Helsinki, Finland

Immigrant Businesses get a Helping Hand


September 26, 2011

Supporting immigrant entrepreneurs before problems arise.

Supporting immigrant entrepreneurs has become high on city agendas around the world as studies show that immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than native-born citizens. EnterpriseHelsinki, a free business counselling service to the city’s entrepreneurs, has the proof – 35% of their clients are immigrants, triple the actual size of their population.

Another reason to support immigrant entrepreneurs? A City of Helsinki report states these businesses have longer ‘lifespans’ than those started by members of the ‘original’ population.

Although EnterpriseHelsinki has worked with newcomers since it opened in 1993 (as NYP Business Services), it has also added new streams of specialized services to meet the needs of such entrepreneurs, particularly as Helsinki’s immigrant population has grown. Out of a population of a little more than half a million, almost 8% of the population consist of foreign nationals.

Beyond ‘pizza and kebab’ businesses

Similar to other city-led business counseling services such as Barcelona Activa and Vienna’s Mingo, EnterpriseHelsinki (run by the city’s Economic Development Unit) is a one-stop service centre where companies with growth potential get all the information they need to start and run a company in Finland through personal consultation and online business tools.

One of the aims of EnterpriseHelsinki is to help immigrant entrepreneurs before they encounter problems within Finnish business culture which is known for its bureaucratic nature. Although they start more businesses than native-born Finns, they are seen to seek help only once they have encountered problems. That is why it offers business counseling by connecting new entrepreneurs with experts, free of charge, in Swedish, English, Russian, Estonian, German and Arabic.

Beyond providing confidential counseling and guides to entrepreneurship (as well as a multilingual website), the agency offers various classes and workshops on different topics regarding starting a business, mainly in Finnish, but also in English and Russian.

In this way, EnterpriseHelsinki is able to cater beyond the aging stereotype of immigrant businesses – the ‘pizza and kebab’ entrepreneurs.

“Immigrants just don’t establish restaurants or cleaning companies,” says Elie El-Khouri, Project Manager of Enterprise Helsinki. “Now they start up IT companies just like Finns.”

A different kind of entrepreneurship course

In 2001, Enterprise Helsinki set up an entrepreneurship course that catered to unemployed immigrants who had sufficient knowledge of Finnish and an idea of a potential business. Held in Finnish, the free full-time course runs seven weeks, 20 students at a time. Participants go through topics such as business economics, marketing, sales, legal issues, developing a business plan and how to set up a company. They can also have key concepts explained in English and Russian

Each student has a business advisor throughout the duration of the course with access to counseling in languages such as English, German, Swedish, Russian, Estonian, French or Arabic. This gives participants the additional opportunity to ensure they understand the concepts discussed during the lectures. Potential entrepreneurs can apply for the program through local job centres and are able to receive some extra compensation to their unemployment benefit while they study.

Part of the emphasis of the course is to prepare immigrants to do business in Finnish. They work on their language skills and learn about local business culture.

“In Finland, if you don’t speak Finnish, it is difficult to run a business here,” says El-Khouri, who often advises immigrants to improve their language skills as they study entrepreneurship.


In the past five years, EnterpriseHelsinki has further grown as an organization, first working with the Regional Business Services for Immigrants to include neighbouring cities to its work; then becoming part of the EU-project ‘Multicultural Business Services,’ which is now known as ‘Become an Entrepreneur in Helsinki.’

The program continues to grow. In 2010, 765 migrants used the business counseling services (34% of total clients) while 270 new businesses were established. By the fall of 2011, EnterpriseHelsinki had held 22 of its seven-week Entrepreneurship courses. In 2010, 40% of its immigrant clients were women.

Now the City of Helsinki has expanded its economic strategy to encourage even more immigrants to start businesses, recognizing the difficulty of newcomers to find jobs without adequate Finnish.

Making it Work for You:

  • Provide first language support in as many ways as possible.
  • Work with other agencies to broaden outreach.
  • Include workshops that explain the intricacies of local and national business culture.

For this Good Idea contact:

Elie El-Khouri, EnterpriseHelsinki
P.O.Box 37 ( Kaisaniemenkatu 6 A )
Helsinki 00099 , Finland,
Phone: +358 310 25708