Mari Luukkainen from Icebreaker.vc: Startups need to be proactive in attracting a more diverse talent pool

Mari Luukkainen is a Principal at Icebreaker.vc with a portfolio of 100+ startups, ex-growth operator and founder of  Herizon.io, a non-profit creating tech jobs for immigrant women. She has been named the Investor of the Year in Nordic Women in Tech Awards 2022 and Diversity Role Model of the Year in Nordic Startup Awards 2023. We caught up with Mari ahead of her keynote at sTARTUp Day 2024 to talk about how it takes more than panel participation to increase diversity in the tech sector, the importance of learning from setbacks and – pizza.

This interview was conducted by Tejas Anil Shah, a member of the sTARTUp Day communications & marketing team.

Your keynote at sTARTUp Day is titled “Inclusive Investing: Building a Diverse Future in Venture Capital”. Who would you like to see in the audience and why?

It's critical to have male venture capital partners, male limited partners (LPs of the VCs), and male founders actively participate in discussions and initiatives related to diversity and inclusivity. Their presence and engagement in panels and diversity activities send a powerful message about the importance of these issues.

However, what I’ve observed as a very active participant of diversity panels and discussions, is that male VCs, LPs and entrepreneurs have a tendency to participate in panel discussions on diversity and inclusivity but then leave immediately afterward. True commitment and change require more than just panel participation; it involves staying, engaging with the audience, and participating in the broader conversation. Their prompt departure after speaking can be perceived as a lack of genuine interest or investment in the issues of diversity and inclusivity.

By contrast, staying to interact, listen, and engage with others demonstrates a deeper commitment and sets a positive example for others in the industry. Now it’s mainly just women and junior people that stay - or even appear in the audience in the first place.

What do you think most people get wrong about diversity?

When discussing what most people get wrong about diversity, there are my points to highlight:

  1. Many perceive diversity initiatives as overly challenging, leading to a lack of action. For instance, if there’s a low number of female applicants, the common response is to accept this as an unchangeable reality. However, a more proactive approach is needed. Instead of passively waiting for diverse candidates to apply, startups should actively seek them out. This might involve reaching out through different networks, using more inclusive job descriptions, or partnering with organizations that work with underrepresented groups. The idea is to move beyond the mindset of "it's too hard" and take tangible steps to create a more diverse pipeline.

  2. The argument that "we would hire or include more diverse candidates if there were any" oversimplifies the problem. While it's true that the pipeline for diverse talent can be limited in certain sectors, this should not be an excuse for inaction.

    Founders and startups need to be proactive in attracting a more diverse talent pool.

    This can involve initiatives like mentorship programs, internships targeting underrepresented communities, or collaborations with educational institutions to foster interest and skills among diverse groups. By taking proactive steps, the pipeline can gradually be expanded and usually the skillset is also better than from the founder's initial network.

  3. Blaming the lack of diversity solely on VCs overlooks the broader ecosystem’s role. While it's true that only a small percentage of applications might come from mixed teams, this is a symptom of wider industry challenges. There is a need to encourage women and other underrepresented groups to enter tech and entrepreneurial fields. Nonetheless, VCs can still make a significant impact. As demonstrated by Icebreaker.vc’s experience, where we increased the proportion of mixed teams from 22.3% to 40.7% between funds, targeted efforts can lead to substantial improvements. This shows that while VCs are part of a larger system, their dedicated efforts can effectively enhance diversity.

In your experience of working with immigrants, what are the biggest hurdles that they face?

Immigrants often struggle with a lack of networks and familiarity with the local job hunting practices. In the (New) Nordic job market, which values directness and efficiency, many immigrants may not realize the relevance of their skills or understand the most effective ways to communicate them. For example, in this market, it's more common and acceptable to directly contact a company's CEO on LinkedIn with a concise message outlining one’s skills and how they can be of use, rather than relying on traditional cover letters. This approach is often unfamiliar to immigrants who might be accustomed to more formal and indirect job application processes. Recognizing this gap, my NGO, Herizon.io, implemented LinkedIn bootcamps as part of our program. Since August, these bootcamps have enabled over 50 immigrants in our community to successfully attract job opportunities for themselves.

Another challenge is the perception that careers in tech are inaccessible to those who do not have coding or math skills.

