Alumni Spotlight:
Sara Kemppainen on entrepreneurship and setting up your non-profit organisation

Name: Sara Kemppainen

Year: 2020 

Major: GED 

Currently: Master’s in Public Policy, New Digital Technologies & Public Policy at SciencesPo

Athéna: Hello Sara and thank you for taking the time to share with us your story. For the ones that don’t know Sara, she graduated in 2020 in GED and has an interest in tech-related topics, women empowerment, and entrepreneurship which we will discuss today.

To kick off the conversation, I’d like to start with your time at LUC during which you were very active. Could you tell us a bit more about what you were involved in and how you managed to combine working and studying?

Sara: I’ve always been the kind of person who does several things at the same time. I really enjoyed academic studies at LUC, but I felt that I needed to do something additional.

Long story short, during my second and third year, with a group of awesome women, we set up a non-profit organisation called Women in Innovation and Leadership (WIL). It’s essentially a collective of women who want to learn how to better themselves in terms of personal and professional development.

One of the reasons why we started WIL was because, when I entered LUC’s academic bubble, I felt that it was quite competitive, and most students were women. Yet, in the classroom conversations, it felt like a lot of women were not participating actively in the discussion. Also, as I went to a very collaborative high school (UWC), I felt this was missing between or among women, especially, in such a rigorous academic program like LUC. As I entered the professional world, it’s not that I got pointed out for being a woman, but I became more aware of it when I saw what was expected from me in comparison to my male counterparts. So, I wanted to learn how to develop the skills and tools to strive professionally.

Sara (right) at the LUC Committee Fair with WIL

I’ve never been the type of person who complains, I’d rather do something. So, the idea was to bring women together and organise workshops to improve our professional personal skills as there wasn’t really that at LUC. Later, it became more about us having a space to connect with peers and find networking opportunities. We were learning how to get into the career world and explore other opportunities that were on top of academics.

A lot of people have asked me: “How was it to work on something so concrete on top of a rigorous academic program?” I always felt they were complementary. It added value, created a great community and we were able to establish something that lasts longer than our own time at LUC.

Athena: So as WIL is a nonprofit organisation in The Hague, and not a committee part of LUC, what barriers did you face in setting that up as an international student, who doesn’t speak Dutch? How did you navigate this ecosystem and what would be your advice to students and graduates who would like to set up something similar?

Sara: There’s definitely a lot of challenges, especially with Dutch and without having a support network already established in The Hague. We were really lucky that we got connected to another women’s network that was a little bit more established in The Hague. They supported us and gave us advice on who to contact. The municipality also put us in contact with a lawyer who did the incorporation of WIL and we actually didn’t pay for anything because it was a nonprofit organisation.

When you don’t have money, and we obviously didn’t have money, you just have to be a little bit of a hustler and ask for help all the time. That’s one thing that I learned from WIL.

You just need to ask for help. A lot of people want to help when you have a good cause. You just have to be bold enough to ask for it.

Overall, language and finances were definitely the biggest barriers. We didn’t really have any support. I paid with my own money for the first website establishment. Later, WIL paid it back to me, so I had no problem with that but you have to take those small sacrifices at the beginning. On the university side, they were enthusiastic about the fact that we were building something like this.

Athena: Is WIL now operating without you?

Sara: Yeah 100% without me and honestly that was the goal with our first kind of leadership team. I thought it was important that it’s not attached to me, but more grounded in the community.

Athena: If there are current students and Alumni who live in the Hague, who are interested in WIL, how can they attend events or even get involved?

Sara: I think the easiest way is to just go and talk to the people who are working on it right now. It’s a super open network and everyone can participate, so the easiest way is just to contact them on social media and get involved. The whole point was to bring interesting people together and do interesting things, so I think it’s very easy, just send a message!

Athena: WIL is not the only thing you’ve done during your time at LUC, can you talk to us about a few other things that you’ve done during your time at LUC?

Sara: I think WIL was a springboard for a lot of other things, because I think it gave everyone in the team a lot of confidence in the fact that we could build something out of nowhere. I always say that WIL was such a gift to me because it gave me the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, what it’s like to have nothing and then create something and for it to work even after you’re gone.

