By SGN | 3 June 2021
SGN chats with Evon and charts her journey of transformation to see how she blazed her own trail in a challenging world for women business leaders.
The decision to move overseas in search of new opportunities could potentially usher in lifelong changes. Just ask Evon Blomstedt, who left Malaysia at the young age of 19 for Europe – a trip that changed her life.
Evon is the owner of HUONE (which means ‘room’ in Finnish), a company which operates creative business meetings and events venues across Finland, Singapore and Denmark. Through her career, she has won awards including several firsts — she is the first recipient of PwC’s Most Valuable Entrepreneur Award in Finland in 2014 for her entrepreneurial journey founding HUONE, and the first woman to be featured on the cover of Forbes Finland Magazine in 2017.
Yet, before achieving these accolades, Evon had to weather through a rough childhood. Raised by her grandmother, Evon was a victim of physical abuse at home. When she was old enough, she moved out and co-rented a flat, and supported herself by pursuing her career as a professional dancer and dance teacher at the age of 17.
But everything came to a halt when the dance company was dismissed, and with the constant family drama at the time. “I needed to start over. In my desperation I kept telling myself, there must be something else out there – that this cannot be it.”
That was when she realised that her move to Europe would offer her a chance to hit the reset button to start over in life.
Going Where New Opportunities Are in Bloom
After exploring Europe, Evon called Finland her new home in 2005. “Like many others, I settled in Finland for love,” she shared. But as a new immigrant without financial support, higher education, or language skills, she had to take on odd jobs like cleaning and waitressing to support herself.
She also served as the Secretary to the Ambassador in the Malaysian Embassy in Finland, and whilst working at the Embassy, her English improved. It was around this time she noticed the challenges in finding the right venues for business meetings and events in Helsinki.
In 2008, Evon left her position as the Secretary to her Degree in Hospitality Management at the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. As part of the curriculum, she chose to tackle the entrepreneurship track in her final year, which involved writing up the business plan for an Events Hotel concept. It was during this time that the idea of HUONE started taking shape.
“Wherever I go, I like serving others and making them happy. I love organising parties. I loved planning something and seeing it unfold. All of these were perfect traits for hospitality. I just needed to learn how to turn it into a business!” she enthuses.
In 2011, she graduated with merits and the business plan for ‘HUONE Event Hotel’, which was part of her study and was brewed for about 3 years along her degree programme.
Like most graduates, Evon started applying for jobs upon graduation. However, her degree didn’t make the job search any easier. “I couldn’t get any interviews. This was at a time when non-Finnish-speaking immigrants were not the most wanted candidates in the market.” So, in her survival mode, she decided she should stop begging for a job and start on her own.
After the completion of the business plan and another year of pitching, finding funding and location, Evon became the Founder and CEO of the world’s first Event Hotel ‘HUONE’ in 2012.
Beating the Odds at Every Step
Two of the greatest challenges were convincing people that she — an immigrant — is the founder, and then convincing them that her idea worked as there were no existing concepts out there for people to take reference. It also did not help that she was asking for investments amounting to €800,000 (approximately SGD1,3000,000).
Evon had no choice but to invest her own money into the business in its early days, going to the extent of selling her apartment and taking out huge loans. Their journey during the first year was especially rough. She found herself calling debtors and suppliers routinely to beg for additional time to pay up on their loans. The business was still not well-known in the market and the couple’s funds ran dry during the construction process, leaving no funds for marketing and sales.
To make matters worse, she was pregnant just three months after HUONE opened its doors. All she and Jussi (her then husband and Co-founder) could do was to take one day at a time and repay one bill at a time. But time and money both ran out for the couple as a debtor took them both to court twice during its first four years of operation.
Evon shares: “We invested everything into HUONE, I had my 4-month-old baby waiting at home while we were in Helsinki Käräjäoikeus (district court) hearing for the judge to decide if we are bankrupt or not. It was one of the scariest moments in my life.”
But these challenges did not stop Evon from continuing to build HUONE into a successful, thriving business. “In the end, I think the investors saw my commitment to the business from the sacrifices I had to make.”
In 2014, international accounting firm, PwC Finland, named Evon as the Most Valuable Entrepreneur in Finland. Her touching and inspiring journey was screened amongst other entrepreneurial stories all over Finland and featured in the Taivas + Helvetti Vol.2 book (in Finnish), which shares honest entrepreneurial stories about overcoming adversity. Then in 2017, Evon was recognised for her entrepreneurial efforts by Helsingin Sanomat (Finland’s largest subscription newspaper) as one of the 10 Economic Heroes in Finland, during the country’s first centenary since independence.
