In our virtual meeting, a symphonic smile adorned her face, her bold glasses balancing on her nose, as she appeared excited to share her stories with me. It was my first encounter with the woman who has, since her time at Helsinki Think Company, dedicated her work to enabling startup entrepreneurship in southern Africa as a researcher, growth consultant, and pitch coach. She’s also the instigator of the Omeho Project, showcasing the innovative thinkers in Namibia and demystifying African youths for the West. Auri Evokari is her name, a Finnish-born Doctoral researcher and part-time entrepreneur, now based in Namibia.
"Welcome, Auri," I greeted, eager to dive into her world. "How's your day been?"
It was during the twilight hours of a weekday evening in Helsinki, and we were embarking on a voyage through her experiences, from her early days at Helsinki Think Company—as far back as 2015—to her versatile work in Namibia. Her story is an example of the impact that communities such as Helsinki Think Company can have and the entrepreneurial spark that they can ignite in students at the University of Helsinki.
How It Started
Auri began with enthusiasm, "I don't know if you knew this," delving into her early introduction to entrepreneurship. “My first touchpoint to startup concept development was in the 4UNI competition. That’s where I learned about design thinking, the startup development journey, and startup culture - all of which I work with today.”
Her tone was filled with nostalgia as she recalled her first-ever pitch training experience. "I learned how to pitch in the program. That was such a cool experience. The trainer was a Danish investor. Her name eludes me right now, but she was a veteran with over a decade of experience in Silicon Valley. She had heard hundreds of pitches at the time, and she came in to train our cohort with a global standard in pitching." Little did Auri know at the time that the training would follow her to southern Africa.
A Gap to Fill
Auri left Helsinki Think Company in 2017 when she was recruited to join a team that was implementing a development program under the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (MFA). The program supported the building of connected innovation ecosystems in southern Africa, and Auri got a chance to support other innovation hubs like Helsinki Think Company in the African context. "When I arrived in Namibia, locating a local pitch coach for our entrepreneurship support initiatives was challenging, so, as part of my role, I started coaching startups in pitch training across five different countries, with Windhoek as my base. I was even lucky to get to train other trainers in the region,” highlighting the gap she was to fill. After a couple of years in Namibia, she began a Doctoral Programme at Loughborough University London.
“The Helsinki startup ecosystem had introduced me to Startup Culture,” she continued, “and it had empowered me to consider an entrepreneurial career. As I witnessed similar Startup Culture in southern Africa, I couldn’t help but wonder how Startup Culture could be a catalyst for the birth of more startups in Africa.” When she returned to Namibia after two years to conduct her fieldwork, her phone started ringing to do more pitch training. "I came back, and it turns out that out of the people I had trained, only one of them was actively teaching, and even she stopped soon after. I've been doing that as a side hustle here in Namibia for a couple of years now, training early-stage startups and helping them prepare demo pitches. This October, I had the immense pleasure of training eight more local trainers.”
Open your Eyes: What is the Omeho Project?
“After working in southern Africa for two years and returning to Europe, I was confronted by a lot of basic questions about the continent. The negative stereotypes of the underdeveloped and dangerous Africa are prevalent in the European media, and they stand in the way of people being curious to travel, trade, or learn more about the continent,” Auri shares. “So when I came back to Namibia in 2021 for my fieldwork, I thought, while I’m here collecting academic interviews, let me do something to share the entrepreneurs’ stories more widely." That is how the Omeho Project was born.
She partnered with a local communications agency, Turipamwe, to develop a project that would both celebrate local role models and demystify Africa for the Western world. She shared her desire to open people's eyes to this other side of Africa and illuminate startup entrepreneurship in the region through a photography and storytelling project that combines the stories of tech founders and creative people with captivating images. The word "Omeho," means "eyes" in Otjiherero. “After the pilot in 2021, we knew that the project had the potential to empower and inspire aspiring entrepreneurs and create local role models,” she said. “After a bit of trial and error, we didn’t recognize a sustainable business model that wasn’t dependent on donors, and I had to put it on hold to focus on my research. Luckily, the learnings from Helsinki Think Company made me see it rather as more data on what worked and what didn’t, as opposed to a failure!”
Auri’s work—whether it is the Doctoral research, the pitch coaching, or the Omeho Project—is multilayered. On an individual level, she offers pitch coaching to help founders communicate their innovative ideas and hone their entrepreneurial skills. At the company level, Auri collaborates with Turipamwe to bring design thinking to SMEs and corporations, making them more sustainable and competitive in the ever-evolving global landscape. The Doctoral Research, with an estimated completion in 2024, addresses the challenges in startup ecosystems by producing actionable insights for hubs, policymakers, and development donors such as the MFA.
Tackling Youth Unemployment
As our talk progressed into her academic research on Startup Culture in African entrepreneurship ecosystems, I inquired about its objective. “My research aims to contribute positively to the local communities by tackling youth unemployment from a novel perspective, a cultural one.” She seeks to provide data-driven insights on how to strengthen startup ecosystems to alleviate unemployment, offering a brighter socio-economic outlook for the region. She explains with serious playfulness, “I’m an idealist with a healthy dose of realism. I’m sure there are better ways of supporting entrepreneurship than what we already know.”
Collaborating with Turipamwe to inspire creativity and innovation in Namibian businesses aligns with this passion by supporting the competitiveness and survival of job-creating companies. Asking her how she stays motivated amidst everything she has going on, she says: “I’m living in a country where 40 percent of people under the age of 35 do not have a job,” underlining the pressing issue, “How long are we supposed to accept that that’s okay?”
Cascading Effect of Auri’s work
Her contribution to these pressing concerns revolves around creating new knowledge for practitioners on the ground and those who fund them to improve entrepreneurship support. “If even one programme supporting early-stage entrepreneurs runs even slightly more impactfully as a result of the insights from my research, I can be happy.”
Auri hopes to also continue working with founders to strengthen their businesses because she is continuously inspired by the hardworking and impact-oriented founders she meets in Africa. “I’d be thrilled to support startups at a large scale to build more robust startup concepts, attract their first customers, find partners or co-founders, or even secure early investments or grants. Then those startups would live for another day, bringing critical solutions to ordinary citizens, and creating jobs for the youth.”
As an alumnus, she gave a shout-out to Helsinki Think Company for its 10th anniversary: “Thank you so much for empowering me,” she smiled, “I feel grateful for everything you gave me.”