Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Erja Järvelä: From Nokia Logistics Wiz to Shamanic Energy Healer

rsz_erjahankoAs a child, Erja Järvelä wanted to be a doctor. The dream of healing people stayed with the Finn all the way through high school, but died a quick death during the college application process. Suddenly, finding herself driven by other people’s expectations rather than passion, she switched from medicine to law, “I was convinced I was making a practical decision. I never thought I would become a lawyer in the traditional sense, but I was sure it would provide a good foundation for whatever I wanted to do.”

She wasn’t wrong on that count. Along with a law degree from the University of Helsinki, Järvelä picked up an International MBA from the University of San Diego. On returning to Finland, she began working as a logistics coordinator for Nokia, the Finnish technology giant. “Logistics is a great way to learn the ABCs of a company. You get to see the bones and learn a lot about the business.”

Shipping to and dealing with China regularly, Järvelä gained notoriety in the firm and was internally headhunted to head up logistics there. Based in Beijing, she was responsible for mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It was tough job, but offered lots of experience and leadership challenges.

After a two-year stint in Asia, Järvelä returned to Finland, where she established and ran various logistics organizations at Nokia for a further ten years. In 2007, Nokia Networks underwent a merger with Siemens and all Nokia employees had to reapply for their positions. Järvelä was asked to head up the trade compliance organization with direct reports all over the globe. She hesitated: “I was already 42 and had a strong feeling I would like to do something else with my life. I was pretty tired, but then this opportunity came and I just thought it would be stupid not to take it.”

She stayed for a further three stressful years before the company, feeling pressure from its not-so-successful merger, began offering voluntary exit packages. She jumped! “I was the first one there in the line … Hand in the air shouting ‘I will, I will!’ I had zero hesitation. I just knew if I didn’t leave then, I never would. I had no plans and no clue what I would do, I just knew I had to switch for my own sake.”

A lot of people criticized her decision. “I was alone with my daughter, Ronja, and many detractors said ‘How can you do it? You’re a single mom, thereHiihto is so much risk involved.’ But I decided to trust that things will turn out for the best,” she recalls.

She took one year off and put thoughts of her future aside. “I just wanted to do things I enjoy, unravel from the stress, and live simply.” She travelled with Ronja and joined the uniquely Finnish kapua community, which combines climbing and charity work for people who want to challenge themselves. And then, to the surprise of many, mother and daughter moved to Lapland, Finland’s northern-most region, for the winter … an adventure not for the faint-hearted. “While Ronja attended a small Lapp school, I immersed myself in nature, skied, and did snowshoe walking and climbing. When the temperatures were too low for even the bravest soul to venture outside, -30 °C (-22°F), I hunkered down with the local old ladies and learned how to knit and weave rugs. It was a great time for reflection.”

Upon returning to Helsinki, Järvelä was still unsure of the direction she should take. “I was asking the universe, ‘Please tell me what I should do?’” It wasn’t long before she got an answer.

During her stint in Lapland, the recovering corporate executive had been writing a blog about what it was like to be a member of society without a title or job. A blog follower contacted her with a suggestion that she check out a holistic well-being school in NY. As soon as she googled the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and read its mission of improving health and happiness, she knew she had found what she was looking for. “I had always been interested in helping people. At work, I thrived on supporting people in their jobs, pushing them to do better and guiding them through the organizational messes we experienced in the workplace. I signed up immediately.”

IIN proved extremely helpful. The one-year distance learning program on holistic well-being, offered Järvelä guidance on possible career directions and how to turn her passion for health, coaching and wellness into a job. After graduation, she was drawn to a local class on energy healing using ancient Peruvian spiritual and ceremonial traditions.

The shamanic energy medicine class was a revelation as Jarvelä explains, “I knew immediately I had found my home. I suddenly arrived somewhere I had been searching all my life. It was so familiar to me.” With no hesitation she enrolled in a one-year program where she learned how to understand and work with realms and dimensions of time and space other than what we in the West are traditionally taught.

Today Järvelä is a health coach and energy healer. Through her practice, Mixing Nuts, she works with clients who are “stuck” or carry a heavy burden. “When an individual can’t make progress, energy is trapped in the body. I help them release the tension and often work on erasing the unneeded blueprints they carry in their energetic bodies. Also, imagine, for example, a machine that is not functioning properly because some parts are missing. I help find those parts, what we in the ‘business’ refer to as lost soul parts, and bring them back to make the person feel whole again.”

ErjanauraaDoes she ever regret not finding her calling sooner? “Everything comes in the right time, I have no regrets. All my experiences were because I needed them, ” the Finn explains.

Not only does Järvelä help others recover their energy but she too is energized by her work, “I feel completely fulfilled, I enjoy it so much when I see how the process helps people. It’s transformational.” And after all those years of corporate stress, it looks like the energy healer has come full circle and finally become the “doctor” she always wanted to be.

Interested in shamanism? Read more on Erja’s blog mixingnuts.blogspot.fi  and, for our Finnish readers, erjanblogi.blogspot.fi. You can also sign up for a monthly newsletter in English http://mad.ly/signups/60167/join

Erja Järvelä’s tips:

  • Listen to yourself. It is so important to “quiet a bit down” so you can hear yourself. I wasn’t able to hear “me” when I was working. I was so busy that I heard neither myself nor anything else. Give time for being and not performing.
  • Don’t believe what you think, as the saying goes. We are taught to think and act in certain ways that often restrict us from being our true selves. Society, culture, family, history, norms … you name it. Be brave enough and question. Bringing stuff to your conscious level, is a key to rewriting your life script as you want it to be.



Have you ever visited an energy healer to experience transformation and uncover insights in an effort to find your passion?