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Finland: Generation Silicon Valley.

You’re doing what?”

Came the incredulous response from Mike, longtime friend, business partner and rock-climbing buddy, as we chatted over a latte at Coupa café in Palo Alto (note to entrepreneurs:  Coupa is one of Silicon Valley’s best networking spots.  More on this later…).  I had just told him I was moving to Finland for a year.

You’re kidding, right?  Have you ever been to Finland in November?”

Hm.  I did live through a November in Finland… once.  And here I am, voluntarily heading there again in a test of one’s ability to withstand darkness and cold.  I considered Singapore, London and Buenos Aires – all great places.  However I chose Finland because it is up to something very interesting right now.

My passion is working with startups, and the startup scene in Finland is hot right now.  In just two years Finland built one of Europe’s most successful Accelerators in ‘Startup Sauna’.  It also has one of the first and most successful Centers for Entrepreneurship at Aalto University.  And the dismay of job losses at Nokia is being replaced by the excitement of finding new colleagues, creating new teams, meeting at coffee shops, brainstorming problems, being creative, moving fast and taking risk.  Just like Nokia used to do (and admirably trying to re-discover).

Finland stands out in many other ways: it has a rich density of software and hardware developers (among highest number of engineering degrees per capita).  People have mobility in their DNA (think: Angry birds, Nokia and more mobile phones than people).  Finland is ranked #1 in the world in Education, #1 in Health,  #2 in Innovation, #3 in Competitiveness, and voted the ‘Best Country in the World’ by Newsweek (2011). Finns are highly ethical and extremely resilient, having rebuilt themselves brilliantly after suffering one the worst recessions ever seen by any country (early 90s).

Something is definitely going on up here.

Still, why leave one of the most attractive places in the world, blessed with a high quality of life, beautiful weather, a brilliant startup ecosystem and intelligent, open-minded people – and move half way across the world to a small, unusually cold country?

Silicon Valley is arguably one of the most powerful places on earth.  The 47-mile stretch of small cities and towns that runs from San Francisco to San Jose has arguably done more to change the world than any other place in modern history.

However – and this is the crux of my conviction – I believe Silicon Valley has become much more than just a ‘place’.  It is becoming a state of mind, a way of executing and an engine for economic growth.  And it is rapidly spreading around the world.

Silicon Valley is a way of living, working and playing.  It is a mindset about taking risk, innovating, trying new ideas and creating new business models.  It is about seeing failure not as a step back, but as a step forward in learning and growing. It is constant networking, being open to ideas, embracing diversity and having faith in one’s crazy-sounding convictions.  Have you noticed how startup communities around the world are starting to look remarkably similar?  I’ll bet 10 Euros that if you were instantly transported to any hack-a-thon in the world, you would have a difficult time naming the country you were in.

I have worked the past eight years as a startup advisor, investor and hands-on operational exec, working with startups in Argentina, Tel Aviv, Columbia, Singapore, Shanghai, Riyadh, Finland, Belgium and Silicon Valley.   There are incredible ‘Silicon-Valley-like’ things happening in all of these places:  energetic, intelligent, optimistic, innovative people chasing their dreams.  And it is happening  in a big way in Finland right now.

So I’m moving to Finland.  Packed up our things, found an apartment in downtown Helsinki, ditched the car, bought a bike, enrolled the kids in local schools, applied to be a coach at Startup Sauna, and joined the local angel investor network.

I’m going to find great startup teams, innovations and business models.  I am going to discover if a ‘Silicon Valley mindset’ is spreading in Finland and the Nordics, building upon the foundations of the previous, Nokia-inspired generation.  Because I think it is.

One last point: the traditional ‘Generations’ (X, Y, Millennial, etc..) never made much sense to me.  Although in my 40s, my working mindset feels closer to a Millennial.  The year you were born should not ‘make’ you a certain Generation.   It’s way you think, work, network and live.  This is why I am suggesting a new Generation.  Let’s call it:  ‘Generation Silicon Valley’.

Chris Vargas, Helsinki, Finland


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