WIL co-founder Sara Kemppainen recently sat down with Evolucio, the Leiden University College alumni network, to discuss entrepreneurship and the process of founding and setting up WIL. Read on to learn more about how and why WIL was created, as well as Sara's career path in digital technology, entrepreneurship, and public policy.
With Sara and Evolucio's permission, we've reposted the beginning of the interview here. Scroll down or click here to read the full interview with Sara!
Athéna: Hello Sara and thank you for taking the time to share with us your story. For the ones that don’t know Sara, she graduated in 2020 in GED (Governance, Economics, and Development) and has an interest in tech-related topics, women empowerment, and entrepreneurship which we will discuss today. To kick off the conversation, I’d like to start with your time at LUC during which you were very active. Could you tell us a bit more about what you were involved in and how you managed to combine working and studying?
Sara: I’ve always been the kind of person who does several things at the same time. I really enjoyed academic studies at LUC, but I felt that I needed to do something additional. Long story short, during my second and third year, with a group of awesome women, we set up a non-profit organisation called Women in Innovation and Leadership (WIL). It’s essentially a collective of women who want to learn how to better themselves in terms of personal and professional development. One of the reasons why we started WIL was because, when I entered LUC’s academic bubble, I felt that it was quite competitive, and most students were women. Yet, in the classroom conversations, it felt like a lot of women were not participating actively in the discussion. Also, as I went to a very collaborative high school (UWC), I felt this was missing between or among women, especially, in such a rigorous academic program like LUC. As I entered the professional world, it’s not that I got pointed out for being a woman, but I became more aware of it when I saw what was expected from me in comparison to my male counterparts. So, I wanted to learn how to develop the skills and tools to strive professionally.
I’ve never been the type of person who complains, I’d rather do something. So, the idea was to bring women together and organise workshops to improve our professional personal skills as there wasn’t really that at LUC. Later, it became more about us having a space to connect with peers and find networking opportunities. We were learning how to get into the career world and explore other opportunities that were on top of academics. A lot of people have asked me: “How was it to work on something so concrete on top of a rigorous academic program?” I always felt they were complementary. It added value, created a great community and we were able to establish something that lasts longer than our own time at LUC.
Athena: So as WIL is a nonprofit organisation in The Hague, and not a committee part of LUC, what barriers did you face in setting that up as an international student, who doesn’t speak Dutch? How did you navigate this ecosystem and what would be your advice to students and graduates who would like to set up something similar?
Sara: There’s definitely a lot of challenges, especially with Dutch and without having a support network already established in The Hague. We were really lucky that we got connected to another women’s network that was a little bit more established in The Hague. They supported us and gave us advice on who to contact. The municipality also put us in contact with a lawyer who did the incorporation of WIL and we actually didn’t pay for anything because it was a nonprofit organisation. When you don’t have money, and we obviously didn’t have money, you just have to be a little bit of a hustler and ask for help all the time. That’s one thing that I learned from WIL.
You just need to ask for help. A lot of people want to help when you have a good cause. You just have to be bold enough to ask for it.
Overall, language and finances were definitely the biggest barriers. We didn’t really have any support. I paid with my own money for the first website establishment. Later, WIL paid it back to me, so I had no problem with that but you have to take those small sacrifices at the beginning. On the university side, they were enthusiastic about the fact that we were building something like this.
Athena: Is WIL now operating without you?
Sara: Yeah 100% without me and honestly that was the goal with our first kind of leadership team. I thought it was important that it’s not attached to me, but more grounded in the community.
Athena: If there are current students and Alumni who live in the Hague, who are interested in WIL, how can they attend events or even get involved?
Sara: I think the easiest way is to just go and talk to the people who are working on it right now. It’s a super open network and everyone can participate, so the easiest way is just to contact them on social media and get involved. The whole point was to bring interesting people together and do interesting things, so I think it’s very easy, just send a message!
Athena: WIL is not the only thing you’ve done during your time at LUC, can you talk to us about a few other things that you’ve done during your time at LUC?
Sara: I think WIL was a springboard for a lot of other things, because I think it gave everyone in the team a lot of confidence in the fact that we could build something out of nowhere. I always say that WIL was such a gift to me because it gave me the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, what it’s like to have nothing and then create something and for it to work even after you’re gone. During my time at LUC and after WIL in my second year, I worked for the Institute for Accountability in the Digital Age. It was all about bringing 200 best experts in cyber security, AI, digital accountability, and related fields together to discuss in the Peace Palace. The way in which I got into that was by mentioning my work with WIL and that I was really interested in the topic of how we should regulate tech. A month later they hired me as a part-time worker and I became the summit coordinator. So, it was kind of about being bold enough to ask for things and to get involved.
Athéna: And where has all of this brought you today?
Sara: I don’t have the most straightforward path, I didn’t know when I was younger that this is exactly the field that I was interested in, I have gone through life and figured out what I don’t like and what I do like. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a mentor in The Hague was: “Don’t try to figure out what you like, figure out what you like in a certain position and then look for more of that."
So, when I was organising WIL, I realised I really loved having a purposeful job, something that I feel I’m doing for the greater good. Something that leaves a mark. I realised that female empowerment, as much as it is like a big interest of mine, wasn’t the one thing that I wanted to do for my career. Then technology came around and became fascinating to me. So that kind of took me from the entrepreneurial world into the world of digital technology.
After graduating, it was clear that I wanted to do more in the tech field, I wasn’t exactly sure whether in the public or private sector. I just knew that technology and its impact on society were fascinating to me. But of course, COVID happened, when I was supposed to go and get my master’s at Johns Hopkins University, in a more security-focused program, but I felt that I was more of a humanities person.
So, I had to reestablish what was I doing. I really wanted to be my own boss and do my own thing. I worked as a freelance consultant in project management for a bit, and we did also tech AI-related stuff, but I didn’t like working alone. Also, I felt like I was always optimising people systems, but I wasn’t actively building them. So, I realised this is not something that I necessarily love.
In December 2020, I contacted Slush, originally from Finland, Slush organises nowadays the biggest gathering of venture capital events. It is the firecracker of the Finnish start-up ecosystem. There were three things that I wanted to see more of.
Firstly, I wanted to work in the field of entrepreneurship and Slush organises events for startups and entrepreneurs. Secondly, I love that they have this kind of “save the world” attitude, where they want to make the world a better place and “we can do it” as young people. This is also reflected in the organisation as it is made of a huge group of volunteer students and a team of recent graduates. Thirdly, I really loved that it was technology-oriented. Those were the three things that I wanted to learn more about. I thought that Slush would meet my expectations but again, there wasn’t an open position. I have never gotten a job by applying to it. I just sent a message to the CEO....