Be resilient and do not think that everything has to happen instantly: Tiia Sammallahti, CEO whatCharity

I do not believe in pre-decided careers or journeys. Life takes you to amazing places, jobs, friendships if you are open-minded, curious, allow yourself to be passionate and find your true purpose. Education is important, but the point is to educate yourself for YOU. So choose a subject, which truly interests you and which you are keen to apply.

Now at 47 as I review what seems a truly varied and diverse 30 year career – everything I have done, every opportunity I have taken and the firm belief to trust yourself, take calculated risks and be innovative. It is only when I look back I can connect the dots of my experience to my current path that I’m truly passionate in driving forward.

Early Ambitions

I always had a strong work ethic – from the age of 13 working in snack bars before and after school and then later on in restaurants, catering companies and night clubs. Inspired by the big hospitality chains, I studied Food Economics at the University of Helsinki, focusing on the hospitality industry and food marketing. However, two years into my degree opportunity knocked and I was hired as a full-time manager/assistant general manager in Planet Hollywood Helsinki and decided to put my studies on hold to pursue this for two years.

Experimenting, building a unique skill set and strong networks

I resumed studying for a while but was offered a full-time brand manager job at the second largest alcohol company in the world, Allied Domecq Spirits&Wine. I worked for three years promoting Beefeater gin, Ballantine´s whiskey, Bristol Cream sherry and several other spirit and wine brands in Finland through events, promotion, sponsorship and PR. I loved my work which enabled me to travel and I received some great benefits.

I had my first child during this position and finished my BSc studies on my maternity leave. After my first child was born I realized however, that my career progress would be limited if I was not willing to travel as some higher positions would have required. I left to join the ‘experience focused’ marketing agency Momentum Helsinki, working with large food brands on events and business training programmes for young chefs and creating barista competitions. I became quite an expert in PR and B2B engagement planning.

After three years with the company I went freelance and worked with diverse set of brands in fashion, art and cuisine. I also handled projects for brands related to urban culture at a reduced cost, sometimes for free. Pro bono work for inspirational people and rising urban brands was fascinating and the principle was to give 50% of my time to paid work and 50% to the projects that helped someone out or helped me gain new skills and contacts.

I also worked in property development, planning a shopping centre concept and some restaurant concepts. I had very experience-rich three years and built a highly valuable network. I was invited so join a luxury hotel, restaurant, shopping centre and spa chain as a Communication Director and partner in their property development sister-company. All this experience inspired me to write a book about service business concept development, which was published in 2009.

My own “resourceraising” charity

The birth of my second child inspired me to carry out more charity work. I had already scouted a Helsinki based charity which played a vital role in helping depressed, teenage and drug addict mothers in the area. I learned how they not only needed more money, but were lacking in many skills such as marketing, lobbying and taking care of their properties. I decided to do something substantial to help thanks to my experience in these areas.

There was also another issue that really, really bugged me. Me and many other highly skilled professional women in our early 30´s were left out from certain male circles that was impacting our roles. One night, over drinks at a bar with two ladies in the same position as me, we decided to create an invite-only members network for women of various ages in different fields of business, who wanted to form a circle of professionals and who would help and support each other in business – for real.

The concept consisted of educational seminar events, social nights, and charity work for the charity I mentioned earlier. We branded the network well, our events and operations were all classy and well-run, but we did not spend any money on it as we had all the connections to get things for free. Through this network we were able to renovate the charity’s properties, helped their beneficiaries with gifts throughout the year and supported the charity with lobbying their funding needs from the county council, just to name some examples.  We just celebrated the 16th Anniversary of this network, which is still going strong!

After running the network for 5 years, I could see the impact we made on the charity but we ourselves were changed by our newfound sense of purpose. Also, 50 well-connected business women helping each other and doing business together is a powerful and inspiring thing.

