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News, 3/18/2017

Success through equality

Picture: Visit Finland
Evon Söderlund, Founder and CEO of Huone
Evon Söderlund, Founder and CEO of Huone

Equality Day, also known as Minna Canth Day, is celebrated in Finland on March 19 every year. It is the birthday of Minna Canth, a Finnish playwright, novelist and social activist who fought for women's rights in the 19th century. Her works addressed issues of women's rights at a time when the ideas did not quite fit the culture. Equality Day was established in 2007 to honour Minna Canth and raise awareness about the importance of social equality.

In celebrating equality, we turned to Evon Söderlund, a Malaysian-born entrepreneur from Finland to hear about her experiences in business. Evon opened the world’s first events hotel, Huone, in Helsinki in 2012. This year Huone expanded to Singapore, and is looking to continue its internalisation journey to other countries around the world.

1. Could you tell us a bit about your background? How did you end up in Finland and start your own business, Huone events hotel?

Finland became my destination by accident. I never knew I would ended up calling it home nowadays. 13 years ago I left my birth country- Malaysia with despair, running away from my family trauma, not knowing what is a home. My story is one of those which make you realize, for survival, we will always discover our inner strength to find a way.

I was 20 years old when I landed in Finland, with a high school certificate and a friend to look for, who later became my husband. I married Jussi, my husband after 3 months of dating. For love, Finland became my home. I had to search for a job and make a living. It was not easy for an immigrant with no higher education and language skill. Subsequently, not only Finland provided free education for me, it also inspired me of the idea, HUONE Events Hotel during my studies. When I graduated, I did not look for a job, instead, I was looking for location and funding. After an entrepreneurial roller coaster ride, we opened the World's first Events Hotel, HUONE in Jätkäsaari in 2012.

2. What is your experience of equality in Finland as an entrepreneur?

I had little work experience back in Malaysia as my entire adulthood has been in Finland. Therefore, I can't compare during my earlier entrepreneurial time. Nevertheless, in the beginning I noticed minor mistreatment, but later I realized It had more to do with the fact that I speak English in business and I look different. It takes a while for others to get used to me as there aren't many foreigners in business domestically.

However, now that I have been doing business also in Singapore, I can strongly say that in Finland, we don't differ men and women, we are just human. Both male and female are given the same chance to education. In families there is no favoritism between having girls or boys unlike in Asia. There is even no shame for stay-at-home dads. From all these everyday aspects, you can see equality is well-addressed in Finland. There are of course still room for improvements, but I can say with pride that Finland is leading the way for the rest of the world in terms of gender equality.

3. You've created an innovative and successful business with some obstacles on the way as well. What's your way of overcoming challenges?

My way is; you can always find a way. Being a woman, I am blessed with a full set of emotions. I face challenges just like everyone else and I don't like them. I spend time dwelling on them, feeling stressed about them, losing sleep and crying over them - depending how big is the hurdle. However, every single time, things get solved when I start working on the issue and inventing a way to create a solution. I often ask wiser people around me if there is a way that I don't know of. We are not alone, business is done by people and people are essentially problem-solvers. I have to believe that I can or no one else would.

4. The first Huone events hotel abroad was recently opened here in Singapore. What is your experience setting up the business here as a young foreign woman?

Hard. From my personal experience, gender equality is an underlying challenge in Singapore. However, I do see a new generation rising where start-up entrepreneurs are embracing diversity and a more transparent way of doing business. Hierarchy is another challenge I faced which I find hard for building local network as a foreigner. It is in my principle of running a company that HUONE, no matter where it is, will embrace diversity, no matter the gender, religion, background or age. I am very fortunate to be able to set up a local team in Singapore that is lead by a very bright young woman who shares similar values as me. I hope as new generation company coming from the Nordic, we will break through traditional business boundaries wherever we go.

5. Would you have any career advice for other women?

Business is no longer a men's game. That said, I mean that it is now everybody's game: Men, women, teenagers, foreigners etc. Today's business is no longer bound by where we come from, what language we speak, what is our gender or how old are we. The capable ones outperform, that's it. Everyone should feel confident and enter the business world with dignity without thinking they are less worthy in any way. We are all human, we are all equal. As women, we are blessed with sensitivity, we must use these skills to help those who feel insecure and less worthy, we should lead the way to respect each other no matter who we are.

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Updated 3/18/2017

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