School of Electrical Engineering Alumnus of the Year Siamäk Naghian: The university gave me a path into Finnish society
‘The university was my first home in Finland. It opened the door to Finnish society,’ says Siamäk Naghian, the School of Electrical Engineering’s Alumnus of the Year 2020.
Naghian is the managing director of Genelec, the world leading manufacturer of audio systems based in Finnish town of Iisalmi. He earned master of science, licentiate and doctoral degrees from Aalto University's predecessor Helsinki University of Technology (HUT), but his path has not been very typical.
Siamäk Naghian was born into a family of entrepreneurs in Iran. As a young man with an interest in natural sciences, he intended to apply to university and then follow in his parents’ footsteps. The Iranian revolution took place in 1979, and a war with Iraq followed soon after that. Instead of going to university, Naghian ended up spending 18 months on the war front.
After his return, Naghian – like many other young Iranians – decided to go abroad to study. He began studying technology in Turkey, but considered continuing in Australia or Spain. Then a family of friends told him about Helsinki University of Technology, where their children were studying.
‘I didn't know much about Finland. When I applied for a visa, the official congratulated me and told me that Finland is an expensive and cold country with a difficult language.’
Although he didn’t get into HUT on his first try, Naghian began studying Finnish as a second language intensively and completed studies at the University of Jyväskylä and via the open university. The following year, he was accepted to study electrical engineering.
‘I’m so glad that I was forced to learn Finnish’
There weren’t many foreign students taking courses in the early 1990s. At first, Naghian had trouble keeping up with the Finnish lectures.
‘I wanted to learn more about the language and the culture, but I also had no other choice. I'm glad about it.’
Naghian remembers one physics course particularly well. He asked the teacher whether he could get the exam questions in English.
‘The teacher smiled and told me that this course was in Finnish. That was a tough situation, but I decided not to ask again.
He put everything else aside and studied so much that he practically knew the book by heart.
'Technology is for people, and people are a part of nature.'
‘I took the exam and passed, and I never asked for questions in English again. Years later, I ran into the same professor at a bus stop after a party. I said that was the best thing anyone could have done for me at that time.’
Naghian supported himself by working in the evenings and on holidays, for example, as a hotel cleaner and at an oil refinery. He also qualified as a Finnish-Persian translator and worked as an interpreter. Although it was tough, the work improved his language skills and understanding of Finnish culture.
Naghian completed his master's thesis at Nokia and continued there while working on his doctoral dissertation, which dealt with power control in mobile phone systems. He spent 10 years at Nokia in expert and management tasks before starting what he calls his dream job at Genelec in 2005.
‘Technology helps us understand the mysteries of nature’
Naghian’s interest in technology began as a schoolboy when he saw an article in a science magazine about using magnetic resonance imaging to measure human brain activity. He understood that technology was a tool to help us understand the mysteries of nature.
‘I was always interested in physics, mathematics and literature. They all contain a certain element related to the secret of life, and that fascinated me,’ says Naghian.
‘For me, technology is not just equipment – it’s art. Even today as I walk around our factory and look at the circuit boards, I’m thrilled by the idea that they’re based on nature. The music we hear from our loudspeakers is based on the laws of physics. Understanding and perceiving that fact is something wonderful!’
Naghian thinks that the most important aspect of university studies involved developing the ability to think systematically. In addition to courses in electrical engineering, applied electronics, telecommunications technology and medical physics, he also chose industrial engineering courses related to management and organisation.
‘That has proven to be very valuable since then. Knowledge of your own field is a must in product development and management, but we also need the ability to understand larger contexts. Technology is for people, and people are a part of nature.’
‘Even though I've worked incredibly hard, I still wouldn’t be here without Finland's education system'
‘The Finnish education system is a treasure’
Finland urgently needs international talent, and Naghian thinks the country has great opportunities to be more than just a stopping off point for students.
‘I believe that once they become a part of the society, they're going to fall in love with this place.
He’s an excellent example of this.
'I speak on behalf of Finland wherever I go. My dream is for the world to have more societies like this.’
Naghian believes that Finland's high-quality and equal education system is the cornerstone of the society's success and – deservedly so – a source of national pride.
‘Even though I've worked incredibly hard, I still wouldn’t be here without this education system.'
Education in English provides many opportunities, but Naghian hopes that more students could learn Finnish than currently are.
‘Even after living in Finland for a long time, many people say that they don’t speak Finnish because it’s so difficult. That’s when I ask whether Finnish is more difficult than Maxwell's equations. The process of learning a language is influenced by how important a person perceives it to be.’
He emphasises that universities and teachers also need competence related to working in a multicultural environment and supporting the integration of international students.
‘It’s important to plan the studies right from the very start. Language and culture should be considered just as important as other studies. Networks and fellow students play an enormous role in this process.’
Naghian believes that HUT and its community gave him the best possible start.
‘I only understood later what a great attitude the teachers had. My fellow students accepted me immediately and helped whenever I had problems. I've been lucky to have met such wonderful people along the way – and I’m very grateful to them.’
The School of Electrical Engineering’s Alumnus of the Year award was presented to Siamäk Naghian on Saturday 24 October 2020. Dean Jyri Hämäläinen says: ‘Siamäk Naghian has shown that people can go a long way in Finland when they have the desire. He’s an outstanding role model for all our students, but I especially hope that his selection as the school's alumnus of the year will encourage our international students to integrate into Finnish society and build a career here.’
- Licentiate of Science (Tech.) in 1999 and Doctor of Science (Tech.) in 2001, applied electronics
- Master of Science (Tech.) in 1996, applied electronics and measurement technology
- Worked for Nokia in the mobile phone systems business, 1995–2005
- R&D Director at Genelec starting in 2005, Executive Vice President in 2010 and Managing Director since 2011
- Selected as Enterprise Executive of the Year in 2018 by Kauppalehti, Finnish news outlet focusing on economics and business
- Born in Iran, lives in Iisalmi, Finland with his family
- Enjoys playing the saxophone, literature, keeping fit and cooking