Maria Serenius has had a long and successful career as a diplomat. She joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland in 1975. Since then, Serenius has served in Egypt, Japan, Sri Lanka and Switzerland. She was the Consul General in Los Angeles 1997-2001. After L.A., Maria became the Finnish Ambassador to Turkey and then served as Ambassador to Latvia. She retired last fall. Alongside throughout her various adventures has been husband Tapio Serenius. He is known as a jovial people’s person with a twinkle in his eye, seamlessly blending in wherever his wife’s work took them.
Finntimes interviewed Maria exclusively on Saturday, February 2nd 2013 at attorney Ava Anttila’s Bel Air home during a garden party the gracious hostess gave in honor of the beloved consular couple.
One achievement from Maria’s consular years in L.A. shines prominently even today. It is the Global Access Program she helped launch with other Finnish agencies, such as Tekes. Each year the program brings around a dozen Finnish high tech companies to UCLA. There they connect with a team of MBA students who create a business plan for them.
How does it make you feel that the GAP process that you started is still going strong?
-It’s a very rewarding feeling that something that one has planted the seeds has grown and has been so beneficial to Finnish companies. It has also created a quite vast network of people, who have been in contact with each other over the years. It’s been very valuable.
You introduced two new concepts to Finns – small talk and networking – what did you have to go through to get the message through about those concepts in the early years?
-It wasn’t characteristic to Finns to do small talk. We thought it was something for others to do – superficial. If somebody’s talking about the weather or something else that has no meaning or significance right away, the person is shallow (laughs). We didn’t quite understand the significance of that. Then later on they organized courses in Finland on how to do small talk. But Finns and Finland have since changed. Still there is a lingering feeling that talking about petty things is not really dignified.
Tell me if I’m wrong but I think in Finland the feeling is that in order for anything to get done, things must go through proper official channels but here it depends more on whom you know and who knows you?
-It’s not only here. I was serving four years in Cairo. In the Middle East and Turkey as well, it is very important whom you know and who is networking with whom. You need to know the connections. In most of the countries in the world it’s not necessarily your position in the government or somewhere else that indicates, how much influence you have in the society. An important part in the work of a diplomat is to dig out those people who are really influential and then network with them. It’s hard work. I did learn to do that here in Los Angeles, because networking is the key to everything here. The consul general in L.A. doesn’t have any position among the people here – they don’t know what a consul general is. It’s up to you to give an impression that you might be useful to people whom you are meeting. When one is an ambassador in Turkey or Latvia, the title is enough. You are an ambassador – more or less all the doors open for you. Here you need to work to open those doors.
And you really did that. Even on weekends you went to Silicon Valley to build relations with the local Finnish companies and movers and shakers there.
-When I came here, nobody in Finland knew what a venture capitalist is. I didn’t know either, but I wanted to learn. So, I flew to San Francisco, rented a car and drove to Sand Hill Road. That is the road where the most important venture capital funds are located (comparable to Wall Street in the stock market). So, I made appointments to meet with some of these people and I did. I started that really from the scratch. They explained the system to me. Once you have had a meeting like that, in the second meeting you must have something to give back. Otherwise you are using too much of someone’s time that is not useful to them.
So, what did you give back?
-The high tech miracle of Finland! During those years Finland was like a high tech utopia of the world. That lasted only a couple of years. Nokia was on top and we were the most wired and wireless country in the world. So, everybody in America dealing with ICT, high technology, knew about Finland. It was a unique time in history. Most companies and investment funds knew about Finland. The Wired magazine and Red Herring had Finland on their cover.
You were able to generate a lot of publicity for Finland. Your predecessor, Jörn Donner had given a statement, in which he said one can do the work of a consul general in two hours a day. With all due respect, I think he missed the point. In reality each consul general creates the job description by themselves – isn’t that true?