During my time at LUC and after WIL in my second year, I worked for the Institute for Accountability in the Digital Age. It was all about bringing 200 best experts in cyber security, AI, digital accountability, and related fields together to discuss in the Peace Palace.

The way in which I got into that was by mentioning my work with WIL and that I was really interested in the topic of how we should regulate tech. A month later they hired me as a part-time worker and I became the summit coordinator. So, it was kind of about being bold enough to ask for things and to get involved.

Athéna: And where has all of this brought you today?

Sara: I don’t have the most straightforward path, I didn’t know when I was younger that this is exactly the field that I was interested in, I have gone through life and figured out what I don’t like and what I do like. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a mentor in The Hague was: “Don’t try to figure out what you like, figure out what you like in a certain position and then look for more of that.”

So, when I was organising WIL, I realised I really loved having a purposeful job, something that I feel I’m doing for the greater good. Something that leaves a mark. I realised that female empowerment, as much as it is like a big interest of mine, wasn’t the one thing that I wanted to do for my career. Then technology came around and became fascinating to me. So that kind of took me from the entrepreneurial world into the world of digital technology.

After graduating, it was clear that I wanted to do more in the tech field, I wasn’t exactly sure whether in the public or private sector. I just knew that technology and its impact on society were fascinating to me. But of course, COVID happened, when I was supposed to go and get my master’s at Johns Hopkins University, in a more security-focused program, but I felt that I was more of a humanities person.

So, I had to reestablish what was I doing. I really wanted to be my own boss and do my own thing. I worked as a freelance consultant in project management for a bit, and we did also tech AI-related stuff, but I didn’t like working alone. Also, I felt like I was always optimising people systems, but I wasn’t actively building them. So, I realised this is not something that I necessarily love.

In December 2020, I contacted Slush, originally from Finland, Slush organises nowadays the biggest gathering of venture capital events. It is the firecracker of the Finnish start-up ecosystem. There were three things that I wanted to see more of.

Firstly, I wanted to work in the field of entrepreneurship and Slush organises events for startups and entrepreneurs. Secondly, I love that they have this kind of “save the world” attitude, where they want to make the world a better place and “we can do it” as young people. This is also reflected in the organisation as it is made of a huge group of volunteer students and a team of recent graduates. Thirdly, I really loved that it was technology-oriented. Those were the three things that I wanted to learn more about. I thought that Slush would meet my expectations but again, there wasn’t an open position.

I have never gotten a job by applying to it. I just sent a message to the CEO, whose email address was on the website. I asked him if we could have a chat. I got no response for 2 weeks and then I ping them again.

You always have to be persistent because people forget, and it’s not out of malice, it’s just something that happens.

They ended up jumping on a call with me, I fell in love with the organisation, and I think they fell in love with me because I was recruited three weeks after.

I’ve been working as a Head of Program since January. More concretely, what I do at Slush is create our stage program, research who’s interested in the startup venture capital Ecosystem, persuade them to come to Slush and lead the team. That’s essentially what I have done until now, and now I’m working part-time at Slash as I’m pursuing my master’s.

Athéna: As you just mentioned that you are still working part-time and doing a master’s, could you tell us a bit more on how you are managing and how it’s related to previous experiences?

I’m studying in Paris, at Sciences Po, and I’m doing a master’s in public policy and new emerging technology. It combines what I’ve done at LUC in terms of governance and economics but to a more specific field, namely tech and how it is impacting governance. I don’t think I’ll end up in the public sector, but I think it’s still important to understand the issues in this field. That’s my reasoning and why I’m here! My second year will be at Columbia University if everything goes well with finances and COVID.

What I really got from LUC is an amazing foundational knowledge on governance, economics, development, and how these play a role. Now I’m really diving deeper into decoding AI bias, figuring out things from a more technical perspective, what these technologies are doing to our world. Hopefully maybe one day I’ll get to build a company around that, but I think right now I’m in the right place, deep diving in a very specific sector in the tech world.

