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“Being a mompreneur is not easy but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made” – Anna Juusela, Founder & CEO of We Encourage

Can a movie change your life? This is the case for Anna after watching a documentary about forced marriage which made her so frustrated and angry that she decided she must do something about it! The only problem was, she did not know “how”. Anna thought until the age of 50, she might figure out some ways to help the girls and women. But then another event happened, which totally changed her plan!

I wanted to be a police officer but after high school, I decided to study fashion

I grew up a tomboy in a small town in Southern Ostrobothnia. I still loved playing with dolls, but I loved climbing trees and playing yard games. Being a sleuth and playing spy games on our neighbours.

For quite a long time I wanted to be a police officer but after high school, I decided to study fashion. I was interested in trends and fashion as my aunt had a clothing company and with her I was able to travel a few times to fashion fair Premiere Vision in Paris, to learn about trends and about the fashion business.

My roots are definitely entrepreneurial, from both my mom’s and dad’s side. I am a third-generation entrepreneur. Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs. My aunt, uncles and dad are or were all entrepreneurs.

The whole experience made me take a step forward

I started my entrepreneurial journey when I was studying International Business as my second degree. I worked in a big international retail chain as a shop manager for a few years when I started to realise there was nothing new to learn. I already knew how to run a shop and I wanted to do something else.

As I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, it was quite a natural path for me. I took a voluntary course in business planning at school, applied for a loan of 10.000 euros and established a company.

My business idea was completely different from what I ended up doing

I established Yanca Oy, my first company, alone and my business idea was completely different from what I ended up doing. It started as a clothing agency, then moved towards building a wholesale eCommerce shop for Finnish designers and retailers before eCommerce was really a thing. I even had a couple of shareholders to help build it but it didn’t work out.

I realised I needed to properly figure out what I was good at and what I could offer and sell. Working as a shop manager and a visual merchandiser I realised the two jobs didn’t speak the same language. From that, I got the idea to build a lecture about measuring the effectiveness of visual merchandising. How it affects stock rotation, why trends are important; things like that.

I started building a course, started to look out for visual merchandisers and started taking it further and began teaching in a couple of schools. Now I am teaching in Estonia as well. Then my passion for trends and retail led me to technology where I got interested in the possibilities of AI and blockchain.

My anger and frustration were so strong that my life has changed

Then, back in 2016, I saw a documentary about the life of a girl called Sonita. It looked at how she was almost forced into marriage so her brother could buy a wife for himself. But instead, the documentary maker decided to buy Sonita to free her. At that moment my life was changed.

My anger and frustration were so strong. I even called a lady I knew called Johanna who ran an NGO for girls and women. I asked her if we could buy all those girl’s freedom. Johanna was a bit sceptical at first, but her NGO is now our first piloting partner. I was determined I would make a difference in the lives of these girls someday.

At the time I wasn’t prepared enough to really take action, but I made the decision that someday I would. When I was successful, probably around 50, I’d be able to help these girls out of forced marriages. The idea was there, and it grew inside of me.

The first jury member to speak after my pitch laughed at me

A couple of years later it started to take form in the real world when I attended a blockchain-related event. I told people about my idea of using blockchain to show families it was economically beneficial to keep girls in school, instead of selling them into marriage.

On the stage, the first jury member to speak after my pitch laughed at me and said: ”How stupid are you, who would sell their daughter to marriage?” That was a cold cloth into my face, but luckily another jury member was completely different and encouraged me to continue and create a movement around my idea. As it happens, the third jury member ended up helping me move forward.

That cold cloth was an important moment for me. I learned people in seemingly higher positions are not necessarily wiser and might give opinions over advice. The whole experience made me take a step forward and that was where I started on my journey to become a start-up entrepreneur.

I decided to become a “mompreneur”

Back in July 2011, the year I established my first company was also the year I got married. I was still studying at the time and the next Spring I also got pregnant. At the time I thought I was crazy! Studying, having a baby and build a company. That’s a lot to handle.

But I decided the most important thing was my own attitude towards it all. If I was able to handle that I could handle it all. And I did. I graduated on time and decided to become a “mompreneur”. I raised my kids at home until my firstborn went to school and now they are seven and five years old. Until September 2019, when I officially established my impact start-up company We Encourage Oy, I was a stay at home mom.

