“I’m a loud, extroverted Colombian woman,” laughs Helsinki Incubators mentor Elena Fadul when asked to introduce herself. The bubbly entrepreneurship researcher, tripling as a luxury brand developer and a mother of two girls, indeed has a lot to say in the hour allotted to the Teams call interview. Having spent over fifteen years in Finland, ten of them within the world of entrepreneurship, Fadul has gained a lot of perspective in the field.
“I’m in the process of completing my PhD in entrepreneurship at Aalto University, in which I focus on the role of intuition in founding team formation. It’s quite psychological in nature,” Fadul describes. Besides this, Fadul is currently working on her fashion brand Inca Noir, which highlights and celebrates the work of indigenous master artisans of Colombia, as well as their cultures and worldviews. Inca Noir was inspired by Fadul’s curiosity towards luxury products and the artistry that the industry is based on. “I came to wonder why my home country of Colombia, despite being such a culturally rich country with its immense heritage of craftsmanship, is so underrepresented in the luxury industry, compared to, say, Italy or France,” she says.
Elena Fadul has gone the whole nine yards with the University of Helsinki Incubators. She started off as a participant in the first round of the social impact incubator TREMOR with Inca Noir, after which she was invited to continue as a mentor in the second cohort of the bio- and circular economy incubator Biosphere, now well over halfway finished. “I’ve come full circle in a sense. I’d consider myself well trained in the theoretical side of things, given my studies and experience. Regardless, I don’t really like using the word mentor about myself. Rather, I’m just someone who’s able to provide guidance and maybe bring something useful to the table. I’m still on the entrepreneurial journey myself, and I know it’s not an easy one. I see myself as a supporter, not so much as a mentor,” she explains.
Fadul considers her expertise to lie in her love for brand building and storytelling, aspects integral in her work so far with Inca Noir. “I’m into consumer products and the stories and people connected to them. Our unique skill as humans is to create beautiful objects with purpose and meaning. These are the things that appeal to me the most,” she says emphatically.
The crystallisation of a clear and authentic brand, Fadul explains, was perhaps her most valuable takeaway from her participation in TREMOR. “The original brand behind Inca Noir was about responsible fashion and sustainability. But as we discovered, fashion consumers are not that interested in sustainability, because the function of fashion is not about being sustainable, but rather about identity and beauty. Because of this, the initial brand didn't feel genuine to us, to what we wanted to do.”
What also struck Fadul was meeting the indigenous artisans in Colombia and seeing that they aren’t people who need empowering. “They’re not starving. They have good lives and are content with what they have. They’re proud of who they are. They can even go fish for lobster every day if they want to. This made me think, ‘What does luxury even mean?’” reflects Fadul. She now knows that Inca Noir is not about lifting anyone out of poverty, even though the artisans have their share of challenges. Equipped with a deeper understanding of the products and their makers, her brand now centres the mastery of craftsmanship and the many years of training that go into accumulating it. “TREMOR helped me pinpoint the fact that Inca Noir is not about charity. It’s about beauty and humanity. It’s a celebration of the humanist and artistic capabilities that we share.”
In Biosphere, Fadul has gotten the chance to pass on her insights about work with indigenous artisans. A perfect match between mentor and mentees was struck between Fadul and team Umola, consisting of Satyaki Roy and Jahnavee Baruah, whose project also focuses on spotlighting indigenous communities, but in India. “The team is trying to figure out how to make a business out of their love for this indigenous knowledge, and it’s been very rewarding for me to mentor them because we share that common goal,” Fadul says. “They’re very convinced about their values, which is a good thing for their brand. But they’re still figuring out how to package that brand. It’s exciting to see where the Umola project goes, I do think they’re onto something.”
Another meaningful aspect of mentoring for Fadul has been connecting with her fellow mentors, especially Umola co-mentor Martin Quanch. “He, too, comes from a humanist background where he wants to do things for the greater good. We actually had this really profound talk about Inca Noir, where he challenged me to explain why we need another fashion brand. You know, why take part in producing anything, using up the planet’s limited resources?” Fadul says. “The conversation helped me dig up my core value, that is, the love I have for the human ability to create things with our hands.”
She continues: “Inca Noir products are not mass produced but made by individuals who are weaving millennia-old philosophies into them. These communities don't print books. Knowledge is passed down orally and embedded into the objects. That's why it's so important to me to sustain the physical aspect of the product.” At this point, she gets up to retrieve a beautiful red and off-white basket woven out of strands of a palm tree called Werregué, native to the Pacific rainforest. “I managed to break this when I opened it with a box cutter. Luckily, I can send it back to the artisan to be fixed.” Fadul references one of her all-time favourite quotes by Robert Dumas, who led the luxury house Hermès from 1951 to 1978: “Luxury is that which you can repair.”
Elena Fadul feels that her time at Helsinki Incubators has been hugely beneficial for her growth as an entrepreneur and a professional. “These programmes are great for building bridges and connections in the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem. Instead of doing a whole Master’s in entrepreneurship like I did, you get to fast-track your solution and learn a lot in a short period of time. You get a chance to pilot your first idea and see if it has potential,” she describes. “And speaking as a mentor, it’s like having children and watching them grow. It’s very gratifying. When you decide to become a mentor, you do so because you know that you have something to offer, something to give back. It’s a community based on altruism, wanting to see others succeed, and that’s wonderful,” she says warmly.
Fadul tells how working with the indigenous cultures of Colombia has moulded her own worldview. An integral element in their philosophies is approaching life with a sense of harmony and balance, with an emphasis on allowing things to happen when they need to happen. Fadul explains that working in fashion, she’s used to always having to think one step ahead with seasons, always rushing to achieve results. “But I learned to have faith in that things happen when the universe wants them to happen. You shouldn’t try to rush things,” she says. “This goes against everything you learn in many standard entrepreneurial circles, of always needing to go faster and grow bigger. But this philosophy has worked better for me, and it’s given me a lot of comfort and internal peace.”
Fadul also emphasises that experience is at the core of growth, saying that all you’re ever able to ever do is act upon the knowledge you have and get out there—even if it means learning things the hard way. “You need to have the courage to make your voice heard. You can learn to code, you can learn to do marketing, you can learn communications. Or you can hire people to do these things. But a sort of inner strength, that’s something you need to cultivate and nurture. That’s what’s going to help you forward.”
Fadul smiles. “We have this saying in Colombia, más sabe el diablo por viejo, que por diablo. Loosely translated, it means that the devil knows better not because he’s the devil, but because he’s old. You learn things by gaining experience; with age comes wisdom,” she says. “This is why these programmes can be so beneficial. You have all these people who’ve done every mistake possible but who are now all the wiser because of them, and who want to pass that knowledge on.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Although it’s perhaps best to leave the weaving of knowledge to the Colombian master artisans.
The University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators, provides support and opportunities for bold thinkers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area interested in taking their ideas and turning them into impactful ventures. Interested in getting involved in our pre-incubators and incubators? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on when the next calls open.