Finland's Education Miracles

Finland's Education Miracles

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Coated in white, lit up and decorated, Finland was getting ready for Christmas when I visited it last week together with my oldest son Tal and two Georgian colleagues, Alex and Gala. Santa was on our minds, but the trip was fully packed with business meetings, leaving little time for our Christmas wish lists. We were going from town to town, on a mission to understand how this country works, and why the Finns are the best-educated and happiest nation on Earth.

Yet, instead of simple cookbook recipes, we encountered more puzzles and grew more questions.

Most Finns dream, so our hosts told us, of solitary existence in the middle of a forest or on the shore of a remote lake. How, then, did they manage to build a national community based on social solidarity and mutual help – a community obsessed with minimizing social gaps and integrating its weakest members (including migrants)?

Finland gets pretty cold and gloomy towards the end of December. To recover from a day’s work, we were easily convinced to submit our tired bodies to the extreme heat of a public sauna and, then, to the icy waters of Lake Näsijärvi. Ecstatic from this treatment, we joined a tight pack of (supposedly) extreme individualists, sitting naked outside the sauna and sipping locally brewed beer. Heavily taxed, the beer was 4 Euro a bottle in a nearby supermarket, but neither its price, nor the dark and cold conditions outside appeared to be a factor. We were happy, and so were the dozens of people around us.

The World Economic Forum crowned Finland’s school system as #1 in the world; its higher education and training system came second after Singapore; in the latest round (2015) of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Finland was ranked 3rd in science. Yet, the schools we visited in Tampere and Turku seemed to be pretty average by the standards of Tbilisi’s private schools. These were public institutions (Finland does not have for-profit schools), built to educate rather than impress potential customers. Moreover, Finnish students appeared to be addicted to average phones, and demonstrated average enthusiasm to get engaged in team projects that are at the core of the Finnish approach to learning. How, then, do these average schools propel their average students to top performance in international education tests; to gainful employment (a young car mechanic or cook grosses at least 2-3 thousand Euro per month); and to innovation and entrepreneurship (Finland is ranked 7th in the 2018 Global Innovation Index)?


Probably, not many of you have had the chance to go as far as Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi, Lapland. Personally, I had no idea that Santa manages his global reindeer-driven delivery service from this obscure spot beyond the arctic circle. Luckily, I did not have to go all the way to Rovaniemi to meet a real Finnish Santa.

Even though he does Santa’s job for about 15 years, his name is not St. Nicholas but Kimmo. Kimmo Kumpulainen. I did not suspect he was a Santa, until the last day of our trip, when we travelled from Tampere to Turku. Kimmo was driving, I was sitting by his side, asking loads of questions and taking notes on my computer.

Kimmo was not born a Santa, and has never imagined becoming one. In fact, he had studied to become an entrepreneur at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences. The first year, he tells me, was quite disappointing. Traditional lectures rather than the great things he was hoping for. A few projects on paper, nothing real. A few visits to companies. A lot of accounting exercises, which was not his thing at the time. None of this connected to anything. He had good grades, but was hardly motivated.

Then, after the first year of studies, he bumped into a poster advertising a brand new study program: “Do you feel like a you have a tight band wrapped around you head? Do you want to have an experience that will blow your mind away?”

Kimmo wanted to have his mind blown away. He applied together with 200 others. Only 15 got selected, including him and his future wife, Taru. The year was 1999. They were the first group, part of an educational experiment they called the “Pro Academy” (Proakatemia in Finnish).

Though it doesn’t affect his driving, Kimmo gets visibly excited when explaining the Pro Academy concept. “The main idea,” he continues, “is that you best learn by doing. The program covered five large topics or skill sets – IT, accounting, marketing, management and teamwork, but we had no fixed schedule, no courses, no teachers. There were three ways to get credit. First, we had to read books and write ‘reflective essays’, making sense of what we’ve read. There were small books, worth one point, and thick volumes, worth three. Twice a week, we would come together, all 15 of us, to sit in a circle for a discussion. A student would bring up a topic from a book, others would comment.”

There was also a capstone project at the very end. “Divided into small groups of 3 or 4, we would be given 24 hours to solve a real problem a real company faced. We could do anything – call company staff, experts, distribution businesses – but by 9am the next day we had to present our solution to the customer. We were graded by ourselves, our peers, the customer, and teachers.”

The true core of the program was to jointly establish and run a real company, a cooperative in which all of the students were shareholders. They were only 19-years-old, and so there was a lot of learning involved. Naming and branding, pricing and marketing, talking to clients and organizing themselves as an effective team. Their initial investment in “Wild Vision” (Villivisio in Finnish), as they called their company, was very modest, only 20 Euro each. So, their first projects had to be small, pay back quickly, and generate a profit. They started by organizing events and a Christmas party at their own school. Then came more ambitious projects: selling websites; preparing marketing plans for small and, later, even publicly listed companies; organizing a fair attended by more than 20,000 people.