Being a stay at home mum was actually a perfect decision. Although it’s important to recognise that I did diminish myself. I felt low, had low self-esteem for not being a “real” entrepreneur. I didn’t have a huge turnover or lots of employees.

But I learned to be super-efficient and very good at time management. Managing all these things was not easy but I needed to get things done. I didn’t want to have to work at nights because I wanted to be able to spend time with my husband. My mum and my mother in law were of precious help.

I learnt to respect myself for the things I was capable of

I learned to respect myself as a mom, and I became grateful for being able to do things in the way I wanted. I was able to be there for my kids, to see them grow up and I could also do the other things I’m passionate about. I learned to respect myself, to look around and see how much I am capable of doing and having. It was my attitude that was wrong, no one else was diminishing me but me.

When I started building my start-up in November 2018, it was more like surrendering to something that was already trying to come out. I was scared to take action on this idea to empower women and girls as it was so different from normal work. I had to go through quite a lot of fear and face up to my own unsupportive thoughts.

Who am I to do this type of work?

I had fearful thoughts and would ask myself: “who am I to do this type of work? Me, who has never been volunteering in NGOs or charities! Who would believe in me?”

But as soon as I decided to start taking the idea further all my passion for retail vanished. Along with the fears. And I became like a maniac to learn about Islam and the issue of forced marriage, sharia law, history of women. As much as I could. The hardest part was letting go of control and just moving forwards and trusting.

I have always been a doer. If I get an idea, I start taking action. The important thing is I at least give it a try. Even if I don’t succeed, it is worth trying and I’m happy I gave it a shot. In fact, I love old folks sayings, and one of my favourite quotes is a Finnish saying: ”Everyone is the blacksmith of their own happiness”. That keeps me going, I know it’s all in my hands.

Building a career in a big corporation is just too restrictive

Becoming an entrepreneur was very clear to me early on, as I had been growing up surrounded by entrepreneurs. I am also an innovative and creative person, all the time finding ways to create solutions to problems. Problems are just unsolved issues!

Building a career in big corporations is just too restrictive for a person like me. For me, entrepreneurship is a way of life, it is a journey to learn your strengths and weaknesses. It is a journey of building the best version of yourself and to create a better world while doing it.

You must build resilience to be able to go through the hard times. Being an entrepreneur brings freedom, but also all the fear and worry is on your shoulders. Even if you have a team around you, the weight is still yours to carry at the end. Entrepreneurship requires attitude and strong determination, it sometimes requires long hours and being there even when you don’t feel like it.

Your own kick-ass attitude is the most important asset you can have

As I see it, you can learn new skills and hire people with skills you don’t have, but your own kick-ass attitude is the most important asset you can have. It is also the driving force of your company. Believe in yourself and your idea.

Be humble but don’t take scepticism or critique personally, learn and move forward. You must have or be prepared to develop resilience and the ability and want to bounce back.

Start building your network before building your company

Learn as much as possible. Read. Don’t forget to take care of yourself as well, honour yourself and find a balance between work and leisure. Start building your network even before you have a company, the wider and stronger the network, the more you have people around to support you on your path. Don’t be afraid to ask and receive help, also be open and willing to help out others. But don’t hold back, build your creativity and innovation muscle.

Learn to distinguish when people are just feeding you their own opinions and when you are actually getting advice can help you move forward. Foster your determination to find ways out from challenging situations.

Advice for mompreneurs

For “mompreneurs” my advice is to build routines from birth. I was able to get both of my kids to sleep full nights from 4 months old, with the tips from the book from Tracy Hogg’s Baby Whisperer. Meanwhile, an eye-opener book for me was Why French Children Don’t Talk Back when I was expecting my first child.

There were so many myths that were just taken for granted and I decided to do things differently. That was a lifesaving decision as I was able to build routines which gave me the freedom to combine it all with studying and entrepreneurship.

Anna Juusela created her impact startup  We Encourage Oy to empower women and girls to pursue their own goals. Her team utilizes new technologies such as AI and blockchain to create a global community and an incentivizing system for families to educate their daughters instead of them being forced into marriage.

Edited by

Isaac Pound

Isaac Pound

Editor at Entrepreneurs of Finland - Isaac is a journalist who hopes to help improve equality, environmental sustainability and make the world a happier place at the same time.

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