Alumna Veera Sylvius went from being a physicist to a managing director

According to Veera Sylvius, an alumna of the University of Helsinki, you have to have the courage to look for and accept your strengths, instead of restricting yourself to what those around you consider valuable.

In 1994 Veera Sylvius was weighing up different study paths. She was interested in comparative literature and music studies, but theoretical physics beat them to the punch.

“What I liked in physics was that it has clear rules and formulas devoid of any ambiguousness – or that’s what I initially thought,” Sylvius says, smiling.

“My first year of studies was fascinating. We talked about Einstein’s work and theories of space-time distortions in popular terms,” Sylvius reminisces.

“The knockout came the next year, and with it the real hard work! I was lucky to also have time for other student activities. Limes, the student association of Faculty of Science students, became an important way to wind down that provided me with lifelong friendships.”

Between the Earth and the Sun

When Sylvius was completing advanced studies at the Department of Physics in the late 1990s, a professorship in space physics was established at the unit. Whereas astronomy looks far away to the galaxies, space physics studies phenomena occurring between the Earth and Sun, such as space weather and magnetic storms.

Sylvius decided to try out the field and completed an examination on the basics.

“After the examination, I received a personal email from Professor Hannu Koskinen, welcoming me to study space physics. The examination went quite well.”

Sylvius considers the recently retired Koskinen a teacher without a peer.

“Hannu most certainly didn’t silently scribble equations on the blackboard, but really took us students under his wings. With him, you could always hold a conversation and ask him about things that perplexed you.”

Finding yourself

After graduation, Sylvius realised that introverted research work was not her forte.

“With age, I’ve come to understand that not everyone can do everything. You have to have the courage to look for and accept your strengths, instead of forcing yourself to do, for example, what those surrounding you consider valuable.”

“In the early 2000s, academic research in physics was much more appreciated than, say, a career in the industry.”

Sylvius had become aware that her skills lay particularly in management.

“I enjoy communicating with people. I want to manage, develop and promote things, to get things done,” she describes.

On her maternal leave, Sylvius completed studies leading to teaching qualifications.

“Teaching in educational sciences at the University of Helsinki is of a very high standard, and I gained from my studies also plenty in terms of managerial skills. In both teaching and managing you have to understand how others perceive, experience, conceive and understand things,” Sylvius explains.

Becoming a managing director and co-owner

In her thirties, Sylvius ended up working as a coder in Space Systems Finland, a company specialised in developing software for satellites. The position did not feel like her dream job, which got Sylvius thinking about how to advance to managerial positions.

The solution? Without a second thought, she marched to see the then managing director to ask for a promotion. Sylvius did not immediately rise to the top level, but thanks to her perseverance she got the company to cover the expenses of an MBA degree. She also got a place in the company’s sales and executive teams.

Some years later, when the managing director in question left the company, Sylvius was asked to assume the position. Her natural talent had clearly been noticed.

“This was in 2010. Soon, the owners surprised me again by putting the company up for sale.”

With two colleagues, Sylvius took a risk and bought the company, making her SSF’s managing director and co-owner.

“We really had nothing to lose. Fortunately, everything has gone quite smoothly!”

“Don’t underestimate yourself!”

SSF, which was established in the 1980s, develops the software used in satellites and screens the data produced by them, but these days, space-related activities only constitute one central branch of the company.

“We noticed that we are able to utilise our high-level expertise also in other industrial sectors. That’s why we are now a software house that develops software and data analytics for all industries requiring hard-core reliability, including nuclear power plants, railway traffic and medical devices.”

SSF is one of those companies that need skilled experts in sophisticated theoretical knowledge with a university degree.

“The University educates irreplaceable professionals for us and other similar companies. The world is becoming increasingly complex, increasing the need for those who are able to understand and master increasingly complex problems.”

To those doubting their abilities, Sylvius sends an encouraging message.

“Many women, young women in particular, unnecessarily doubt themselves and their skills. Keep in mind that no one is any more remarkable or skilled than you are. Find the thing where you are at your best, and don’t let yourself be trampled by the prevailing structures – and get what you want!”

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