It’s awesome to be working part-time, but it’s also really difficult. I’m working until the end of this year on a project, making sure that everything goes well as I worked so hard for it and really wanted to see it through. It’s not easy, but I think what LUC gave me is a really disciplined rigorous working pattern due to the assignments you had to work on throughout the terms. For financial reasons, this is the only way to finance me which is also the case for other students. It’s a luxury not to have to do it but it’s also a privilege that I get to do something really interesting every day.

Athéna: Some students go directly into master’s programs, what would be your advice for young graduates?

I definitely recommend working in between LUC and master’s. COVID was a good thing because after graduating I had a year to look at my life and think about what I actually want to do. The consulting experience gave me a lot of insights into what I don’t want to do.

Working at Slush has given me immense work experience like leading a team, recruiting a team, speaking with some of the smartest individuals in the startup world, learning how to sell things, etc. Putting myself into the startup and venture capital world just made me realise that the dynamism that was there is something that I personally really relate to.

Even if I’m going into the public policy realm, I know that I still want to get back to the private sector. If you can work in between your masters or in between your high school or bachelors, I think it will give you a better understanding of yourself and where you want to be in the future.

Athéna: I agree but also, if you can afford it, taking time to just think about your next move can be very enlightening. LUC goes by so fast that it’s hard to have the time to reflect on your experience, and you often can get caught up in certain things that might not really resonate with you.

Sara: I agree, when you’re in a group of such highly ambitious individuals, it’s easy to get tracked into the same route. There are some paths that are really well established such as working for the UN, going to the European Union, or working in a consulting firm. These are already established paths that seem secure, as so many people have gone through them and can advise you on it. It’s easy to overlook some other aspects, for example, I had no idea I would ever go to the startup and venture capital world because there just wasn’t anyone to show me.

So, I definitely recommend looking for things that aren’t immediately in your path, because this is also the time when you have actually the freedom to try out things, which are not necessarily relevant to your future and might end up becoming the most important thing to you.

Athéna: On that note, any advice on how to break out of this most common route and find the one that suits you?

Sara: Definitely by meeting people that are not in the field. I was super lucky that I met my mentor in my first year. I went to “Future Fridays” at Leiden University in The Hague Campus. They would bring professionals who would talk about the future of work, future food, etc. I met a fantastic mentor of mine; she was working in business and I loved her. She became a really important relationship to me in The Hague, in terms of professional but also personal development. The first time I saw her, she said to me: “You’re not going to go into the public sector, you have way too much dynamism for that, you’re entrepreneurial, you’re going into the business world and you don’t even know it yet

She was able to give me a completely different perspective than I had from my peers. If there are events, industries that you don’t know of, just go and meet people. You don’t necessarily have to get a mentor who’s specifically in your field, they can give a completely different perspective. I remember my mentor telling me stuff like: “You need to think about how to make WIL financially stable.” I was like: “No, this is not the purpose of WIL.” Later I realised that it was such a fundamental part and that it wasn’t taught to me at school. Again here ask for help, ask for people’s time and genuinely be curious.

Athena: On that note, and looking back on everything you’ve done since you’ve graduated, what would be your final piece of advice for people who graduated and are starting their professional career?

Sara: I think this is something that I still personally struggle with but here’s my advice:

Don’t put your personal value on the base of your work. Your work is not you, even though it can sometimes feel like it.

I really struggled when I was trying to find work during my transition in 2020-2021, and I felt bad because I didn’t find a job that was aligned with who I was. Then I realised that I actually had to build myself first and then find a job. It can be quite tough, especially when you get “no” all the time and people don’t even look at your CV.

So, I’d advise you to connect with people first. Applying to various positions is not always going to work out, but if you can find a person that you can talk to, that’s usually the way to go. Be kind to yourself in the process, it can be tough, but I think the best way to find a meaningful job is to connect with people who you find interesting and that you are genuinely curious about.

Athéna: This advice concludes our interview, thank you again for taking the time to share your story with us. If people are interested in Sara’s journey, don’t hesitate to reach out to her!

This post was part of a larger series of “portraits” of Alumni. Want to be featured, have questions for Sara, or about alumni in general?
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