It showed Evon that she was on the right path and in turn, she decided it was time to raise the bar once again. She opened HUONE in Singapore in 2017, noting that this outlet was her proof that the HUONE concept had global appeal.
She also reveals that despite the credentials she has amassed in Finland, she found herself starting from scratch in Singapore. “Singapore is a very network driven business setting. Having received ‘The most Valuable Entrepreneur of the Year’ award in Finland did not matter. You are no one in Singapore.”
To overcome this, Evon took frequent long trips alone to Singapore to carry out market research before raising money, leaving her 18-month-old son in Finland. “I wanted to learn more about people’s day-to-day lives, mindsets, values, the how and why of their buying habits,” she shares.
The research proved to be vital as Evon learnt several things about the events and meetings industry in Singapore. For instance, she learnt that most companies prefer to stick to their own structured meetings which meant that demand was low for HUONE’s value-added service offerings such as coaching companies on how they can make their meetings even more engaging.
She also notes that the service industry in Singapore is also different by design as compared to Finland. “In Finland, the service industry is just like any other industry, there’s an education and professionalism, and the respect for that professionalism.” Evon reminds her staff that they are ladies and gentlemen hosting ladies and gentlemen, stressing the importance of carrying out the work with professionalism.
The Trait Secrets of Being an Entrepreneur
As an entrepreneur, Evon found herself tapping on qualities she has refined over time as a dancer such as teamwork and hard work. “Dancing has also helped me build my presentation skills. I’ve learnt how to be convincing and emotionally expressive.”
Yet, nothing could have prepared Evon for overcoming gender stereotypes in the workplace. “You are still a black sheep for being a woman entrepreneur. For me, I checked all the extra wrong boxes: immigrant background, young, language barrier… the list goes on. I had experiences such as people answering only to Jussi when we were both sitting at the table – they probably assumed that he was the one calling the shots.” However, through her nine years as an entrepreneur, Evon remains upbeat about the changes that have taken root in the business world.
She also believes in leading by example, adding, “As a business owner, I try to always get to know prospective employees by their qualities, experiences, and strengths. I’d ask them to hide their basic information such as gender, age, and nationality during the hiring process.”
Evon also takes effort to share her own story, using her experiences to inspire people, telling them that their gender should not be a stumbling block. The recipe for success in the business world, according to Evon, includes ingredients like resilience and believing in oneself. Gender has nothing to do with it.
And if you’re a mother like Evon, she urges you to stop using the term ‘working mother’ to describe yourself. She remarks, “Would people ask for advice for a ‘working father?’ Don’t think of yourself as a mother. You work hard just like everyone. You deserve the same amount of recognition. Besides, raising children requires an equal amount of work and commitment from both parents.”
Upheaval or Evolution: Where Is MICE Going from Here?
The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Meeting, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions (MICE) industry hard. Evon shares that HUONE immediately went into hibernation mode with business coming to a standstill across all three outlets in Finland, Singapore, and Denmark when the pandemic hit.
Evon reveals that she has spent sleepless nights contemplating the effects of the pandemic on the lives of her employees.
“I was putting all the employees’ lives also on-hold, and I felt like I had failed them. To work around this, I focused on two things: transparency and over-communicating with employees.” While it was impossible to have the answer for every eventuality in a rapidly changing situation, Evon says she tries her best to be open and honest and to keep and share things as they are.
However, Evon views the impending changes in the industry as more evolutionary than disruptive. “People seek more high-quality, productive, collaborative, employee-focused, and innovative meeting experience. Business meetings and events will be more meaningful, as the participants will expect more, and more engagement along with memorable experiences.” With a growing demand for interactive hybrid meetings and working conditions, HUONE is currently adapting to cater to some of these changing trends.
For Evon, this is just another goldmine of untapped opportunity for which she has a game plan. And if history has proven anything, this entrepreneur is not going to let anything stand in her way — least of which, glass ceilings.
Join us and meet others like About Evon.
Evon Blomstedt is the founder of HUONE, a creative business meeting and event venues operating in Finland, Singapore and Denmark. Prior to dipping her toes into the entrepreneurial world, Evon served as the Social Secretary in the Embassy of Malaysia in Finland.
Evon spent much of her early career pursuing dancing as a career, making her mark as a professional dance teacher in her hometown of Malaysia. She is currently based in Finland with her husband and two sons.
Connect with Evon here.