For alumni

Ernesto Hartikainen

Finnish-Cuban Ernesto Hartikainen planned a career as a diplomat but instead became a diploma-holder in engineering and in business. Ernesto firmly believes in entrepreneurship, daring and taking a leap of faith.
Ernesto Hartikainen

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path.

I’m a 36-year-old Finnish-Cuban university-educated engineer and business graduate living in Kruununhaka in Helsinki. As a child, I lived all around the world in places like Mozambique, the Basque Country and the Finnish town of Kouvola. My international background has given me a love for languages. My hobbies include dancing, mainly salsa and breakdance. I like to spend my spare time at our summer house in Vironlahti with my family, which consists of my wife and our three-year-old and five-year-old.
I work as Leading Expert in the Carbon-Neutral Circular Economy theme at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, where I’m responsible for strategic planning and support the various projects under our theme. I was involved in creating the concept for Sitra’s World Circular Economy Forum and have been in charge of the programmes of these global forums. I have worked for Sitra for a good five years now in various roles connected to strategic foresight, circular economy and climate change.

I graduated with a Master of Science (Technology) from Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) in 2008 with a major in forest products technology. After a summer job in the forest industry, I did my master’s thesis for Pöyry, and stayed on as an analyst in management consulting there. Although I learned a great deal at Pöyry and got a chance to work on international projects, I had a keen interest in entrepreneurship and decided to try out a career in that.
My life-long passion for dance led me to set up a cultural and entertainment event planning business, which I named La Nieve Fresca after our dance performance group. While I was doing event planning, I decided to deepen my understanding of business and economics, and so I earned a Master of Science (Economics and Business Administration) at Aalto University in 2012–2014. During that time, I also got an idea for a start-up company, and founded Exacta Oy, which was designed to offer network-based, on-demand expert and innovation services with a focus on sustainability challenges.

While start-up entrepreneurship is exciting and allows you to express yourself relatively freely, juggling the demands of a new company with those of a new baby proved too demanding at the time. While our daughter was on the way, I was offered the opportunity to start as an expert in strategic foresight at Sitra and I did not think twice about taking it, because planning the future and making a societal impact interested me. I put my own company on hold to pursue a career at Sitra, and have stayed on that path since.

How did you end up studying in your field?

Ever since living in Mozambique I had been convinced that I was going to be a diplomat. When I was younger, a career in international affairs seemed glamorous and exciting. After I finished the international study programme at Etelä-Tapiola upper secondary school, I weighed different university options in terms of their usefulness for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs training course on international affairs, which is aimed at future diplomats. The entrance examination books for political science seemed dry, and my strong points in upper secondary school had been natural sciences, mathematics and languages. At the time, business and economics seemed a logical alternative to political science.
However, my father suggested a career in the forest industry, because he thought that its role in the Finnish exports could open up international career opportunities for me, while also allowing me to use my mathematical and natural science skills. My father is an engineer himself, which probably had some effect on his advice. Before starting my military service, I accepted an offer of admission to Helsinki University of Technology, where I started my engineering studies at the Department of Forest Products Technology one year later, in 2003. Instead of a diplomat, I became a diploma-holder in engineering.

Although my choosing forest products technology was partly a coincidence, I have never regretted that decision or felt that it restricted my study options or other life choices in any way. In the end, I think that the point of a master’s degree, whatever the discipline is, is simply to give you a set of basic skills and knowledge; it is through work that you acquire deeper expertise and an ability to apply your knowledge.

What is your best memory from your student years?

One of my best memories from when I was a student was spending the New Year’s 2006–2007 in the world’s ‘extreme sports capital’ Queenstown in New Zealand, and doing three different bungee jumps and one parachute jump. I don’t think I would have the courage to try those kinds of jumps now that I’m a father, but I will remember them for the rest of my life. The reason I ended up celebrating New Year’s in picturesque Queenstown was that I was on an exchange year in Melbourne, Australia, and I went on a road trip around New Zealand with a friend who was visiting from Finland.
This memory is one example of the how carefree student life can be. In fact, I think that being carefree is really the best memory of my student years.

What is the most valuable thing you learned at university which has helped you in your professional life?

Tenacity. The world of work, or life in general, is not all fun and games. It is important to be tenacious, because it is almost always rewarded. Tenacity is not always my strong suit, which is why I try to work on it. Earning a university degree takes tenacity: although not all courses are interesting and nice, completing them shows you have the skill to follow through, a skill that is very important also in the world of work. Having the skill to follow through is more important than being perfect.

I certainly did not get the best grades on all my university courses, but I did try to make the most of my studies by learning a range of different skills. For example, I expanded my language skills by taking Japanese courses throughout my TKK studies. My knowledge of Japanese proved useful later when we organised the World Circular Economy Forum 2018 in Yokohama with the Ministry of the Environment in Japan.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

I like American country music, although I have never been to the United States nor do I have another connection that would explain it. When I’m driving up to our summer house in Vironlahti, I like to put on the Country Gold playlist on Spotify and pretend I’m driving a pickup truck in the prairie, like I’ve seen done in films. Don’t ask me why.

What should everyone experience once in their lifetime?

Take risks and fail at least once. As uncomfortable as it may feel, you learn the most through failure. If you have never truly failed, you are not taking enough risks in your life. The best things I have in my life are things I gained by taking a risk. When I graduated and got a job, I decided to quit my emerging consulting career and travel around the world instead. Things did not turn out quite as planned, but then again, it gave me a chance to ask a woman whom I had met only a few months earlier to join me on the journey. She is now my wife and the mother of my children. Despite some experiences of failure, I am happy today, because ten years ago I went out on a limb instead of settling for what I already had.

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