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IDBM Career Stories: From IDBM to Leading Operations at the Nordic Innovation House in Tokyo

An open mind and ‘connecting the dots’ thinking led Niklas Karvonen, International Design Business Management alum from class of 2015, to Japan after graduation. We had a conversation with him to learn about his career path and the mindset that has guided his decision-making over the years.

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Niklas Karvonen is an IDBM alum and the Community Director at the Nordic Innovation House in Tokyo.

Would you share with us what you do currently?

I’m originally a Finn but I lived in Japan for six years now. Currently, I work as the Community Director at the Nordic Innovation House here in Tokyo. We are a joint governmental project among the five Nordic countries and our mission is to support startups and tech companies from the Nordic region with their Japan entry. I was the first person to join this project when it was launched about four years ago and I’m in charge of our operations here.

So what does your work look like on a daily basis?

Every day is quite different. I would separate it in two different aspects. First of all, the coordination work among the five Nordic countries here in Japan, so figuring out what are the areas we want to collaborate in and what kind of activities and events we should do here.

Then the other part is the execution, where among other things, we organise business delegations where we gather startups and bring them to Japan for a week-long program consisting of business and investor matchmakings, knowledge sessions of the market here and other types of networking opportunities, with the hope that the companies might get some good leads and expand their business to Japan in the future or get Japanese investors. It's a lot about connecting people, and then of course also strategizing. We are a nonprofit organisation, but we need to plan how to keep this boat afloat. We also organise community gatherings and raise awareness of the Nordic startup ecosystems in general through events and public speaking.

How has it been to work in such an international environment, especially such a different cultural environment?

Having lived here already for six years I have an understanding of how things work here. But then, of course, the startups who come here for the first time don't necessarily have previous experience in Japan, so we do a lot of work in terms of guiding them through the business etiquette and communications. Additionally, the Nordics consists of five different countries and they are all in a sense a little bit different as well, so it’s a lot about cross-cultural communication and facilitating the teamwork. But I think the key is just to keep an open mind and try to be empathetic.

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Niklas at the Nordic Talks Japan. Photo credit: Life 14

How did you end up where you are now and was it something you always had in mind?

A bit cliché, but I believe in 'connecting the dots thinking' by Steve Jobs. Around the time of graduation, I had an opportunity to do an internship at Business Finland here in Tokyo office. After the internship I joined a couple of Japanese startups, and having the experience of working at a startup and understanding their daily realities as well as having a network here was helpful. With my background in the Nordics, I've also been involved in organizations like Slush and Junction, and always had this kind of entrepreneurial spirit. Having the connections, the mindset, and the experiences from Japan – I think they just came together in this position.

I had already done an undergraduate exchange in Tokyo, and for my master’s, I did a double degree in IDBM and CEMS, the Master in International Management program, where I spent another semester in Tokyo. I combined the semester abroad with the CEMS business project, which is a hands-on project with a corporate sponsor, similar to the IDBM industry project. The project was for Lawson, one of Japan's largest convenience store chains, which also gave me insights into the business etiquette in Japan.

What are the guiding principles for you when you go forward thinking what to do next? Seems like you're looking for adventure and are also very curious, or how would you describe it?

I think adventure and curiosity are quite good words. I think as long as you go towards things that are interesting to you and excite you, both in professional but also in your personal life, you will end up where you're supposed be. This is my interpretation of connecting the dots. You might want to start studying something just for the fun of it, and then maybe later on it turns into something. I don't plan very much far ahead; I just go towards positions, where I think I can learn and grow. Of course, we all have different life stages and maybe at some point you might have to think a bit further. But for me, I don’t know where I am in five years or ten years, but probably doing something interesting related to innovations and creating something new. And that's what excites me.

"As long as you go towards things that are interesting to you and excite you, you will end up where you're supposed be"

Could you share some of the most significant learning experiences or challenges that have turned into learnings?

So far, the biggest learning experience has been setting up the Nordic Innovation House here in Japan because I got that position without really knowing what it was about. And even though there are other Nordic Innovation Houses around the world, this was the first in Japan so there were no manuals to follow. We had to create the whole framework for the collaboration and just figure out what the value proposition is. It's been a big learning experience that’s actually still ongoing. We are still iterating and doing new things. This position gives a lot of autonomy and my board is very active in giving me feedback, but at the end of the day it’s a lot about what my team and I suggest.

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Panel discussion at the Nordic Talks Japan moderated by Niklas. A link to a recording of the discussion can be found at the end of the text. Photo credit: Life 14

It seems like the organisation itself has this start up vibe that you iterate a lot and see what works?

It’s definitely the culture that I want to introduce in this project, but also having to keep in mind that the five embassies that are governmental entities have certain expectations when it comes to risk management. That's sometimes a bit of a struggle when it comes to figuring out timelines for agile startups that want to move fast. Finding the sweet spots, especially when you have so many stakeholders and countries involved is always a challenge.

Why did you choose IDBM and are there still things that you cherish that you learned during your studies?

I was always very curious about the IDBM program. I did my bachelors in marketing at Aalto School of Business and wanted to have something a bit more on the creative side. I was not exactly sure what I would get out of it, but felt that it was something I wanted to be part of.

I combined IDBM with the CEMS program, which is a bit more on the strategy side and what you would expect from a business major. IDBM was complementary to that in terms of creative thinking and learning about multidisciplinary team work. I got a lot from the program regarding practical skills, but also the mindset of being comfortable with ambiguous situations. It’s really empowering, not just in your career and work, but also in life in general. If you keep going down in silos, then you might miss out on the broader spectrum of things that you could be part of.

I am very grateful for the program for that but also for the connections. You really make friends from the program – and I think this would really be my message for current students, to really try to connect with your cohort as much as possible, because it's quite a rare environment to have that. Whether it's designers, tech or business students from Finland or abroad, it's a really strong and fun network that you can build.

What would be your tip to current IDBM students? Because a lot of the students are trying to decide what to do next and maybe anxious about that

I think a little bit of anxiousness is part of the whole thing and job hunting can be very stressful. One piece of is to learn how to pitch the IDBM program. It's very difficult to say that this is exactly what I got out of it, but at least some kind of an elevator pitch is probably useful because a lot of people are curious.

What inspires you in life and work?

Right, that's a big question. In work it’s definitely supporting these founders. They are people going through so many different challenges and just keep pushing forward with a good spirit and try to change the world. I feel very privileged to be part of that journey. Seeing them bounce back even when things don’t go so well is really inspiring.

Also, I want to be constantly learning and doing new things. I think I get anxious when things are just the same all the time. All the positions that I've had since graduating have been positions that haven't existed before. It’s inspiring to see the fruit of your labor knowing that you built it from nothing, even though it can be quite stressful at the beginning. I'm excited about the unknown in that sense.

"All the positions that I've had since graduating have been positions that haven't existed before. I'm excited about the unknown in that sense"

It’s true that you shouldn't limit yourself with just looking at job ads because often you end up creating the positions that don't yet exist

Yeah, be brave enough to look at paths that are not necessarily the ones that everyone around you is taking. It’s good to also look for opportunities to work or do internships abroad as those are good ways to develop your skills and personality. I also recommend tapping into the larger IDBM community – we have quite a lot of alumni around the world. I was also part of the IDBM mentoring program, which was a really great experience, and I’m definitely available if someone wants to reach out. Especially when it comes to job hunting, there is quite a lot of support available and people are willing to help you if you just ask.

Niklas on Linkedin

Panel discussion at the Nordic Talks Japan on 'How to Build Startup Ecosystems for a Better World'

Interview and text by Jasmin el Kordy. The interview has been shortened and edited.


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