The seed for whatCharity was sown

One day, at the end of 2007, I had an epiphany from this collaborative approach. I realized there should be a digital platform where every person and company could find a charity to help, whether the available resource would be money, skills, non-skilled volunteering, goods or services. I started to take this idea further, however after the global economy crashed in Spring 2008, it became too hard to set up a start-up – but I decided to hold on to my idea. I knew I was done with high class brands and VIP events. I wanted to utilize my extensive business, branding, marketing top level exec skills for the greater good.

Charity work experience

I contacted a huge Finnish charity (6000 employees), operating in tens of cities and towns, but who were hardly known due to their organizational structure and lack of branding. I worked with them for 6 months with minimal compensation, introducing new ways of communicating and collaborating with local and national companies. I could see how difficult it was for a charitable organization adopt a new, more commercial way of thinking and communication. Honestly, my ‘doer mentality’ and speed was not compatible with the culture of the organisation, so decided to take a financially and otherwise a more suitable challenge and worked for several years in a construction and property development business.

Power of unconditional support

My dream to make whatCharity a reality never left me. I had my third child in 2013 at the age of 43 and realized that 1) I do not want to continue on a career path which does not really allow me to make a difference in this world 2) I do not wish to live in Finland and visit the same sand pits and nurseries I went to with my first two children.  So, I packed up my epiphany-idea, my family and husband. We sold everything and moved to the UK in August 2014. I dedicated my first year here to getting to know the UK market as a full-time MBA student at the University of Surrey. The time was NOW.

Setting up a start-up is hard as at first you literally have only a power point presentation and an idea which will change the world – as does everybody else in the start-up scene. You need to take things much deeper in planning, testing and researching the concept. I invested my own time and money into this work but hesitated to set up a company as I was scared of becoming a tech entrepreneur literally with no tech experience at all.

Again the power of networks helped. I joined the female network organization, which inspires women to dream big and reach for their goals. After few months of unconditional peer-to-peer support and meeting with charity industry operators, I was convinced I do not only want to make whatCharity a reality, but I NEED to. I made a conscious decision to ditch my fears and set up a company.

Becoming a tech start-up entrepreneur

I found a co-founder who is literally everything I am not. He is a tech and start-up professional, and our work together is seamless. We both have our strengths and the rest of the stuff is handled by marvellous freelancers. The constant willingness to learn is the key, which means I have become quite techy – believe it or not!

We achieved funding last year and our launch in March 2018 was a well-planned, beautiful process as mine and my co-founder’s experience is so varied that we are ready to handle all aspects of business and are not easily surprised.

Having my dream come true after 10 years of the initial idea is truly a wonderful moment. Please see my interview in London LIVE TV on our launch date:

We are now looking for the next round of funding and are preparing for our next stage of development.

I strongly feel that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing now. I’m passionately driven seeing succeed in making a difference within the charity sector. Our concept applies to many other markets, so I hope someday we can work on a global level. The more people that are connected with charities and find it easier to give, the more charities get. This leads to a big change on a societal level. That is my dream and I am living it!

I thoroughly recommend the ‘mixing and matching’ approach for younger professionals. If you wish to gain skills and network for real you cannot just solely concentrate on a steady income, stay in one area of business and work with only with big brands. Your spirit and perspective grows from innovative, controversial and disruptive people and their ventures – and these people rarely work in big companies.  Don’t wait for the return straight away. Every kind gesture and generous act will be returned later – I promise.

I hope you dare to make your dreams come true too as I know you can, if you just believe in yourself, be resilient and do not think that everything has to happen instantly. Life will lead you to it.


Tiia is a 47-year-old brand and concept developer with 30 years of experience in hospitality, FMCG and the property development sector. She has non-exec board member experience from associations and city of Helsinki owned property development company with 70M€ budget to renovate historic Helsinki area. Tiia is leading the charitytech start-up, a social impact company with a strong ethos to connect individuals and companies with charities in more efficient and engaging way.

Be resilient and do not think that everything has to happen instantly: Tiia Sammallahti, CEO whatCharity

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