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From dumpster diving to haute cuisine: A story of immigrant entrepreneurship in Finland

As of 2016, migrants have started nearly 4,000 businesses in Finland, most of which are in the private services sector.

Food designer Vahid Mortezaei
Food designer Vahid Mortezaei at work Image: Alexander Popkov

Even as immigrants turn to entrepreneurship, foreign-background business owners in Finland say it's a daunting path to navigate.

"I was told everyone communicates through email and you need an appointment to get in touch with anyone here. But on a friend’s advice, I printed out my CV, walked into restaurants where I aspired to work and asked to see the chefs. I didn’t land a job, but I definitely made myself known among the head chefs of high-end restaurants," said food designer Vahid Mortezaei, who now runs a creative catering service that uses food as a medium to make art.

Active networking took the budding food connoisseur far on his entrepreneurship journey but the odyssey was riddled with challenges. Mortezaei is one of a growing number of immigrant-background people changing the landscape of entrepreneurship in Finland.

Immigrants create low-wage, low-productivity jobs

Mortezaei’s story is likely by no means unique. As of 2016, the total number of companies started by immigrants was 3,941, of which 3,103 provided services such as construction, wholesale and retail trade, accommodation and food service activities —almost half of these businesses are located in the Helsinki metropolitan area, according to data from a study by the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA) in collaboration with Statistics Finland that examined the growth of immigrant-owned firms in Finland from 2007–2016.

"We found that immigrant-owned enterprises account for a few percent of all firms and about one percent of all labour in the business sector. Their job creation rates are exceptionally high and the growth of the real value added is markedly higher than other groups like local, domestic and global firms."

"However, we also found that immigrant-owned firms have created a lot of low-productivity and low-wage jobs," Statistics Finland’s Head of Research Satu Nurmi said.

"Networking in Finland is a bit like blind dating"

Mortezaei was a mining engineering in Iran before he moved to Finland to study visual communications, but his culinary journey began when he started dumpster diving with friends to make dinners for a sustainability initiative. The momentum he received bagged him a job in a kitchen in Helsinki, but when he decided to venture into the wild world of entrepreneurship he didn’t know where to begin.

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Vahid Mortezaei food.jpg
Entrepreneur Vahid Mortezaei uses food as a tool to tell stories. Image: Alexander Popkov

"One time, if not for my Finnish partner who helped me with translations and paperwork, I wouldn’t even have realised that I had to pay 5,000 euros to the tax office. I remember being in a state of panic all the time," added Mortezaei who said most business advisory services were in Finnish when he started.

The entrepreneur said that one of the cultural challenges he faced in Finland is that no one tells you anything if you don’t ask. " After a harrowing amount of paperwork, I received a start-up grant, only to learn that the amount was half of what I could get if I just took an unemployment benefit. No one tells you the exact picture until you ask specific questions,” elaborated Mortezaei who said he realised he needs to start networking agressively to make it.

"Left with not much choice, I wooed top management of companies that I wanted to work with by constantly emailing, calling them and asking them out for coffee. It was a bit like blind dating! But it worked. People began to recognise who I am," he added.

Build a plan before a business

Startup Refugees is an organisation that guides immigrants like Mortezaei — refugees or otherwise — to find their professional footing in Finland. "Honestly, the most common question we are asked is — ‘can you help us find a store for our business? That is the least of their worries if you ask me. We urge them to focus more on background research. Most of them are not aware of who their potential customers are," Kati Lappeteläinen, Business Program Manager at Startup Refugees, said.

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Kati Lappeteläinen
Kati Lappeteläinen from Startup Refugees advises immigrant entrepreneurs on basics including making a business plan and market research. Image: Sami Mannerheimo

Being a single-person business is hard — “Everyone wants scalability”

In Finland, micro enterprises or companies employing fewer than 20 employees —17 percent of all businesses — generated turnover of 70 billion euros in 2017, according to data from the Federation of Finnish Enterprises (Suomen Yrittäjät). The outgoing government has attempted to lower the threshold for small firms to hire new employees to boost employment and scale up their businesses, by making it easier for them to fire staff. However the measure came in for heavy criticism from union leaders and it remains to be seen how far it has incentivised entrepreneurs like Mortezaei.

The food designer said he was forced to run the show himself as he felt it was practically impossible to hire employees .

"When my income was measly, I had to take care of everything. I had to cook, network with people, market my work online and keep my business afloat. I have been trying to find someone to partner with, but I have been unsuccessful so far. I use food as a medium to tell stories and create experiences. It was so hard to explain this to anyone. I didn’t want to be dismissed as just another artist, as I am also a businessman who needs to pay my bills," Mortezaei said.

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Vahid Mortezaei food.
Vahid Mortezaei makes art with food. Image: Katja Hagelstam

Mortezaei’s clients run the gamut from universities and museums to creative agencies. He says he is happy being a one-man show collaborating with the industry’s best. "Instead of hiring people and having to worry about the overheads, I work as a B2B business which comes together with other vendors for a project and then moving on after that. This way, I don’t have to worry about paying someone’s pension, wages, etc," Mortezaei added.

Lappeteläinen agreed that the cost of hiring employees can come as a huge surprise to many immigrants who want to start businesses. "Depending on the size and sector of business, an employer has to bear the added costs of around 40-70% on top of existing wages. So if you are paying an employee 1,000 euros, the actual cost can be anywhere between 1,400-1,700 euros if you include fees for pension, social security, sick leave, maternity leave, etc.," Lappeteläinen added.

“You will always be an outsider”

Mortezaei said he learnt the hard way that being a foreigner and not knowing the language also keeps him out of the circles that exist in the business world. "Finland is a very closed market. I don't want to call it a mafia, but the truth is that there are circles of every kind of job you can imagine — bubbles of designers, clubs of restaurateurs — as long as you are not a member, you are a total outsider."

"Of course, not speaking Finnish is a huge problem too. I feel the first step towards entrepreneurship should be a language camp maybe. Yes Finns speak English, but when it comes to business, many key decisions are taken in moments when they speak Finnish— like in the sauna," he continued.

Mortezaei was quick to add that the picture is not all that depressing either. "Even if there is bureaucracy here, it is a functioning one. We enjoy good infrastructure, endless free services and more. I would only recommend budding entrepreneurs to build a team right from the beginning and not be too attached to their ideas. I learnt the hard way that if something doesn’t work, one needs to accept it and move on," Mortezaei said.

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