Suomesta Rakkaudella…From Finland, With Love

Hello hello,

I’m excited to start a series on the blog that has been bubbling around my head for awhile: a look at women entrepreneurs, or femmepreneurs as I like to call ’em, who are working in some creative field or capacity. The purpose of the series is to interview several women of color here in Helsinki (and beyond) who run their own small businesses. It’s to feature women who are working for themselves and/or are leading a group of employees. The main themes I’m looking to highlight are to inspire women of minority identity to take risks, believing in themselves as business owners and to make choices which come from a place of purpose, passion and creativity.

I start the series with Bianca, an African-American by way of the West Indies who’s lived in Helsinki since 2008. Her father was a military man and the family moved around when the children were young, eventually settling in Texas. She went to a predominantly Mexican high school in El Paso and was one of four Black students there. Bianca was Texas state champ in high jumping, won a track scholarship and attended Southern Methodist University.  In terms of study interests, she found out she was more creative rather than technical and had a desire to study Ceramics. She earned a degree in English and Journalism in 2000 and after graduation, decided not to continue with her athletic pursuits by going to Olympic training camp. She felt it was something she’d been doing for so long that it had begun to feel a bit empty and she wished to see more of the world. She felt she’d done what was expected of her by graduating and that now it was time to strike out on her own.

She worked as an editor in Dallas for a bit but felt ready to leave Texas so she went out to New York City to stay with a friend, Sharon (you’ll hear more about her in another post) from university. Funnily enough, the day before 9/11, she’d taken the red-eye back to Dallas and about a month later she packed up her things and, with the help of a friend, drove a U Haul out to the city. Once there, she began the transformation of reinventing herself in the city, working as a bartender and a model; gathering education and skills along the way by studying acting and the culinary arts. She did this for about nine years and felt it was a great period of growth. She’d felt that as far as high-school and college athletes go, they led quite sheltered lives, where everything is taken care of for you. In NYC, which she considers to be home, she felt she truly came into her own, on her own terms. However, after close to a decade in New York, she started feeling that wanderlust itch again and began to think about possible moving out to LA to pursue acting, when fate stepped in and determined that she would actually continue her story in Finland. She met a Finn and after two years of doing the long-distance thing, when she was invited to move to Finland, she accepted and arrived to Helsinki in the summer of 2008.

And thus begins the Helsinki chapter of the tale…

So why don’t we start with your business and the story of how it came to be?

I run a tourist and souvenir T-shirt retail company called Suomesta Rakkaudella*. It’s based at Kauppatori by the harbor and I do the design, printing and embroidering for the shirts. When I first moved to Finland, I was working my boyfriend at the time with his Kauppatori stall. After the relationship ended, I was sort of forced to work for myself and the reason I stayed at Kauppatori was because I felt limited with what I could do career wise due to language limitations. In 2010-2011 I started my own stand with one of those low-key, informal umbrella stalls, four designs and two colors of shirts. Now I have 16 different designs and several colors to choose from. I’m proud of it because I love the design aspect and while there are more glamorous things to design than souvenir T shirts, at least it’s a built-in focus with a market. I’m currently learning to delegate better so that the business can grow.

*From Finland, With Love (which also happens to be the title of Roman Schultz’s tongue-in-cheek book on life in Finland)

The nature of business at Kauppatori is seasonal and tourist dependent. Can you describe how you structure your on and off-season schedules? 

Basically, during the summer, I wake up 6am so that I can get to the market by 7am. This past season I didn’t take on an employee, so I sold alone at the stall. I’d only stop for a quick food and bathroom break and it was back to the stall. I’d finish at around 6:30 or 7pm, take a look at the inventory and go straight to print whatever’s out of stock usually until midnight. I work crazy hard in the summer, 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Not much sleep, not much eating, just work. Winter is the quiet time and now the question has become, “What do I do in the winter?” The first winter or two, I enjoyed the time off but after a while, you need to do something to feel worthwhile.

