Diving Deep with Samuli Knüpfer, the Guardian Angel of the Year 2022

FiBAN’s Guardian Angel of the year award is annually given to an ecosystem champion in Finland, who with their work has enabled an environment where growth companies can better thrive in
Omistajuuden professori Samuli Knüpfer. Kuva: Nita Vera
Professor of Ownership Samuli Knüpfer. Photo: Aalto University/Nita Vera

Professor Samuli Knüpfer was awarded the Guardian Angel of the Year 2022 by the Finnish Business Angels Network. FiBAN is one of the largest and most active angel investor networks in Europe with over 670 members from over 20+ nationalities. FiBAN matches investment-ready startups and scaleups with private investors from Finland, and other Nordic and Baltic region countries. FiBAN offers its members business angel training, networking and investment  opportunities.

In this interview, Samuli Knüpfer lifted the veil about the themes of what is potentially slowing Finland down in growth compared to Nordic peers, and how the work is traditionally organized may have effects on gender equality.

Professor Samuli Knüpfer is known for his long-standing work in studying ownership and household wealth management in various top positions around the world. Recently, he was appointed as the professor of ownership at Aalto University School of Business.

‘There’s a lot of value and wisdom in networks like FiBAN and networks that startup founders have set up in Finland. We should be making sure that this wisdom is shared widely in the society, including to the decision-makers,’ he describes.

He describes seeing ownership as an essential part of a thriving modern society and it has been at the core of his research for more than a decade.

‘I’ve held a longstanding interest in ownership and my particular focus has been ownership by households across the whole society, both ordinary people trying to figure out how to manage their personal finances but also the people who are in the position of thinking about how to invest their money in the most effective way,’ he describes.

From the Finnish perspective, he acknowledges that Finland has a lot to catch up with regarding ownership culture and financial literacy compared to other Nordic countries.

‘What interests me the most is how we can improve the ownership culture in Finland. I think we have a lot to learn from other countries, particularly our Nordic neighbors,’ he says.

Finland struggles with negative attitudes towards capitalism and slower growth

According to Prof. Knüpfer, international surveys mapping out beliefs about ownership point out that Finns have more negative attitudes towards capitalism and private business compared to fellow Nordic countries such as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

‘You can clearly see this in the international surveys of beliefs,’ he reveals and dives then to the core of where these attitudes may derive from.

‘Finland performs quite poorly compared to our Nordic peers in international tests of financial literacy. Overall, we have issues in how people see ownership, and a lot of these issues probably emanate from not understanding how private businesses and economies actually operate,’ he explains.

But what are our Nordic peers doing differently? Professor Knüpfer points out the difference between Finland and similar societies in the Nordics, giving an example of where the differences between the countries may be rooted.

‘Our retirement savings system makes people detached from their retirement savings, whereas in other countries such as Sweden and Norway people are directly in charge of some of their retirement savings. This gives people incentives to learn about how investing works, how companies operate, and how the economy actually works,’ he describes.

According to Prof. Knüpfer, Finland has fewer new companies per capita being born every year than our fellow Nordic countries. Ultimately, he sees this as a question of how ownership and entrepreneurship are understood and supported, and how businesses are able to fund their operations. 

‘If we don’t have enough capital that the entrepreneurs can tap into, we’re going to have less innovation and less growth. This is particularly important in Finland, where many indicators are telling us that we’re not matching the growth of our Nordic peers,’ he underlines. 

‘Entrepreneurship and ownership are important for the future of Finland. It’s important to recognize that Finland is lagging behind in several indicators. Our households are taking less risk, there are less venture capital and private equity investments, and we have less new companies being born every year. It is important to keep in mind that we’re not doing that great on these dimensions,’ he underlines.

‘I’d like to see an increase in risk-taking by Finnish households, and that society would pay more attention to ownership. We shouldn’t make life difficult for people to start, run, or fund new companies. We can do many things as a society to improve these conditions,’ he adds.

Inequality in CEO Appointments and the silver lining of the Pandemic

The startup ecosystem not only struggles with catching up on growth but also with diversity issues. At FiBAN, 12% of members are women, but even fewer women-led startup teams are getting funded.In 2022, only 2.1% of VC funding was directed to women-founded teams.

Prof. Knüpfer has studied gender gaps in CEO appointments by using data on business and engineering graduates in Sweden. The study revealed structures in work-life that may affect the career opportunities between women and men. 

‘We were able to track the participants’ careers through time. It was really striking to notice how early the career paths of men and women started diverging and why,’ he describes.

Inequality is not only an issue among CEO positions. The European Union recently announced a new EU law on gender balance on company boards. By 2026, companies are required to have 40% of the underrepresented sex among non-executive directors or 33% among all directors, as women are not as present on boards as much as men.

He sees that gender quotas may not be effective in getting to the root causes of inequality because the gender gaps arise so early in people’s careers. 

‘We should support women much earlier in their career paths and make sure that we organize work in a way that helps people advance their careers and also take care of their family,’ he says. 

He points out the significance of how work is organized may affect career opportunities between genders, but also gives an example. The COVID-19 pandemic forced workplaces to jump to remote work almost without warning. The pandemic revealed how rethinking the norms of work life may even be able to reduce inequalities in career progression.

‘Before the pandemic, many firms were quite reluctant to allow remote work. It was believed to lower productivity because it allowed workers to slack at home. When workplaces had to arrange remote work, we found that a large fraction of workers were at least as productive, or even more productive, when they were allowed to work partially from home. If you’re able to think outside the box in how to organize work, you may actually come up with good solutions,’ he says.

Further reading and recommendations from Prof. Samuli Knüpfer: 

Interview and text: FiBAN

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