Incubator Blogs — Mentor Soma Sarkar: “It's Important to Get a Good Business Perspective at the Product-Building Stage”

Welcome to another edition of our interview series where we introduce the mentors behind the University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes at Helsinki Incubators. This time we’d love to introduce you to Soma Sarkar, Head of Cloud Platforms in Nokia Mobile Networks and mentor extraordinaire.

Soma Sarkar is passionate about building successful teams and steering them through complex challenges and environments and has several years under her belt doing this at Nokia.

Since becoming a mentor at the University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators, Soma recognises a clear uniting factor between large corporations and the startup world.

That is the need to have a clear understanding of the value proposition of your solution or product very early on.

"If I'm wearing my engineering hat, then it's okay, let's build a great product, but the reality is that if you cannot make a financially viable business out of it, then it doesn't matter how good your product is. This is just as applicable to my world, too. We may want to put hundreds of things into our product and make it the best product ever, but at the same time, somebody needs to buy that. If I have invested a lot of Nokia's money now to build a product which nobody else wants to buy, then the shareholders and investors will not be very happy."

Being the daughter of two highly regarded university professors, Soma developed a natural curiosity for science, eventually leading to an interest in electronics and communication engineering.

"Back in the '90s, tech wasn't everywhere like today, but telecommunications caught my eye as a promising industry, and diving into coding felt like the right move. That's how I kicked off my career in telecom software," Soma says.

Soma started her journey at Siemens Communications in the Mobile Networks business, which later became Nokia Siemens Networks after a merger with Nokia in 2007. In 2013, Nokia acquired 100 per cent of the company, and Soma has been with them ever since.

Prior to lending her support as a mentor to the University of Helsinki incubator programmes, Soma has been a coach and mentor at Nokia for several years, as well as getting involved with Suomen Mentorit.

A welcome change of pace for Soma at the Helsinki Incubators programme was the diversity of the startups she worked with, spanning different industries, and she says it gave her a good chance to dive into previously unchartered territory.

"At Nokia, we are trying to solve problems and innovate for high performance networks. However, here at Helsinki Incubators, the use cases I worked with spanned the food, real estate, robotics and medical sectors. I was fascinated with how each use case builds on similar technologies. Technology and connectivity are key enablers for such productivity improvements."

Giving Thanks By Paying It Forward

Soma still has people she looks up to and asks for occasional advice, one of whom once set a powerful example for her to follow.

"Being a very senior Executive Vice President, my mentor was, as to be expected, very busy, for which I would profusely thank him for taking the time to speak with me. One day, he said to stop with the thank yous and pay it forward by mentoring somebody else. That stayed with me," she says.

Soma has worked as a rotating mentor for Robosharing (nowadays known as Rollyy), Ankerias, and Three Mushketeers, as well as being assigned to SOPIA. However, she points out that discussions between each of them has happened at more or less the same frequency, so all teams got just as much love.

She adds, "Honestly, I started to forget whether each team was on a rotating mentorship basis or the assigned one!”

While Soma brings a wealth of expertise and experience (that's why she is a mentor, of course!), she is open about saying when something may be out of her range. However, mentees need not worry about being left high and dry, as Soma has a rich network of connections to draw in these cases.

"Naturally, there are sometimes things where I need help to provide that, so if something is outside of my particular expertise level, I will say so and work with the teams to connect them to an external source of expertise,” she explains.

"For example, the SOPIA team had questions about how to build their business case. While I could share how we build business cases in Nokia, such as preparing investment plans and planning operational costs, I thought it would be best for them to contact a financial expert who could provide more information relevant to their specific case," Soma adds.

In contrast, the Robosharing team's solution was directly linked to Soma’s expertise as the robots use 5G connectivity to do the delivery. However, as she notes, the technology backbone often shares the same principles if you look past the solution and the industry vertical for which it aims to solve problems.

"In software development, the principle of the language and how you use it is the same, whether you're using the language in the context of a telecom product or a real estate product,” she adds.

Even though Soma has spent her career in large corporations (with the accompanying support structure of finances and personnel), she explains that she has an understanding of what many startups go through and can see things from their point of view.

"One of the best experiences of my life was working in a new team within the newly merged Nokia Siemens Networks roughly 15 years ago, where we had to develop a product pretty much from scratch with no outside guidance. There was a lot of trial and error and going back to the drawing board multiple times. We got there in the end, so along with the feeling of achievement, the experience definitely helped forge an empathy with what startups can go through in that aspect,” she emphasises.

Complete End-To-End Solution Mentoring

Soma says that her Helsinki Incubators mentoring experience has been somewhat different from what she did at Nokia, “The mentoring work that I have done there is more oriented towards career development, whereas here, I'm mentoring more from somebody's product or idea and how they can make it like a business proposal and how it can eventually make revenue.”

"That, however, is something that I really enjoyed because I also learned a great deal about how startups work, how they come up with ideas, and how they build on that, which is quite different to my experience working in big organisations as I'm used to having a structure around everything,” she says.

Soma says the mix of people from different demographics and perspectives also helped hone her coaching and leadership skills, and she feels that she got just as much out of the experience.

"When I'm listening to some of them and the kind of challenges they're facing, it also helps me to reflect on how I would handle similar situations and learn from that experience, so mentoring is a learning experience for me as much as the teams I mentor. Still, it's so gratifying to see that the other person is benefitting too,” she adds proudly.

Even though this particular NEXUS programme has concluded, Soma feels that her teams still need more work to define their value proposition clearly and be ready to pitch to investors.

"Each startup varies in maturity levels, with some having a solid understanding and tested products while others are still figuring things out. Not all founders began their journey simultaneously or progressed at the same pace. However, I saw that the teams I worked with are very passionate about what they are doing and are already subject matter experts in their respective fields, which is a huge advantage and gives me confidence that they have a good idea to build on. While they excel in domain knowledge, they may require technology, finance, and process support to realise their full potential,” she points out.

Soma is glowing in her praise of the people at Helsinki Incubators and the programmes they facilitate and says it's a rare (but welcome) example of inclusion and diversity.

"It's a fantastic environment for individuals from various backgrounds, geographies, age groups, and experience and gives opportunities for those who might not otherwise have access to industry insights or experts while studying. By providing a platform that makes experts accessible to students, it bridges this gap and fosters growth,” she concludes.

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. Keen to join our community of curious and motivated doers? Read more about and apply to our thematic incubator programmes kicking off this spring:

NEXUS — For Ideators in Deep Tech, AI & Sustainability. Apply by 14 April!

Biosphere — For Impactful Solutions in Bio- & Circular Economy. Apply by 1 May!

TREMOR — For Changemakers in Society, Education, Wellbeing, Communities & Law. Call Open 5 March!