Visiting Finland against the backdrop of the Russia/Ukraine war
Written by Kylie Gemmell
Our team had such a rich experience in Finland and we would need to write 100 blog posts to capture all the things we loved there – the beautiful landscapes, the endless sunlight in the summer, the egalitarian culture, and the hilarious contrast of Finn’s generally avoiding small talk yet being comfortable with strangers seeing them naked in the sauna.
However, we wanted to write this blog post about something less lighthearted: the fact that we visited Finland against the backdrop of the Russia/Ukraine war. It was an incredibly unique moment in European and world history, and we would be remiss not to capture that.
Our team vividly remembers the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. We went to sleep on a Wednesday night and woke up on a Thursday morning to a different world. Our inboxes were bursting with news alerts, but we hardly had time to process because we were on a deadline: we had to get to Haas’ campus by 9am for our IBD client call! Thus, our first real conversation with anyone about the Russian invasion was with our IBD client, a Finnish company whose headquarters happened to be located just a mere 1 hour’s drive from the Russian border. Like us, our client could not focus their attention on anything other than the news, so we scrapped our weekly agenda and instead spent the hour discussing the invasion. Our team listened intently while our client answered our many questions. What would this mean for Europe? Were they worried that Russia would invade Finland, too? On a much smaller scale, how would this affect their business, and even our project?
Over the ensuing months, the looming war created so many unknowns for our client. On a macro scale, it affected factors like supply chain, capital sources, inflation, etc. On a more personal scale, it injected uncertainty into the everyday lives of employees. We still needed to deliver a stellar final project, but we had to acknowledge that there were many unknowns so much larger than our project and to stay nimble as events unfolded. For example, the week we arrived in Finland was the week that Finland formally applied to join NATO. We were able to have many timely interviews with our client’s employees and external business leaders about how they were preparing for an uncertain future. One external CEO even shared that they were working on a contingency plan to be able to halt their normal operations and convert their facilities to support wartime efforts should Russia invade Finland.
During our time in-country, we went deep on history. This gave us a greater appreciation for the historical and cultural significance of the moment, and it also drew us closer to the people around us. We had many conversations with the local population about Finland’s relationship with Russia. The region we were in, Karelia, straddles the Finland-Russia border, with some territory in Finland and some in Russia. It has been bitterly fought over for centuries, most recently during the Winter War (1939) and the Continuation War (1941-1944), which resulted in Finland ceding a large chunk of Karelia to Russia. Indeed, we even met a few locals whose families lost their homes to the shifting border during this time. The film Tuntematon Sotilas (”Unknown Soldier”), based on a novel of the same name, which follows a machine gun company of the Finnish Army during the Continuation War, is a national favorite and was a particular highlight.
Our advice to future IBD groups is this: really make an effort to deeply understand the history and culture of the place you are visiting. This helped us connect more authentically with the people we met, enabled us to be a better partner to our client, and ultimately led to a much richer experience.