Are you involved in other projects?

I’ve done some TV work. I recently wrapped up filming as an extra on a TV series and when I first came to Finland, I was on Top Chef. Last year, my brother and I made Trinidadian food for Ravintola Päivä. I made roti, chicken curry and several sauces. I’ve also done a bit of modelling but the market is different here. It’s not my market but it’s a nice supplement. Right now, food trucks and the whole concept of street food is booming in Helsinki. And you know, coming from Trinidad, it’s all street food so I’ve had a small thought to have a Trini food truck. It’s hard to make a profit with food though so you need to really love it.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to setting up your own business here?

As an entrepreneur the scariest thing is thinking that I don’t have a retirement plan. You’re living by the seat of your pants. When you’re doing it by yourself, it’s a lot harder. With a career and a job, all that comes with the package. I think about retirement everyday. In the initial and middle stages, you need to live with the fact that you and only you are providing for your future. There’s no 401K or retirement plan and you need to make enough so that you can retire in the future. There’s more responsibility in your own life which is great but it’s also harder than leaving it up to the government or your job to take care of you. Here in Finland I’d say it’s a bit easier, especially for women. I personally had enough savings so I didn’t need to use a start-up grant, but it’s not like in the States. Finnish offices are supportive and helpful and they want to help you and work with you, as a small business owner.

That first season in Kauppatori, it was make or break. I said a Hail Mary and threw in the rest of my savings. That first year I was thinking to make enough money just to go back home. It’s pretty isolating within Kauppatori as well and you do need some working knowledge of Finnish with them (Kauppatori), to get through the bureaucracy. You need to work very hard yourself because employees are so costly here. Opening anything, you have to love it. You don’t have to know you love it, not in the beginning, but once you’re in it, if you don’t love it, get out, it’s going to suck you dry.

Where do you see yourself (and your business) in the next five years?

I am happy in Finland and Helsinki and so I plan to stay here for the foreseeable future. When people ask me where I’m from I say New York but currently I consider Finland to be my home. Over the next three-five years, I’d really like to have a yoga wear line and move more into the cut and design of fabric. I love the quality of materials coming out of Bangladesh but there’s a lot of stigma attached to it as a result of the unethical and exploitative treatment of textile and garment workers. It’s tricky because when I look at the quality of the products, it really is Bangladesh that’s making the best stuff and, in the end, I want to give the consumer a good, durable product. Another place in consideration is Portugal where there’re some factories within the garment industry which use organic materials and provide fare wages for the workers.

This leads nicely into my next question: As a yoga practitioner, do you feel you make business choices which reflect some of the values and ethics written and discussed about in yogic teachings and philosophy? 

The idea of fair pricing. I don’t buy the cheapest or most expensive shirts on the market. I find the best product for my needs and deliver it in the best possible way. I try to keep prices within an accessible range. Honesty, honor, truthfulness, many of the yamas and niyamas are in there. It also comes from a moral core that my mother enforced and just by trying to be a decent person.

Tell is a little bit about how you got into yoga…

I’ve practiced yoga for ten years. I’ve only had a dedicated practice for four years. I started in New York at gym classes, etc. I didn’t become really interested until I went to Jivamukti Yoga there. They introduced me to proper alignment, counterbalancing forces, chanting and meditation. I had only experienced the asanas before and they gave me my first glimpse into what yoga really is, and I was hooked. Then I moved to Finland shortly after. Here I haven’t really found a home studio. I did Bikram for a while at Yoganordic. While they were lovely, it was back to just asanas and I was really missing what I’d met at Jivamukti. So once the breakup happened, I decided to take my “Eat, Pray, Love” journey, went to Bali and got my 200hr teaching certificate. I really never intended to teach, I just wanted to immerse myself and learn and heal. That totally worked, but it also developed a desire in me to teach. Since I’ve been back I’ve been “home schooling” myself by following Meghan Currie’s classes on Cody App. I consider her my guru. I’ve taken on some other teachers whom I respect as well, including Dylan Werner, Ashley Galvin and Talia Sutra. I’ve taught a few private classes, but the market keeps me too busy to really focus there. I also feel that in order to teach, I need to gain more knowledge. I’ll most likely take my 300hr training at some point and I’m continually reading and expanding my own practice. I do a mix of yin and vinyasa. It’s not rooted in any particular style. I couldn’t call it Ashtanga, as I don’t follow the traditional sequences. I like to move but I also like to find stability and ease in static holds. I like powerful flows that are challenging, but I’m hyper focused on alignment and gentle progress. I think your yoga should always help you, not hurt you. Everything comes in its own time.