-Maybe he tried to concentrate on cultural affairs and and didn’t find it interesting. So yes, Los Angeles is one of the few places where you have to create the job. You have to decide the focus. You can spend 24 hours a day doing this and that here and there. But the main thing is: Is it adding value to your work for Finland – to Finnish companies, to people? That value comes only by focusing. We are a small country, a little over five million people and America is so big. So, focus, focus, focus. I was privileged to come at that time. There was momentum in my life and career at that particular stage.
You recognized that momentum and focused on high tech?
-I stumbled on it. I needed to do something that would be valuable to Finland.
Out of those contacts that you created in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and elsewhere, are they still relevant today and have they yielded results?
-For Finland, yes indeed. It has created even more networking and relationships. Not all, but quite a few of them and I’m very proud of that.
What kind of an experience was it for you to be the consul general in Los Angeles?
-It was great. It was energizing. There’s a feeling here that anything is possible, just do it! Another sentiment here is to think big. Coming from Finland, I was not used to this positive American atmosphere that anything is possible, if you work hard enough. I love that type of a sentiment. Since my time in Los Angeles, I tried to use that kind of a spirit in my work as well. Wherever I went afterwards, I always started by saying: I need you to be proactive, innovative. So much so, that people were joking about me!
-After L.A. I went to be the director general for Africa and the Middle East in the Ministry for Foreign affairs. I did that for three years. It was very challenging. The Middle East was higher on the agenda than Africa in those days and it still is. So, I traveled a lot in the Middle East.
-In the 1980’s I had been in Cairo for four years. So, I already knew about the mentality there and I even spoke a little Arabic. It was a great job to be the director general in the ministry.
Then you were rewarded for your efforts and you became ambassador to Turkey, a country of over 75 million people. You were stationed in the capital Ankara, instead of Istanbul, which probably would have been a more interesting place to be?
-Most of my colleagues in Ankara complained bitterly about that – why can’t the capital be in Istanbul! Being a woman there is no problem. I brought Tapio along, but for a spouse it’s quite a challenge if the spouse wants to work. In Istanbul it would have been much easier. All the companies and business world is in Istanbul. It’s a 5-6 hour drive from Ankara to Istanbul. Ankara is more or less an administrative and political capital of Turkey. So, the country is divided in that way. I did travel to Istanbul once or twice a month.
What was the residence and the embassy like there?
-We rented a house that had four floors. The residence was on the top of that building. It’s a big embassy. There was an office of the military attaché of Finland there. So, at one time we had 37 people working there. I had seven people working at the consular section alone.
What was your focus in Turkey?
-The focus of course deals with the political dialogue with Turkey. At that time Turkey was applying for the EU membership. All the issues related to that fell onto me. Finland supported Turkey’s membership application. Therefore I needed to follow the international political situation very closely. Turkey is a regional superpower. It is also a very important country to Europe. I started a chamber of commerce in Istanbul. We have had business with Turkey for the past 50 years. We had about 30 Finnish companies there. Our trade was one billion Euros a year.
What sort of Finnish companies are there in Turkey?
-All the big ones – the paper companies, Kone, Ahlstrom, Nokia and a whole lot of smaller companies. They have been there for a long time. If you ask about job satisfaction, the starting the chamber of commerce in Istanbul was great.
What is the major difference in doing business between the U.S. and Turkey?
-Here you are more or less alone. There is a consular core, but every consul general is on his or her own. The co-operation between the consulates in L.A. is non-existent. We do meet, but we don’t have anything in common. If you are in the capital of a country, embassies work very closely, especially the EU countries. In my time in Turkey, Finland had the EU presidency for six months. It was a big challenge.
What is it like to live in Ankara?
-Well……(a smile and a long pause). L.A. is a wonderful location in every respect – the people, the American mentality… It does snow in Ankara and it gets quite cold in the winter, but it is sunnier there than in Finland. Summers are hot.
What’s the mentality of people there?
