Loud music blares while a large group of people strikes various poses. The track pauses briefly before the rhythm becomes even wilder. The group’s frozen poses change to high-tempo dancing.
“This depicts the mass strength and dedication of the Slush volunteers quite well,” says Johannes Tervo, showing a video clip on his mobile screen.
The clip was recorded at last year’s event and the dancers are Slush volunteers. The dance performance was part of the mannequin challenge, a phenomena that trended across social media.
The video shows Aalto University students Johannes Tervo and Niklas Jalonen dancing with the other volunteers. They are taking part in the organising of Europe’s biggest tech and startup event for the third time this year.
“This is addictive,” Tervo and Jalonen sum up.
Run by a student-driven community
Slush was arranged for the first time in 2008. Aalto students took charge of the event a few years later, and the small-scale happening began to evolve into the internationally recognised arena for encounters between growth entrepreneurs and investors that it is today. Last year, Slush attracted 17500 visitors, 2336 growth businesses and 1146 investors. In addition to the full-time team of 40-50 members, thousands of hours of volunteer work form the backdrop to this spectacle.
Some 2300 volunteers are contributing to the organising of this year’s Slush. They are divided into hundred-strong teams with a focus on different tasks.
Niklas Jalonen serves as a team leader at Slush. He is tasked with arranging a break room for volunteers at the event venue, Messukeskus Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre. His team has secured for example sponsors, sofas, games, a DJ, food and refreshments for the break room.
“I was given the entire 580-square-metre space and told to take care of it. Starting from August-September, the project has consumed about ten hours of my time each week.”
Johannes Tervo had already worked as a volunteer twice, but this year’s Slush put him on the payroll. Tervo is tasked with organising cooperation partnerships for Slush.
“The handling of cooperation partnerships is extremely interesting, I could imagine doing it for a living in the future.”
Networking, learning and having fun
Team leaders gathered for the Slush Leadership Experience training course by Aalto Ventures Program in early November.
Slush volunteers are provided training, which is arranged by the entrepreneurship education programme Aalto Ventures Program (AVP). The Slush Leadership Experience course is designed for the leaders of Slush volunteer teams and its emphasis is on leadership and group dynamics.
The teacher in charge of the course, Jari Ylitalo, reckons that student volunteer activities provide an excellent way to practice working life skills in a realistic setting. He notes that Slush gives many participants their first chance to engage in leadership, and this will, ideally, boost their confidence and encourage them to learn more.
Slush is a learning experience for Tervo and Jalonen as well. Tervo says participating in Slush can, for example, help distinguish you when applying for a job. Jalonen says he has made several useful contacts and even received some invitations for job interviews at Slush.
“If you dive in with an open mind, this will give a lot back. I absolutely believe that Slush will be of help with regards to my future working life.”
Slush can also open international opportunities for its volunteers, as the event nowadays extends to Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore. Last year, Tervo went to Singapore to help organise the local event, and Jalonen has contributed remotely to the coordination of various ancillary events.
“It’s hard to say no to global networks – they broaden your world so enormously,” Tervo says.
Although there’s lots and lots to do, Jalonen and Tervo don’t see volunteering at Slush as an arduous grind. They’re taking part because making Slush happen is, simply put, fun.
“I like this crowd and I don’t feel like participating subtracts from anything else. Slush doesn’t sap my energy, it gives me strength. This is what I want to do with my free time,” says Jalonen.
A culture of helping thrives in the startup community
Slush’s current CEO is Marianne Vikkula, a 25-year-old Aalto University student. She, too, started her Slush career as a volunteer in 2012.
Vikkula says Slush is strongly rooted in its student-driven origins – and there is no desire to change this.
“We respect our roots. Many people say that the best way to experience Slush is to take part in its creation.”
The average age of this year’s Slush volunteers is 22, and a large share of them are university students. They primarily get involved by responding to a call for volunteers, and there aren’t enough posts to accommodate every interested applicant.
Several hundred event production professionals are, of course, also needed to organise Slush. In spite of their involvement, volunteers are still given lots of freedom and responsibility.
“Volunteers are given the liberty and responsibility to shape the event in a manner that they themselves choose. The results have been good. Our volunteers have a desire to learn and a can do attitude that carries a long way.”
Vikkula says that an ideology of giving back thrives amongst the community, which has grown around the startup scene. This manifests itself in providing support for others and putting yourself on the line – you help others solely because helping gives you joy. For example, the Startup Sauna accelerator, which was founded by Aalto students, has experienced entrepreneurs provide tips and assistance on a volunteer basis to young business owners.
The Slush event creates more encounters that further nourish the community.
“The number of encounters between investors and growth entrepreneurs at Slush’s designated encounter area is gauged each year. There were more than 6,000 such meetings last year.”
Text: Tea Kalska Photos: Mikko Raskinen