A passion for the start-up community turned into a career

Maria Melnikova became intensely active in the start-up community of Oulu during her studies in International Business Management. Her enthusiasm for entrepreneurial life paved the way for her career.
International Business Management alumn Maria Melnikova sits on a chair at the office.

My choice - International Business Management

Maria Melnikova is a veteran of the Oulu start-up community, having been involved with the creation of several organisations and events like Polar Bear Pitching. An Oulu Business School graduate, she is now an international market specialist for Russia for BusinessOulu.

Melnikova first visited Oulu in 2009 for a student conference when she was in the process of getting her first master's degree in economic geography. She had lived in big cities like Moscow for all her life, and she wanted a change of pace.

”I wanted to study in Scandinavia and I was well aware of the high quality of Finnish education. I applied to many schools in Sweden and in Finland. I got accepted to a few, but Oulu had really made a great impression on me, so I decided to go to the University of Oulu,” Melnikova recalls.

While she was making headway in her International Business Management studies, she became intensely active in the start-up community in Oulu.

The Oulu Entrepreneurship Society was founded by a group of people that included Melnikova's friends and she was induced into their ranks.

”They brought me into that world and soon I started organising events, seminars and workshops and working with different companies. I found myself in the entrepreneurial hive, so to speak,” Melnikova says.

Melnikova also had a chance to go the United States for a semester and when she returned to Oulu in 2013, she had several job proposals from America. She wasn't yet decided on her next step but was seriously contemplating finishing her studies in Oulu and going to the U.S. for work. In the meantime, the start-up incubator called Business Kitchen had been founded in Oulu and she became very active in it.

”We created the first start-up event in Oulu called Midnight Pitchfest which turned out to be successful. The next big start-up thing was Polar Bear Pitching, and the first event was in 2014,” Melnikova says.

For the uninitiated, Polar Bear Pitching is a winter outdoor event where start-ups can pitch their business ideas to a group of investors and the audience for as long as they want–while immersed in freezing water. The event combines Nordic derring-do and serious business ideas and is routinely featured in the international press.

Maria Melnikova is a familiar presence in the Oulu start-up scene. These days she is working at BusinessOulu as the market specialist for Russia.

Oulu is the perfect testbed for ideas

Her presence in the start-up community did not go unnoticed, and she was called to an interview with the managing director of BusinessOulu. The organisation is in charge of implementing the City of Oulu's industry policies and providing growth companies with the services they require, in addition to promoting export, import, investments and employment.

”They wanted Oulu to be more cosmopolitan and international and push the companies also to foreign markets. They wanted to have specialists who knew the target markets well and they wished to hire me as their market specialist for Russia. I wasn't looking for a job, but a lot of the business community knew about me and my activities and someone told them about me,” Melnikova recalls. She was hired and she has been working with BusinessOulu ever since.

Melnikova says that while her studies prepared her for her career, her extracurricular activities and active participation in the start-up community were certainly very important for her employment.

”Everyone expects to be hired after they graduate, but it is the people with practical skills who get hired. All the activities I took part in gave me those skills. Oulu is the perfect testbed for your ideas and when you do something special, people take notice. You build your reputation and your brand. If you can show that you have succeeded in something, you can only benefit from it,” Melnikova muses.

Melnikova has spent a decade in Finland and says that Finns are one of the kindest, warmest and most sincere people she has ever met. And she should know, as she got into a civil marriage with one of them, and is now living in Helsinki with her partner.

”Leaving Oulu was rather heartbreaking. It's very comfortable to live in, it's a nice size. You can bike anywhere, walk around, enjoy the nature, the bus drivers say hi because they know you. I have lived in five different countries but never felt as at home and as at ease as I did in Oulu,” Melnikova says.

Text and photographs: Janne-Pekka Manninen

Maria Melnikova

• M.Sc. (Econ.), International Business Management

• International Affairs Specialist at BusinessOulu

• Maria has a passion for baking which is also a form of meditation for her. She prides herself on being able to make a delicious Tatar/Central Asian sweet called chak-chak.