Myungji “MJ" Suh: The Aalto stand at Slush is all about how we can make the world better

In this ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Myungji “MJ” Suh, the executive director of Aalto Ventures Program, discusses entrepreneurship's relation to problem-solving and its surprising parallels with horse riding and golf.
MJ on stage giving a talk
Photo: Unigrafia / Lauri Manninen

What was your path to Aalto and Aalto Ventures Program (AVP)?

My journey began in 2011 as a design master’s student at Aalto ARTS. I started studying in Arabia and planned to return home to Korea soon after my studies. During my studies, however, I discovered a passion for entrepreneurship. I didn’t know anything about it beforehand. Eventually, I did an entrepreneurship minor at the School of Business, and there I got to know Aaltoes and Startup Sauna, which was then called the Venture Garage.

Suddenly, we were told that we were no longer entrepreneurship minor students but would be transferred to something called Aalto Ventures Program (AVP), which was then born. I was so annoyed! Why were the students not informed of this? Because of this, I talked with the AVP people, and I guess that’s why I became the ARTS student representative to AVP and ended up working there. Then, I graduated and worked for a startup company in e-commerce. I was away only for one year, though — I returned to Aalto in 2018.

How does it feel to be heading the AVP’s operations?

AVP has been through a lot of changes in a relatively short time. I came back to AVP for a project I was already familiar with, but it got canceled. At that time, Aalto signed the SDG accord, and we were building a strategy for entrepreneurship in sustainability. With co-directors Lauri Järvilehto and Kalle Airo, AVP started building a very inspiring vision. 

At the time, we had three different teams at AVP: education, innovation, and communications and partnerships. There were many personnel changes, and we also saw that there were silos between the teams. In the end, Lauri Järvilehto suggested that instead of me leading one of the three teams, we could combine them into one team under my responsibility. This is when I became the head of operations. Since October, I've had a new position again as the executive director of AVP. We will also have more in-house academic firepower soon.

In my current role, I feel more responsible even though the daily work is not that different. I was already heavily involved with many things at AVP. The biggest difference is in the feeling. I take responsibility very seriously, and I’m also responsible for my team’s well-being. I focus on fostering a well-functioning, high-spirit team, aligning our collective goals to achieve greater impact.

The student-driven ecosystem plays a pivotal role in our activities, too. Aalto is already well-known for its entrepreneurial ecosystem, mainly thanks to all the student activities, such as Aaltoes, Junction and Slush. These activities make Aalto very different from everywhere else. We also collaborate with Aalto Startup Center and Aalto Innovation Services.

Myungji “MJ” Suh from Aalto Ventures Program
Photo: Junction / Valeriia Kolganova

Can you share recent stories about your work?

Together with Aaltoes, we organised an event called Ginkgo. It’s a networking event to connect entrepreneurs and researchers in the same field. Last year, we had two topics: new materials and energy. One of the researchers who came to the event learned about Aalto Innovation Services and was invited to Junction. After all those encounters, he said that it changed his mindset completely. Earlier, he was thinking about how he could write a better paper. Now, he’s thinking about how to commercialise his invention and make an impact.

We also have different kinds of courses. I heard a story from our teachers, Johannes Kaira and Anna Dementyeva, who taught a summer course about self-leadership for Aalto University Summer School. One of the students wrote in the feedback that he became a happier person after the course. The course, Leading Transformation, is all about managing yourself and taking care of your well-being, especially if you are an entrepreneur and have a lot of pressure on you. A happier person is definitely a good result after a two-week summer course. I guess they did something right.

How would you define an entrepreneurial mindset?

It’s more of a life skill — you don’t need to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial. At AVP, we define it as taking ownership of your work and being innovative in the face of new challenges. You are entrepreneurial when you see a problem as an opportunity instead of avoiding it as a threat. A can-do attitude is also an entrepreneurial skill.

75% of the 900 Aalto students who responded to a survey we conducted in 2022 said that they want to have their own business at some point in their life, most of them in 4 to 10 years. The biggest reason for starting a business was freedom in life. It’s amazing that more and more students are excited about entrepreneurship.

Myungji “MJ" Suh from Aalto Ventures Program
Photo: AVP / Tommi Byman

What is it like to walk in your shoes?

I’ve learned a lot in this country. I don’t know if it’s Aalto or Finland, but I’m a totally different person now. Korea is very different from Finland. In Korea, exams and finding the correct answers are considered important, whereas in Finland, the students learn to think and ask the right questions. Everything is about collaboration. My values have also changed — I now find family and nature more important than before.

At AVP, we are a small team of around 15 people, and we have two different functions: university teachers and service staff. Their ways of working are different, and my role is to balance and connect these two worlds. We try to blend different working styles, foster a culture of open communication and collaboration, and constantly reflect on our progress and challenges.

What is the role of AVP at Slush?

At Slush, we’ve been directly involved with volunteer training and helping with the volunteer area. We provide what the volunteers need to have some fun and rest, and, in turn, Slush gives us vendor badges. We also contribute to hosting the Aalto stand.

Last year, we did a side event called Deep Tech Networking Dinner with Slush and Aalto Innovation Services. We invited Aalto researchers, and Slush invited early-stage investors and entrepreneurs in the relevant fields. It was a very small and private event with more researchers than other stakeholders. The researchers were thrilled to meet other researchers outside of their own research groups.

This year, we will collaborate with Aaltoes to organise a side event for empowering women entrepreneurs. We'll also have another event with Mimir Fellows to connect international ES communities. Next year, we'd like to have a bigger scale deep tech networking event.

We have heard from our staff visiting Slush that the Aalto stand is probably the only place where every project tackles a bigger problem instead of just making money. Coming to the Aalto stand is all about how we can make the world better, and that’s well integrated into everybody’s thinking.

Do you want to share a moment of failure and what you learned from it?

When I was taking an entrepreneurship class, we learned the different factors that cause startups to fail. One of them is the co-founder problem, which also became my fate. I started an e-commerce company together with my friends, and it failed. I still want to be an entrepreneur at some point in the future, though.

I’ve learned it’s not a big deal if something doesn’t work. Relationships are very important, and they affect us emotionally more than the workload. I think I’ve learned to deal with different people better, even though I’ll probably never master it. I’m trying to think that MJ, in the end, you’re not too important.

What do you do in your free time, and why is it important to you?

In the summertime, I play golf. I also used to do horseback riding, but I couldn’t do both. When I was a student and introduced entrepreneurship to the faculty, I started my presentation with a horse riding picture. My message was that you’ll fall, and it hurts. You can’t breathe for a few seconds but still get back up and keep going. I was so afraid of horseback riding every time, but I enjoyed the feeling of doing it anyway.

I started golf a couple of years ago, and it practices resilience. It’s a fight against yourself. When I read the book ‘Golf is Not a Game of Perfect,’ I realised we are saying the same things about entrepreneurship.

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Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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