What advice would you give women, particularly women of color, who may not have much Finnish under their belts, about starting a venture of their own?

When you think of savings, you don’t need to necessarily think you need to make such a large contribution to get started. I started with four designs and put 5K. The important thing is to just start. Really be willing to work for it. I didn’t know I liked tshirts. I’m just lucky that I did. Give it up right away if you don’t love it. You don’t need to know that you love it before you start but when you are in it, you gotta love it. If you find yourself lacking in love, give it up, let it go and start something else!

To end the conversation on a lighter note, what’s your I’m a Dope Ass Queen anthem that you listen to when you need a boost of energy? What are your hobbies?

If I want to get pumped up, I listen to Robyn or Sia but honestly yoga and meditation keep me sane. I’m planning to do a Vipassana meditation course early next year. I also love to play golf. I’m artistic so I like to draw and paint and plan to get back into ceramics at some point.

Alright dear ones, that wraps it up for me. I’ll be keeping you posted on developments on the yoga wear line. The next thing to do is book your flight to Helsinki and visit Bianca at Kauppatori. Tell her I said, “Hiiii!”

xoxo

10 Things About Me

So before I get completely sucked into my new role as mama, here is the lowdown on what you need to know about me…

10. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya (November 29th, 1980) to a Kenyan dad and an English mum. I have some Danish roots too, about an 1/8th, thanks to my great grandmother. My family and I moved to America when I was ten years old and I spent my formative years there. I left the US when I was 26 and have been living abroad ever since. Wow, that’s eight years as an expat…time flies! I usually define myself as a Kenyan-American since these are the two passports I carry. These days I could add the phrase… “with family ties to Finland” in the mix. It gets even more specific if you include my mother’s roots, but let’s leave it at this for now.

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My mother, father, big sister, Wanjiru, and me (Nairobi, circa 1981). Man, I wish I still had that apple. I loved it!

9. I have been a bookworm all my life. In addition, I was a dance and theatre geek in middle and high school. I took ballet and theatre classes at the university where my mom taught, St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY) and studied the aforementioned subjects at Emerson College (Boston, MA). I got bitten by the travel bug once I graduated in 2002, so I spent six months teaching English in Chile. In 2003, I returned to the US (Chicago, IL) and got my MA in Applied Linguistics/TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language). *FYI, studying linguistics is not the same as studying foreign languages…more on that later. In 2007, I went to a huge TESOL conference and job fair in Seattle and landed my first ‘grown-up’ job teaching English in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, aka., Abu Dhabi .

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National Day Celebration at Emirates College of Advanced Education (Abu Dhabi, UAE; 2008)

8. My four years in Chicago left a huge impression on me. In addition to cobbling together part-time jobs like waiting tables and teaching kids, I went to graduate school, was a samba and Afro-Brazilian dancer and a member of an Afro-Brazilian martial arts group. My plan was to live in Brazil after grad school. I was also exposed to what I guess, for lack of a better phrase, is commonly called Urban Black & Latino culture, which, to this day, continues to shape a big part of my world view. This exposure started in Boston where I met and befriended many more African-Americans and folks from the African diaspora than was possible in high school. I was even a producer on a hip-hop radio show (88.9 FM WERS, for all you Bostonians out there. Somehow though Chicago struck me as way more dynamic and vibrant, yet still rootsy and down home. I was really sad to leave Chicago. So much so, that my theme song during that first, long, homesick year in Abu Dhabi was Kanye West’s song HomecomingThat song was on constant replay…it was like going to church for me.

