Katja Ojala and Anna Talasniemi met twenty years ago while spending their summer working in Seurasaari, one of the more popular islands in the Helsinki Archipelago. The two hit it off immediately – talking about a better world and dreaming of the world’s best sauna. For twenty years, the two friends would occasionally return to that summertime dream.
“We eventually decided that there has to be a sauna on Seurasaari!” Talasniemi excitedly explains when reminiscing of the 2018 meeting which led to the pair finally embarking on their journey.
Now their dream is finally close to becoming a reality, and the two are one planning permission away from building their dream public sauna on Seurasaari. All that’s needed now is the City’s stamp of approval. Talasniemi and Ojala both love saunas, and together they want to modernise Finnish sauna culture by bringing old traditions to the present day. With their project, they’re looking to bring equality of expression, ecology, and take into account accessibility and gender diversity in ways that current sauna culture doesn’t.
“The idea combines a deep knowledge of tradition with a vision of the future,” says Talasniemi, who wrote her Master’s thesis on saunas and nudity at the University of Helsinki while on sabbatical from her position as the director of the Kone Foundation. She has continued her research in the field and is currently working on a Doctoral thesis at the University of Jyväskylä.
Originally, Talasniemi and Ojala applied to SÄRÖ/FRACTURE because they wanted to create a sauna-related consultancy. Having entered and lost a competition to design a sauna in Seurasaari, the pair were now looking for new avenues for their beloved idea. To their surprise, in autumn 2022, the team learned that the winner of the sauna competition had withdrawn from the project. This piece of news, combined with the boost they got from the SÄRÖ/FRACTURE programme, led to the pair suddenly finding themselves with renewed enthusiasm and an extra dose of courage to take their project forward.
“Let’s do it, damn it! Let’s do this thing!” Ojala recalls saying following the spark that the programme had given the duo.
Ojala and Talasniemi both say that they learned much-needed business skills thanks to the programme, as well as gaining confidence as entrepreneurs. They also thanked the programme’s organisers for putting so much emphasis on social impact.
“It was easy to take part in the programme as graduate of the humanities,” Talasniemi explained. “We’re not doing this sauna project for the money, but because we want our activities to have a positive impact on culture and society.”
Overall, the duo approaches entrepreneurship both critically and with curiosity. As Ojala says, strongly growth-oriented entrepreneurship and the discussion around it can be off-putting for those in the social sciences or the humanities. As a result, many people may see entrepreneurship as some kind of bogeyman that takes up all your time and leads only to ruin. She hopes that in the future, people might see entrepreneurship as containing a broad range of possible approaches.
What the Seurasauna team finds fascinating about entrepreneurship is the freedom to work on things that feel meaningful, relevant, and important to them.
“The sauna project is completely driven by what we are interested in and what we want to do in life," says Ojala, who studied at the University of Helsinki and works as the head of communications at Grafia, the Association of Visual Communication Designers in Finland.
Progress, Next Steps & Media Attention
Recently, the pair has founded the Seurasauna association, which in turn opens up new possibilities for taking the project forward. The hope is to run a crowdfunding campaign for the sauna and attract a community of like-minded people around the project.
“We don’t yet know in what form Seurasauna will eventually become reality, meaning if we’ll eventually set up a limited liability company for the project, or carry on as an association, but in any case we’ve gained a lot of useful insights and knowledge so far,” Talasniemi summarises.
After taking part in the SÄRÖ/FRACTURE programme, the pair have continued onwards to the Helsinki Incubators’ TREMOR incubator programme, where they’ve kept working on their project. Progress is ongoing, and the project was even recently covered in the nation’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.
The call for the 2023 batch is now open until 22 March, with the programme running from 31 March to 30 May. You can find more information and instructions on how to apply here.
SÄRÖ/FRACTURE will be held both in-person and in English once or twice a week from 31 March to 30 May at various locations at the University of Helsinki's City Centre campus and elsewhere. The programme is powered by the City of Helsinki.