Shifting from the retail industry to creating an impact start-up, Anna Juusela – Founder & CEO of We Encourage, had to deal with tons of fears and uncertainty in the beginning. Yet, as her empathy for equality issues was too forceful, she decided to overcome her fear, move forward and take action. In this interview, Anna talks about her inspiration and journey as an entrepreneur.
Tell us a bit about yourself — your professional and personal background.
I have a degree in Fashion Design and I also studied International Business as a second degree. After working in a retail chain as a shop manager for a few years, I realized that I wanted to do something new. I established my first company – Yanca Oy Ltd and built this fashion agency, in cooperation with other stakeholders but it didn’t work out. After that, I took the company forward as a consulting and teaching services business about visual merchandising. My work is to train, consult and teach visual merchandisers and retailers on profitability, stock control trends, etc.
My profound interest in trends, technology and equality has always been self-evident. I always feel feminism is a part of me, yet I don’t label myself as a feminist as I feel it’s too restricted. I believe equality embraces even more meanings, not only the equality between two genders. In many ways, these passions led me towards discovering the possibilities of AI and Blockchain, and later establishing We Encourage.
Could you introduce ‘We Encourage’ to our readers?
We believe that every girl has the right to education, equality and empowerment. Every woman has the right to live free from violence and oppression. Our mission is to enable that.
We Encourage is a web-based fundraising platform for SME NGOs and individual fundraisers for causes aimed to empower and support women and girls. We support and help from ideating, creating fundraising causes, marketing planning to executing the fundraising and follow-up.
We ensure transparency and traceability of donations, secured by blockchain technology provided by our strategic partner, Charity Wall. In addition to our fundraising platform, we are building an open-source conversational AI tool for victims of intimate partner violence.
Being your own boss or venturing into entrepreneurship can be a wonderful step to find a fulfilling career, but it’s also not as simple as just setting out and deciding to change the world. So, what motivated you to take the leap and especially create an impact startup?
Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, I was more determined to start my own venture. As I mentioned, my first company was founded while I was pursuing my second degree. I created the business plan during a school course and applied for a loan for business operations.
As I was intently following some ongoing trends, I got interested in new technologies like Blockchain and AI, together with their prospects. Back in 2016, I saw a documentary about an Afgan rapper, Sonita, who was almost sold to marriage to fund her brother’s wedding. Immediately, many thoughts came to me with frustration, “If a life of the girl is bought with the price of $2000, with all the freedom returned to them, we should also give them an educational opportunity and empowerment to follow their dreams.” This discomfort got stuck and started to live its own life inside of me. On the other hand, I was too afraid to take action, as my idea was so different from my current retailing entrepreneurial journey, not to mention that I didn’t know how to build Blockchain or AI solutions.
In 2018, I attended a Blockchain Forum’s event and shared my idea of using blockchain in incentivizing poor families who desire to educate their daughters but cannot afford and for that reason sell them into marriage. I was also encouraged to pitch my idea in a Blockchain Summit pitching competition just in a few weeks. At the stage, the worst happened, the first jury member laughed at me, “How stupid are you? Who would sell their daughter to marriage?” Fortunately, I got support and encouragement from another jury member, Teemu Jäntti and I decided to move forward.
What was the process of founding We Encourage? Did you go through some training like joining an accelerator?
It took me a few weeks after the Blockchain Summit pitching session to decide whether I should really continue with this idea. I was overwhelmed with layers of fear, “What would happen with my other company? How am I able to handle kids?” Nevertheless, my motivation was extremely strong, I knew I would regret more for not at least trying than for failing. Moreover, I wonder “How can I fail if I keep getting up?” Finally, I made my decision to at least give it a try.
As all my network was in the retail side, the first thing to do was to start networking on the startup and NGO sphere. As a result, it started to pay off, in Spring 2019, I was speaking at the UNESCO blockchain and practice conference.
Back then, I didn’t know I was on my way to build an impact startup until I was invited to Oxygen, a community of other impact-oriented entrepreneurs. Henceforth, I realized what I was about to do, was actually new and worthwhile. After that, I attended their impact accelerator. During the first 10 months, I built my network, gradually gathered people around me and took the mission forward. Later, I found my team members, iterated and reiterated the idea. Consequently, in August 2019, I was brave enough to officially establish We Encourage. One year later, we have finally launched our very first fundraising cause.
Being your own boss means you are on the hook for keeping up with trends in your field, let’s say, the technology. What is the role of technology in your business?
We are utilizing blockchain technology for transparency and traceability, and AI as a conversational tool for providing psycho-social support and guidance to women victims of intimate partner violence. I wish my business will be able to integrate these technologies more automatically in the future.
What is your advice for people who aspire to start their own business?
Just take action, start with little steps, start growing your network as soon as possible. Move towards your fear, something magical might be hiding behind that. Also, learn to distinguish genuine feedback and advice from opinions.
What has been the most positive experience of this whole journey?
I think it’s the feeling that you get when people understand our mission, how important equality is and their empathy with the harsh reality many women are putting up with. In Finland or some western countries, people may care about other tangible facts, like the payment gap between genders, while closing their eyes to the oppression that women are facing, for example, a little girl being raped by her cousins yet being punished by that. This is what we’re pioneering to solve.
Do you think entrepreneurship can be learned or is it a talent?
I think entrepreneurship seems to be a mindset rather than a talent. You need to be a creator, eager to try things and stand the uncertainty. Interestingly, entrepreneurship can be learned along the journey, as long as you have a concrete idea and passionately execute it. Obviously, you are the one who takes full responsibility for whatever you do.
Thank you very much for sharing your story with us, Anna!
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By Michelle Tran – September 7, 2020