I started in Nokia 20 years ago and then 15 years later I moved to Finland. I came into Nokia by accident, I never went to a proper interview. I was there for half a year as a temporary worker and never made an application, I thought I would go work somewhere else. In Germany companies were not allowed to hire temp workers; they had to wait for you to apply, but I never did. Eventually they said to me, “Can we please hire you?” I was completely ignorant and it took about five months, then a colleague spoke to me privately and said that if I hadn’t yet realised, Nokia wanted to hire me. I wondered what she was talking about because I didn’t match the criteria at all. I didn’t even understand the job application because it was in English, but they told me that I should just apply, so I did. I was so bad at English at school that I decided I didn’t need English in my life, so I tried somehow to work around it. At Nokia they said I had certain passion in my eyes and I was born to work there.
I was a workaholic for 29 years. I mean, if you tell someone they are born to work at your company, they will work. For kids born into an entrepreneurial family, you either work really hard, or you say, “Daddy, give me money.” I did not go to the university, I was an apprentice. We have this system in Germany. Before Nokia I had worked for a truck company and for our family business, done all kinds of jobs. I learnt the basics about the trucks and truck highways and whatever. I still remember some of that stuff, I have a photographic memory.
You can hear some quite rough language in this kind of job and I realised that most of my jobs have been more or less male-oriented – I have kind of had to toughen up a bit and be able to tell men off. I guess it’s a useful life skill. I mean, if you work with truckers, it’s a very different kind of world. During the last 15 years at Nokia I worked in IT and it was also not the most female-oriented place.
I have a ‘helping hand’ syndrome. I always wanted to help other people rather than just be like “oh well”. Some managers just let the people do the work and then they take the credit – I’m the opposite. Last March I said no to an extended work contract where I was as an external IT consultant. Now I have a startup. I want to make people happy. I call myself the Chocolate Angel and my job is to make people happy at work. I go to people’s offices with chocolate and listen to them – make them happy. I never judge people. I’m extremely observant and reflective, especially when it comes to myself.
I suppose the Chocolate Angel thing started at the time when I was a global process manager at Nokia and my customers were all over the world. Whenever I travelled I would bring a couple of boxes of chocolate and then I started to go to everyone near to where I was sitting. I would do that until the box was empty and then I would start working. It didn’t matter if I knew the people or not. I would just go to the next desk and the next desk. It somehow came together in Finland when I noticed that here you always get a piece of chocolate with your special coffee. I love Finnish wine gums, but not so much chocolate so I can easily resist and I would just give my chocolate to the next person in the queue. That’s how it started.
“I call myself the Chocolate Angel and my job is to make people happy at work”
I just like to talk to people and the name Chocolate Angel comes from a former Microsoft team member. She saw me once with chocolate and then she was like, “Oh, there is the chocolate angel.” I only did the chocolate thing when I travelled, not at my own office in Düsseldorf. I mean, when you travel and see someone for the first time you can put a smile on their face. Nowadays I do the chocolate thing outside startup work as well, like if I go to Posti or the supermarket. It became such a strong habit. I was once at my car dealer paying an invoice and you could just see on the girl’s face that she was down. I offered her a chocolate and she got the prettiest smile on her face. You can change someone’s mood in seconds. I was working in a company for a while and there was such negative energy, so once I saw this colleague just sitting there, with such a grim face. He said his only happy moment in the week was when I turned up and offered him sweets. Usually wherever I go I see where things are wrong, that’s one of my skills. The thing is that no one complains. People usually want to keep things under the carpet. They don’t want to look under and see what’s there.
I was three days at Arctic15 doing this, I got a tip to go there and I found some of my first customers there. I have no problem making money with the business. Companies can buy my services on an hourly basis. It’s not like at 9am every Monday the Chocolate Angel comes. It’s all about the surprising moment. In one hour I can make up to 200 people happy, depending on the setup, and that will cost the company 150 euros. It’s not just about the fact that I talk a lot and have the chocolate, I also listen intensely when you say something. I have had requests from managers to speak to the employees before a change and ask how they actually feel. I offer them a moment to open their soul and I won’t even know the name so I won’t be going back to the management telling who said what. The thing is that people start to talk, especially Finns, if you ask them how they really are. If you are really interested, they will actually tell you. It’s not like the American, “How are you?” In Finland, the answer might be that you just had your 21st wedding anniversary, in the USA no one wants to know that. That’s the beautiful thing here.
“The thing is that people start to talk, especially Finns, if you ask them how they really are. If you are really interested, they will actually tell you. It’s not like the American, “How are you?””
At Nokia they were always restructuring and they were closing every second IT location around the world. Mine was the biggest IT location to be closed. So they handed everyone a lot of money and told us to go. Looking back it was okay to be a workaholic. I don’t have a family. On Monday morning I would always run back to work. I lived for work. It scared the hell out of me to suddenly have a lot of money but no work, it was not a positive thing. I was like, “What do you mean I don’t need to come back to the office?” I was also offered another contract where I would leave Nokia in Germany, not getting any extra compensation, and move to Finland instead with a local contract and no extra compensation. I was not 20 anymore, and it was a proper negotiation. I told them at the time that I wasn’t just going to leave my life in Germany and jump on the next plane to Finland. In the end, 30 hours after I got the offer I accepted it. This was in 2011. I came to sign my work contract in Finland in 2012.
In Germany, my closest colleague was based in Australia and we were working back to back. In 2011, when we knew it was all over we started a closed Facebook group – ‘Beyond Nokia’. I knew Elsie, who started it with me, because she had a similar past and the same tasks in Australia. She also lived in Töölö (in Helsinki) some years ago, but our paths only crossed in 2010. We originally started talking about the idea through the Nokia internal communications system. Things were coming down around us and we were just like “What the heck?” And while we spoke about it Elsie already made the group. They used to say Nokia, ‘“connecting people”, but now it’s often Nokia, “disconnecting people”. The Beyond Nokia grew beyond my dreams. I asked in the group to get more people and in the end we had over 27,000 members, but I don’t want to get business out of it. I’m now also helping to organise the ex-Nokia party that happens twice a year here.
Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in sharing the reflections of people who’ve moved to Finland please like our Facebook page and share Verena’s story.