US science celebrity trials work-life balance in Helsinki as '90 Day Finn'

While Finnish salaries are a disappointment, Deborah Berebichez says she enjoys a more balanced and family-oriented life in the Finnish capital.

Helsinki Business Hub received 5,300 applications to join the 90 Day Finn program. New York scientist and TV host Deborah Berebichez was among the 15 applicants selected. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

Mexican-born Deborah Berebichez was already living 'the dream': as a doctorate in physics from Stanford University in California with a job as a leading data scientist in New York, a spouse and two children, and as the host of a TV science programme on the Discovery Channel.

Berebichez happened to know only one person from Finland, an acquaintance called Ulla.

One day Ulla shared a post on Facebook that caught Berebichez's attention. Finland was looking for specialists in the tech field to trial life in Helsinki for three months.

Berebichez wondered if it would be possible to achieve a better balance between work life and family life by moving to Finland, especially as her busy life in New York meant she had very little free time to spend with her newborn daughter.

"I usually got home from work after 8:30 in the evening so I only got to spend about half an hour with my daughter on weekday evenings," she recalled.

Berebichez decided, along with 5,300 other applicants from around the world, to apply for the '90 Day Finn' (siirryt toiseen palveluun)programme (siirryt toiseen palveluun)organised by Helsinki Business Hub (HBH). It aims to attract foreign expertise to Finland and improve the country's reputation as a place to work.

The large number of applications surprised HBH, as the programme is far from a free holiday trip to Finland. Participants have to pay for their own travel and living expenses in the city. In return, HBH helps successful applicants settle into life in Finland, aiding with issues such as finding an apartment and arranging childcare.

"The ongoing initiative invites entrepreneurs, investors, and tech enthusiasts to spend 90 days in Finland, with 15 lucky applicants receiving guided connections to housing, daycare, schools, a working space, and a program to connect them to Helsinki’s tech ecosystem," according to the programme's website.

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Deborah Berebichez says she and her family have enjoyed discovering Helsinki, especially its surrounding islands. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

During the three-month stay, each participant attends networking events, selected according to their interests.

"A personal programme is made for everyone. If, say, an investor is interested in the Finnish gaming industry and its opportunities, gaming industry events will be selected for them," HBH Business Director Johanna Huurre explained.

To Berebichez's surprise, she was one of the 15 lucky applicants to be selected for the summer 2021 intake, which includes private investors, start-up entrepreneurs and university representatives from North America, Chile, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Italy. The common denominator was a connection to the tech field.

"I decided to trust my destiny"

Berebichez told Yle that her life in New York revolved around work. Her firstborn child was only three weeks old when she was asked to attend a work event that required flying across the United States.

Berebichez said she enjoyed her work, but at the same time she was longing for a life more in line with her values, where the family of four could focus on spending time together while also ensuring good healthcare and education for her children.

When the call finally came for Berebichez to try life as a Helsinki resident, she was nervous but decided to take the plunge.

"I decided to trust my destiny and quit my job. We gave up our rental apartment in New York, as well as our childcare spots," Berebichez said.

The family of four arrived in Finland in May, earlier than the other participants of the programme, who are not scheduled to arrive until August.

At first, the move seemed to be going very well as the late spring weather was very favourable and Berebichez landed her first job offer from a Finnish company within a couple of weeks.

"Then reality hit. The salary level was much lower than we had expected. We thought we might be earning half of our New York salaries. We did not anticipate that the salary would be only a fifth," Berebichez recalled, adding that she and her physicist spouse would have liked to work in Finland for a few years, but do not want to have to make budgets stretch in the same way as they did when they were students.

Residence permit difficulties hinder internationalisation

Huurre highlights the additional pressures brought by the residence permit process, telling Yle that it is contradictory to make efforts at attracting experts to Finland while large investments slip away when residence permits are not issued quickly enough.

"We fight tooth and nail to get companies interested in Helsinki, but if founders are unable to receive a residence permit, then it is wasted work," Huurre said.

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Helsinki Business Hub business director Johanna Huurre Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

The participants in the '90 Day Finn' programme are not intending to move to Finland permanently, but HBH hopes that the initiative will give the capital, and the country, some international visibility as participants return to their home countries and share their experiences within their own networks.

"We also want to learn from the participants how they experience Helsinki: what's good here and what are the things we should invest more in," Huurre added.

A Finnish future in the making

Some participants have already expressed their interest in setting up companies in Finland, including Berebichez.

"I feel like I'm thriving professionally in Helsinki. I've already achieved a lot," she explained.

Her time in Finland's capital has also helped her to realise her dream of spending more time with her family. Berebichez has already developed a soft spot for places such as the islands off Helsinki's coast and swimming at the popular Allas Sea Pool.

The family hopes to find long-term work and stay in Helsinki. However, if they find themselves returning to New York, Berebichez said that they intend to live more in line with the Finnish lifestyle in the future.

Berebichez also said that knowing what she knows now, life in New York will be quite different.

"Oh God, I would do things so differently in New York now! I would lead a much calmer life, because I have realised what kind of stress I was under while living there and that was not good for my health," Berebichez told Yle.