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Samba dancing at a “White Party” gig (Chicago, (2005-2006).

7. I was pretty stressed out in the Middle East, and not really feeling the vibe there as a young, single ‘Western(ized?)’ woman, so I went to different yoga workshops to find healthy ways to deal with my stress. Now, a word about yoga… I took my first yoga class in 1997 when I was studying modern dance at a professional dance program. I spent a year at a performing arts high school called North Carolina School of the Arts (Winston-Salem, NC). Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately (depends on how you look at it), I got injured and struggled to see that year through on all levels: physically, mentally, emotionally. One day, I just so happened to see a flyer for a yoga class posted and checked it out. I liked it and when I next went home for the holidays, I snagged a VHS tape of Ali MacGraw teaching a hatha yoga class out on pristine white sand dunes in some desert. I remember doing that video in my dorm room on early Saturday mornings and feeling that there just might be a different, kinder way to relate to oneself….anyway, back to AD. My boss at the time, a lovely woman named Belinda, and I would keep running into each other at these yoga workshops around town. She soon started passing on info about upcoming workshops and one just happened to be an Ashtanga weekend workshop in Dubai…

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Soul searching in Abu Dhabi (2009).

6. I took my first Ashtanga yoga workshop in Dubai in October, 2008. The teachers were Jeff and Harmony Lichty. I found it so profoundly helpful (although I couldn’t understand why at the time, all I knew was that I MUST pursue this sixth sense),that I stayed on in Dubai the following week and practiced Mysore with Jeff and Harmony. Seriously, Belinda has been the coolest boss, mentor and friend to share that flyer about the workshop!

Image This was my yoga gang, the B(e) Tribe. We would practice at Belinda’s apartment before dawn, go for a morning cuppa at Costa’s Coffee across the street, and then head off to our respective jobs. Belinda can also throw down in the kitchen, particularly with baked goods. Her speciality was Death by Chocolate cake for our birthdays! (Abu Dhabi; 2008-2009). 

5. After the workshop with Jeff and Harmony, I started doing self-practice in my living room. Some days I only managed a couple of sun salutations and a few finishing poses because I still felt so uninspired, lethargic and overwhelmed with things. Even on those days, when my practice looked so feeble on the outside, I felt like my own personal hero, because I had managed to wake up before the last minute and step onto my yoga mat!! If you knew me from back in the Richard Scarry days, you would know that I am not by nature a morning person. Add to that a demanding job in a stressful work environment in a lonely, stifling city and I wasn’t exactly springing out of bed every morning, bright eyed and full of vim and vigor. Anyway, I kept at it and by and by, the practice slowly began working its magic on me. Meaning that while things in my external environment were the still much the same, I began to feel less sedated, less defeated by my circumstances.  As soon as I could, I spent my holiday leave at Purple Valley Yoga Center, Goa where I studied with Nancy Gilgoff and Petri Räisänen. This was in early 2009. Then, over the summer break of that same year, I studied with Saraswati Jois in Mysore, and traveled to Europe for Sharath Jois’s (still Rangaswamy at the time) 2009 Helsinki workshop. Yes, there were positive sides about Abu Dhabi as well: endless sunshine, great holiday leave, convenient location for travel, and, hey now, I had a ‘real’ job with real benefits! 🙂

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Feeling blissed-out and shanti in Goa… under the first-time-in-India spell (early 2009).

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The New Shala, where I practiced with Saraswati Jois (Mysore; July, 2009).

