When I started drafting this blog, I asked my friend, a fellow Aalto graduate and ex-volunteer: ”What do you see volunteering and entrepreneurship have in common?”
”I have one idea: they’re both a hassle,” he said, laughing. Although meant as a joke, there is truth to it.
Entrepreneurship and volunteering at different student associations have much in common in my experience. Both entrepreneurs and volunteers start new projects, take on responsibility and risks, and work with limited resources like time and money. Both are also often seen as quite a hassle, something where there’s much uncertainty, and you need to give a lot of yourself. While that may be true, you also get much in return: you get to build something on your own terms, learn various new skills, and work intensely with amazing people.
Volunteering is a safe environment for exploring because there isn’t a boss to fire you or expectations of immediate success or profit.
Through different hands-on volunteering projects, you can learn so much more than just by listening to lectures. While it may slow you down in terms of the graduation schedule, I don’t regret it, and I have never heard anyone else regret it either. On the contrary, many have learned skills they use in working life or as founders.
When thinking in more detail about what entrepreneurial skills are, they can be divided into spotting opportunities, creativity, self-awareness, motivation and perseverance, taking initiative, and working with others. All skills you need not just as an entrepreneur but can actually use everywhere in working life. Why would you not practice those?
Expanding your horizons
Volunteering for different projects really trains your creative thinking muscles. When building new event concepts or community projects in student associations, you often work with small or non-existing budgets. For a new idea to fly, it needs to be attractive to its target audience — students — but probably also sellable to others, like potential partner companies — just like any business idea needs its customers and investors.
Additionally, all the people working on a project with you are your peers, who are there voluntarily and without pay. Therefore, in a leadership position, you learn how to motivate people and bring teams together in other ways than given authority or monetary rewards.
You’ll also find out what makes you yourself tick outside of monetary motivators. You can learn new skills and find ideas to pursue when you have the freedom to try and be anything. Every student association needs someone to do finances, design, event planning, marketing, leadership, spin records, create menus, or even build things like world-record saunas. More often than not, no one is actually an expert at their role, giving anyone the possibility to step up, take the initiative and learn.
This allows venturing outside of your own study field and exploring new opportunities: I have always liked drawing, and although I wasn’t the greatest at it, I applied to be the graphic designer of a student association. Learning by doing, I picked up all essential digital design tools. I ended up doing the visuals for many other projects, designing a bunch of overall badges, photographing many epic events, and also being employed as a summer design trainee. Later, inspired by these experiences, I pursued minor studies in design and discovered the world of service design — something I now see as a possible future career path and an opportunity to combine my interest in helping others, my experiences in creative work, and my degree in marketing.
Anyone active in the student community is already an entrepreneur at heart and more prepared for ventures than they maybe think
I don’t believe a similar leap would have been possible in traditional working life. Volunteering is a safe environment for exploring because there isn’t a boss to fire you or expectations of immediately succeeding and making a profit with your skills. You are free to try and fail, and you get to do it together with others who are equally interested in reshaping the old and playing around with new ideas.
Heavy lifting and big rewards
Student associations are also a safe environment to learn about yourself more deeply. It can often be intense, and juggling studies, work, and many volunteer projects at the same time has undoubtedly taught me many hard lessons on self-care. At AVP, one of our values is courage, and built into it is the idea of challenging ourselves sensitive to context. Where exactly do our limits lie? When to keep pushing forward for something great? When to stop and recognize it doesn’t make sense to keep on going? As an excited mursu (first-year business student), the answer was more often than not to keep going, and at full speed of course. While I can’t say I am perfect at managing my time and energy today, I have always learned something from each project: What or who am I willing to push for, when was it worth it and when not.
Volunteering is a great teacher not just for life but also for entrepreneurship.
Other times, volunteering has been physically draining, like when carrying literally tons of stones for the Slush main stage. Miscellaneous construction duties, learning sitz songs by heart, or setting up wappu rave busses may seem far from entrepreneurship, or any job. However, it is in those moments that many of the skills entrepreneurship consists of — and those networks everyone talks about — are unconsciously built. Small-talking at a business event might get you a new LinkedIn connection. But friendships made while working together — those are true connections. If it lasts through the night shifts of event organizing, I trust it will last any work project we might do together. While I’m excited about everything I have learned through volunteering, I am the happiest about all the amazing people I’ve met and get to call my friends.
Volunteering is a great teacher not just for life but also for entrepreneurship specifically. You learn creativity, resource management, self-awareness, leadership, teamwork, and communication — the core skills of entrepreneurial thinking and doing, and important working life skills anywhere you decide to go. I dare to claim that anyone active in the student community is already an entrepreneur at heart and more prepared for ventures than they maybe think. And, of course, most importantly, volunteering is loads of fun and a great way to spend your time here at Aalto, and why not after it.