This misconception is particularly prevalent among women. The reality is that many positions in tech are non-technical and accessible to a wide range of skill sets. International tech companies (such as startups and scaleups) often offer a more straightforward pathway for immigrants to find employment, as well as opportunities to contribute to global go-to-market strategies. However, due to the misconception that a tech job equates to coding or heavy mathematical skills, many women, in particular, overlook this industry. This not only limits their job prospects but also means the tech industry misses out on a diverse range of talents and perspectives.


On your blog, you talk about Resilience in entrepreneurship and you also speak about failing as an entrepreneur when you were younger. Can you share a story of something that didn’t work out in your favor and what you learnt from it?

My journey in entrepreneurship, especially in the early stages, was marked by a series of learning experiences that stemmed from various challenges. Coming from a small town without access to entrepreneurial mentors or a support network, I navigated through a path filled with mistakes that are common for many starting out in this field. My experiences ranged from setting prices too low, hiring the wrong people, trusting unreliable partners, to dealing with angel investors who micromanaged excessively by calling me in the middle of the night.

One of the most striking examples was in my first agency venture. Lacking a network or connections, I scoured various platforms, including discussion forums, for potential clients. In the first few years, I encountered significant financial setbacks due to trusting clients who ultimately did not pay. The total revenue lost amounted to €60K, a substantial sum that impacted the business significantly. This experience taught me the hard lesson of the importance of conducting thorough due diligence, such as checking credit scores, before engaging with clients.

However, the most important takeaway from these experiences is my perspective on mistakes and failures. I view them not as setbacks but as integral parts of the learning process. This mindset is exemplified in my recent endeavors with my NGO. After over 100 rejections for funding applications, I continued to adapt and learn from each 'no', leading to a pivotal 'yes'. This success would not have been possible without the resilience to keep going and the willingness to pivot based on feedback and rejections.

These experiences have profoundly shaped my approach to entrepreneurship. They underscore the importance of persistence, learning from mistakes, and the constant need to adapt and evolve. It's through these challenges that I've learned the true meaning of resilience and the value of turning every setback into a stepping stone for future success.

Of all your achievements, which one do you cherish the most?

The achievement I cherish the most isn't a conventional business milestone or a tangible accolade. Instead, it's the understanding and realization of what makes my current moment and day fulfilling. The ability to shape my life and work in a way that allows me to do exactly what I want each day is immensely valuable to me. This includes the opportunity to collaborate with intelligent, inspiring individuals who challenge and stimulate my thinking.

I believe that this setup, where I'm able to align my daily activities with my passions and values, creates an environment conducive to continuous, meaningful accomplishments. These achievements are not the primary focus; rather, they are a byproduct of engaging in work that is significant and impactful to others.

This perspective on life and work is a profound achievement in itself. It reflects a deep understanding of personal fulfillment and the importance of making a positive impact.

It's about creating a life where every day is rewarding, not just because of specific achievements, but because of the overall journey and the people I share it with.


On a lighter note, we learnt that you are an aspiring Neapolitan Pizza chef. So, where in your opinion can one find the best Neapolitan pizza north of Naples?

As someone who got into pizza during COVID-19, my own approach is quite immersive, involving days of preparation, crafting fermented dough from scratch, and experimenting with unique, seasonal toppings. Currently, ingredients like butternut squash and ground artichoke, which I've grown myself, are central to my recipes and experiments. So, if you're looking for high-quality Neapolitan pizza and not traveling to Naples, my backyard is an excellent destination!

Speaking of Naples, it's a place I wholeheartedly recommend for its vibrant culture and the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades the city. Naples is also known for its connection to Pulcinella, a classic character in Italian folklore, often represented in statues around the city. Pulcinella embodies the cleverness, resourcefulness, and humor that are characteristic of the Neapolitan spirit, reflecting a kind of growth hacking and hustle mindset.

However, if visiting my backyard for pizza experiments isn’t an option, I would suggest checking out Capperi in Helsinki. Their dedication to authentic Italian cuisine is commendable. While their Neapolitan pizza is a must-try, I also highly recommend their arancino with four cheeses. It’s a delightful culinary experience that goes beyond just pizza and offers a taste of genuine Italian flavors.

Mari Luukkainen will give a keynote talk “Inclusive Investing: Building a Diverse Future in Venture Capital” on Day 1 of the sTARTUp Day festival on January 25.
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