4. During Sharath’s workshop in Helsinki, Petri and I met again, and this time, since he was not the ‘teacher’ and I the ‘student,’ we started dating. To be honest, I never saw that one coming! After the workshop, I had to go back to Abu Dhabi and finish my contract and Petri had to continue touring as a workshop teacher, so we decided to give things a try long-distance. We did that for about half a year and by then, I had finished paying off my student loans. For those of you who have not been educated in the  tertiary higher-education system that the USA has got going on, student loans are a huge financial responsibility/burden for recent college graduates. Once I was released from that obligation, there was less incentive for me to stay in Abu Dhabi, so I packed up and moved to Helsinki. Bold move?…Tell me about it! That was yoga’s doing as well!

Image Petri, Sharath and Wambui (Helsinki; August, 2009).

3. And so, for the past four tender years (2010-2014), much life has been lived. I am now based in Helsinki and find myself part of Sri. K Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga lineage. Sadly, Pattabhi Jois passed away in May 2009, about two months before I first went to Mysore. It was my plan to pay my respects to him, even though I most likely wouldn’t have gotten to meet him in person. When I can, I practice with Sharath in Mysore and Helsinki. I feel privileged to have meet and studied with Eddie Stern for three consecutive years now in Helsinki. Every summer at the month-long yoga retreat in the west of Finland, I meet inspiring Finnish yogis and teachers, such as Måns Broo, Janne Kontala and Meri Tiitola. Måns is an inspiring story-teller and I started learning Indian philosophy with him. Janne and Meri, along with Eddie, introduced me to the yoga of sound and mantra chanting. Futhermore, through the combined efforts of Heidi Parviainen and the Helsinki Ashtanga yoga school, I got the chance to study with Vijaya Manja in 2013. I much appreciated his Yoga Sutra chanting and Indian Philosophy classes. Last, but certainly not least, I have studied Finnish folk and energy healing called jäsenkorjaus (bone-setting) with Petri as well as been trained in an Indian form of massage, Chavutti Thirumal, from Helen Noakes. I have been assisting Petri on his workshops and retreats throughout Europe, North America and Asia and began teaching a bit on my own as well at Ashtanga Yoga Helsinki in 2011. I also did a month-long substitution stint for Mikko Seppinen in October 2013, when I was five months pregnant, at Mysore Yoga Copenhagen. That was pretty cool! Petri and I got married on a Tuesday afternoon last year. September 24th, 2013 to be exact, and we are expecting our first baby together on March 7th, 2014. Petri has a fifteen-year old son, Julian, from a previous partnership. When all is said and done, the learning curve has been steep, and will continue to be, no doubt, but that’s life, right? Here’s to it!

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Petri and I share a laugh (Great Barrington, MA; November, 2012). Image

Giving a yoga adjustment’s workshop (Moscow, Russia; October, 2011).

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Back when Julian would still let us take his picture with us (Koh Mak, Thailand; January 2011).

2. Back to the riddle between studying foreign languages vs. studying linguistics. I am a native English speaker but come from a multilingual background. I use English for most things in my adult life, meaning I am rusty and/or equipped with a toddler’s proficiency in just about every other language I have studied/been exposed to: Swahili, Kikuyu, Spanish, Portuguese, and now Finnish. As long as I can make myself understood, I try not to sweat it too much. I love reading and, thanks to a daily yoga practice and simple yoga lifestyle, my nervous system has calmed down enough for me to begin my hand at writing. Hence the birth of this blog. I have continued putting my English skills and linguistic training to use by editing Petri’s primary series book, Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois (Yoga Words, 2013) and I started teaching myself Finnish by translating parts of Petri’s second series book, Nadi Sodhana, into English, as I was getting started on the intermediate series.

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Ashtanga Yoga: Yoga in the tradition of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois (Yoga Words, March 2012). You can find it on amazon and at the publisher’s website. It’s a beautiful book, if I do say so myself 🙂

1. Next stop….karma yoga, the householder stage of life, practicing the (gulp!) 7th series! The future is wide open…

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My bump at seven months(Helsinki; December, 2013)

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Aunty-to-be giving the bump some love at eight months (Koh Mak, Thailand; January, 2014).

Stay blessed and enjoy the life you live. Om!