-Turks seem to think that we Finns are their relatives. So, we are always welcome with open arms wherever we go. People in the countryside, everywhere think we are their cousins. I did promote that concept. It’s the language. Our languages are distantly related to ne another. Turks think a few thousand years ago both peoples were living near Mongolia. We started to cross Siberia to Finland, whereas they came down to Turkey.
Is there any truth to that?
-No, I don’t think so.
Are Turks outgoing and friendly?
-They are friendly. They have a high sense of honor and integrity. They are hard working. There’s that same kind of entrepreneurial spirit there that you have here in Los Angeles.
-The Ottoman Empire, which lasted for 700 years, encompassed the whole Middle East. The Turks are not Arabs and they don’t speak an Arabic language.
-What is happening in Turkey right now, is very interesting. It is at the same time an Islamic and a democratic country. So, everybody is following, how Islam, democracy and capitalism can live side by side. All the Islamic countries are following Turkey very closely.
Did you run into any culture shock in Turkey?
-No, if you have a position of an ambassador, there is no problem about being a woman in Turkey, not at all. Not even in Egypt, where I was in the 80’s. It is more challenging to be a local woman there. But to a foreigner with a position, everyone is very friendly and helpful.
It’s a great and an important country and it was a privilege to serve there.
What is the greatest misconception about Turkey that the westerners have?
-They are suspicious about Islam. It has such a negative connotation nowadays. It’s not really fair to judge the whole population because of problems and challenges we have had lately. I think there are also some reservations regarding Turks. There is a large Turkish population in Europe, especially in Germany and Austria. It seems that those Turks that went there in the 1950’s and 60’s are more conservative than the Turkish people in Turkey nowadays. Europeans get their image of Turkey from the migrants. Those immigrants are not so interested in what is going on in the modern day Turkey. They like things just the way they were.
After Turkey, Maria Serenius was appointed Finnish ambassador to Latvia.
-It’s a small country of 2.2 million people, but all the Baltic countries are important to Nordic countries. We are a part of the Baltic sea countries.
How did it feel to go from Turkey to Latvia?
-It took some adjustment. It was my own wish to be closer to Finland. Latvia is also an interesting, fascinating country. History in the Baltic states and Latvia has been very tough and painful. It is still alive there. That caused a lot of challenges – how to deal with the Baltic countries. Latvia is an EU and NATO country. They don’t have the Euro yet but they want to join the monetary union. Their currency is Lati.
-It is a small country, so for the Finnish ambassador, all the doors are open there. The Latvians admire Finland, the Winter War, our achievements and politics – their opinion is very positive.
-People do speak English, but Russian is a more important language there. 40 per cent of Latvians speak Russian as a first language. More than half the inhabitants of capital Riga are of Russian descent.
What was your focus in Latvia?
-Because both Finland and Latvia are EU countries, the focus was to follow Latvia’s EU policy and security policy, because they are members of NATO. Another task was to promote business between the two countries and culture – everything.
Latvia was the long term diplomat’s last assignment.
-I retired September 1st last year – five months ago. I was in the Ministry of Foreign affairs for 37 years. Retiring felt great. It was my own choice to retire at 64. That was the end of that part of my life.
After retiring, you and Tapio departed for an around-the-world tour – tell me about that?
-We started two months ago. We went to Australia and did the Great Ocean Road (A 150-mile heritage road along the south-eastern coast of Australia between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Warrnnambool). We went to New Zealand and visited mostly national parks. We hiked and did other relaxing things, concentrating mainly on nature.
Maria and Tapio’s around-the-world tour concludes in Los Angeles.
-We are here for 2.5 weeks. It’s wonderful to be back, really great!
It’s wonderful to have you back. How long has this whole trip been?
-Two and a half months. We have never been on such a long trip before. I thought that it would be too much but it hasn’t been. It’s been very nice. I recommend this to the people who can do it – to go and forget about all the problems and challenges at home.