developers. We started in Finland and currently, we have all local partners, but I don’t see any reason why this won’t work in other countries.
We have warm relationships with the government and corporations when running different projects. We all share the same vision and interest in solving this type of problem. There will be bigger-scale projects in 2020 as a continuation of the previous success.
My advice: Don’t do it
My advice for people who are interested in entrepreneurship or will start a business in the near future is, “Don’t do it”. Currently, there seems to be a glorified hype about entrepreneurship, and it may look more glamorous than it really is. The public talks too much about successful startups that grow rapidly but too little about the hundreds of companies failing to make it to that point.
You must do your homework in advance. Before starting anything, research, research, and research. The goal is to gain as much understanding as possible about the market, the demand, and your future customers. If you feel like there is something solid that you genuinely want to pursue then go for it.
Try to gain down-to-earth perspectives
The entrepreneurship landscape here is vibrant in terms of support and community values. We are quite deeply rooted in the ecosystem. We used to be based in Maria 01 in early 2018 but then we quickly outgrew the premises.
These days many similar entrepreneurship societies also evolve vigorously, which is good. Make use of the local ecosystem. I highly recommend getting yourself into different entrepreneurial programs or events, Slush for example, where you can meet people and gain some valuable perspectives.
Entrepreneurship also comes in many shapes and forms (startup, franchise, solo entrepreneur, or social enterprise, etc.) with various pros and cons. So, make sure you understand the differences and skillset each of them requires. You can also join a startup first to get a taste of reality. There is not much to do as preparation. If you want to become an entrepreneur, you should not talk the talk but walk the walk. You can take some courses or have a degree, but that knowledge is always far from reality.
Finland rebounds as a high technology country as it used to be
My personal interest in economics and politics started to grow since high school. But through conversation with my friends and Integrify’s close work with the public sector, my relationship with this topic has strengthened. Some of the politicians whom I consider as friends did encourage me to go for the Finnish parliament election. Sometimes you are so frustrated with something that you have to take action and not just talk or complain about it. And that’s what I did. Unfortunately, 1642 votes were not enough.
If I had the chance to get in, my areas of interest would have included, among others, the theme of the labour market, the integration of immigrants and attracting more talent to Finland – how to make things easier, faster, and allocate resources effectively. Talking about the technology industry from a national perspective, I hope Finland soon rebounds itself as the high technology country as it once was. For this to be achieved, we need to focus on education and intensify the right movements to support businesses.
Nothing is as powerful as a team of like-minded people
The future of Integrify is promising. It’s important for all businesses to focus on their core values and never stop enhancing the way they build and deliver it. That’s exactly what we did – data science courses have been included, the machine learning program is developed with a professor from Aalto University who is a leading expert in this field, the other curriculums have had a major enhancement thanks to our new CTO Phi Van Ngoc.
“I’ve had it with being an entrepreneur”
Being able to cope with rejection is an important skill for an entrepreneur or for anybody who wants to go far in their life. I still vividly remember one of the most “painful” experiences in my career. Years ago, during Slush, we were enjoying the incredible atmosphere there – full of excitement, opportunity and entrepreneurial energy – when devastating news came from our biggest and most potential venture at that time. It said that the huge project we had been dedicated to for months wouldn’t be continued. It was truly a devastating moment for me. It’s even more ironic as what I felt was in extreme contrast with the flashing lights and the crazy hype’s going on around me at Slush.
The next morning, I was in my bed having breakfast, totally in despair. I just wanted to vanish off the face of the earth. I called my business partners back then saying “I’m done, I’m going to get myself a job. I can’t take this anymore.” Thankfully, my friends encouraged me to stay positive and keep going. Eventually, we still managed to land the project, however not quite as planned but still in a successful way.
It’s an inevitable characteristic of entrepreneurship – if somebody is super successful, that’s probably their tenth attempt after nine previous failures, rejections, challenges, you name it. So, folks, always expect the risks and what could go wrong but still try your best to go through all the odds and obstacles.