“In the end, we all started developing our own areas of expertise. I was elected to be the first CEO of our company, which may explain why I chose teamwork and management of business networks as the topic of my thesis project. I started calling companies, offering my help in optimizing their supplier networks. Even though I was only 22 at the time, I was hired by a large avionics company, producing wing flaps and other aircraft components. The pay was about 2,000 Euro per month, a very decent amount for a student.”

Kimmo’s thesis triggered an attractive job offer from his avionics client, but he wanted to see how far he and four of his Pro Academy group mates could take their own business, to be shaped as a marketing and advertising company. But, in July 2002, having just graduated, Kimmo accepted a fateful invitation to teach a one-credit advertising course at the Tampere Vocational College. He did not know it at the time, but this was the first step in his new career as a Santa. Kimmo’s wife and two others stayed with “Wild Vision” for another 12 years.


Inspired by his Pro Academy experience and subsequent training (as a vocational teacher and school principal), Kimmo tried to work around the existing framework of vocational education, with its rigid schedule and lesson plans. A real breakthrough came in 2007, when he partnered with Junior Achievement, a US-based NGO. “This was my salvation,” Kimmo admits to me. Junior Achievement negotiated everything with the Finnish government, the tax authorities, insurance companies. They put in place a system for students to create and run mini-companies already at the age of 15 (by now, according to Kimmo, the age limit was dropped to 10!).

By 2010, Kimmo was an established entrepreneurship teacher in “vocational upper secondary business administration qualification” program. All of his students were now young entrepreneurs, divided into small groups, and running their mini-companies, just like he did as a Pro Academy student.

But, of course, not all teams were equally good at it. Five girls, a typical bunch of ‘back row students’, seemed to be completely disinterested and disengaged. When asked, they could not come with a single business idea.

“We don’t have any special skills or hobbies,” they explained.

“But what do you normally do at home?” Kimmo asked.

“We watch TV,” was their response.

“Maybe you could think of a business idea related to how people watch TV? Something to make them more comfortable?” Kimmo insisted.

This triggered a brainstorming process. And soon an idea was born. How about a warm blanket (it was late autumn) for a product? “We just happened to have a textile design course running at the same time,” Kimmo recalls, “and so, the girls learned how to design and sew their own blanket.”

Another brainstorming took place soon after, resulting in a modification of the original, rather bland, design. A blanket with sleeves, allowing one to hold a cup of tea, or a remote. The new product and the company received a difficult-to-pronounce Finnish name “Hihapeitto”.

With the first Hihapeitto prototypes quickly sold to fellow students and teachers, the team started thinking where to go next. “The marketing course we had,” Kimmo tells, “taught students how to run Facebook campaigns, produce and distribute flyers.” But, experiencing an ‘entrepreneurial high’, the former back row students decided to reach out to a major regional newspaper that ran a product review page. With a circulation of over 0.5mln copies, the newspaper was #2 in Finland. They prepared a package with a sample of their product. The cover note said: “We are happy to be interviewed.”

And happy they were when – to everyone’s amazement – the newspaper published a full-page review with a photo of the editor cozying up under a Hihapeitto blanket while enjoying a cup of glögi (the Finnish version of Glühwein).

With Christmas just a few weeks ahead, the girls’ email box exploded with orders. Now, they no longer had a marketing problem. Their challenge was to produce – quickly and in good quality. They found an outsourcing partner, but orders kept piling, forcing them to engage two additional sewing companies. Their business quickly reached and exceeded the limit of 8,000 Euro in VAT-exempt sales allowed by the Junior Achievement framework. They solved every single problem that was thrown at them: design and production, branding and advertising, communicating with clients and partners, accounting, and, of course, working as a team.

“Seeing their shining faces was my biggest reward,” says Kimmo, and I feel a wave of emotions sweeping through the cabin.


Between 2007 and 2015, Kimmo Kumpulainen helped more than 3,000 students to establish mini-companies. Even today, 3 years after he had finally decided to pursue his own entrepreneurial dreams, Kimmo still gets recognized on the streets of Tampere. A survey conducted by the Finnish Ministry of Finance in 2012 resulted in him being selected as Finland’s Entrepreneurship Teacher of the Year.

“I am very proud of this achievement,” says Kimmo, “but the best prize for me is seeing my students – especially those in the ‘back row’ among them – transforming into young entrepreneurs, hungry to get their books, meet clients, create websites, get others to do everything that has to be done. In short, taking responsibility for their own lives. This is precious.”

Kimmo’s company, Polar Partners, is now designing and co-creating full Finnish K-12 schools worldwide, including projects in Jordan, Namibia, Pakistan, India, and USA. Active negotiations are underway to start implementing Finnish-style education with partners in 18 countries. In fall 2018, Finland’s Santa and his company started working on a project to establish the first Finnish school in Georgia. I doubt there can be a better Christmas gift for Georgian kids and their parents.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all from Tbilinomics!


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