Driving in Slush

My Slush certificate came in. It states that I did good in my volunteer position. While I agree with them that I was, indeed, excellent and maybe even surpassed my capabilities as a member of the Drivers team, I do feel that I should mention some things in regard to Slush and volunteering there in general.

Slush volunteers in 2019
(Photo by: Riikka Vaahtera)

The motivation for creating an entrepreneurial community that grew to be Slush emerged when Nokia went bankrupt. Suddenly, the Finns were left with a grim outlook. Their main employer simply was not there anymore. In addition, the population was growing old and the youth were facing an increasing burden of supporting their parents.

The only way out was to encourage entrepreneurship – creating their own jobs – and to invite foreign workforce into the country to pay the taxes that support the ageing population. So that is what the Finns did. They created an ecosystem of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and business people, and made the cold and dark Finland an attractive place to be if you were looking for innovation. Over time, this community turned into a huge non-profit organisation and business conference known as Slush.

The Drivers volunteer team in 2019

Every year, Slush seeks out volunteers from all over the world to make the conference a reality. The volunteers are divided into teams. There is the Sustainability team, the Backstage team, the Construction team, the Catering team, the Cloakroom team, and many more. The best teams to be in are the Drivers and the Buddies. Both of those teams get to meet the high-end fancy people – the speakers, pop stars of Slush. As a Buddy you are basically a personal assistant to one of the speakers. As a Driver you are a chauffeur to them and their Buddies. Sometimes you get lucky and the speaker pays attention to you. They may ask you about your studies or hobbies and the motivation behind becoming a Driver for Slush. Sometimes they have business calls, friends, or a highly talkative Buddy instead, so you get less attention than you had hoped for. But still more than being in the Sustainability team standing next to a garbage can all day.

Waiting for a pickup

However, due to the tremendous size of the Drivers volunteer team, badly trained Buddies who are not aware of how to book the Drivers, and the disorganisation plus competition at the Drivers’ headquarters, you get less bookings than you wish you had. This means that most of the time you end up being almost anywhere else but the fancy Volvo you are given during your shift. Such huge amount of free time obviously gives one a great opportunity to explore and enjoy the conference during their shift, which cannot be said about most of the other positions that have a busier schedule and are tied to a certain location. On the other hand, I went in expecting to be able to drive a nice car around the town, meet important speakers, and be away from the crowded and loud conference centre, so clearly from that perspective this can be seen as a downside.

This abundance of free time during one’s shift can only be said for the lowest level of Driver volunteers, though. If you are a team lead, you spend most of your time in the Drivers headquarters being ready to book rides and send your Drivers out asap. In this case, the lowest position is the most flexible and chill.

Sweet wheels for volunteers

Another thing I have mixed feelings about is the Matchmaking app. Slush created this solution to enable people with similar interests find each other. For example, business owners can meet up with investors and tech teams with potential developers. It is almost like Tinder, but without swiping (fortunately or unfortunately). You go through profiles that the system recommends you based on your stated interests. You can chat with others and agree on a meeting time and location.

On the one hand, this makes it extremely easy to find what you are looking for, giving you a better experience from Slush. Maybe a promising start-up founder finds their first angel investor that way and becomes a successful company thanks to that?

Info team volunteers enjoying the multi-layered venue and creative lighting

On the other hand, to me, random encounters with people often carry more value. The aforementioned way feels too forced, too transactional: “I am here to get this and this I must get, no matter what.” Personally, I enjoy bumping into someone accidentally, either by sitting next to them during lunch or them asking me to take a picture. If it is meant to be, a random encounter like this triggers a conversation on some topic or another, and you learn much more about the other person as a person, not as a targeted potential value-creator for your personal interests. Creating relationships should be natural and I believe that the best businesses also start the same way – when good people find each other by fate, not by a matchmaking algorithm.

One thing to take into account is the accommodation. During Slush, Helsinki will be flooded with volunteers, speakers, and conference attendees from all over the world. Every decent hotel, hostel, and AirBnB will be booked. The prices get inflated and as a non-paid volunteer it can be difficult to manage both the travel there and the accommodation. A pro tip is to combine your Slush with the biggest European hackathon Junction happening around the same time. Often, Junction offers travel grants which will help with the travel costs. For accommodation, book early, or have a friend whose couch you can crash on for Slush days.

Tuxed up business people ignoring the sandbox and doing boring grown-up stuff instead

Lastly, Slush venue looks amazing. It is big, divided into multiple sections. This year, there was even a (not-so-)secret garden with waterfalls and a sandbox. There are temporary structures, stages, multilevel meeting and working surfaces, tremendous amounts of stage lights (although it still feels very dark) and all in all a huge amount of finances and effort put into the construction. I happened to go by when they were breaking it all up after having built it for only 2-3 days. I could not stop thinking about the waste of resources that went in it. All that money that could have been spent on supporting the businesses. It just feels so commercial, but I suppose investors and business people like their shallow pretty-looking venues and fancy decorations. Maybe one day I will understand the reasoning behind it all.

Packing up

One of the speakers who I had the pleasure of driving to the airport, mentioned something along the same lines. The speakers are supposed to come to Slush out of their own goodwill, pay for their hotel out of their own goodwill, cover all expenses themselves out of their own goodwill. Once they are there, they are presented with all that waste of money and feel slightly disappointed. I am sure it would have been possible to reallocate the costs on the venue decorations just a bit to make the speakers feel more appreciated.

In the end, the Finns have made something great out of the downfall of Nokia. They have taken matters in their own hands and came out of it successfully. Nevertheless, from this volunteer’s point of view, Slush still has a long way to go. Maybe even on a reverse gear?


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