Lessons learned during 2020

Kamilla Sultanova
10 min readDec 19, 2020

I am one of those speakers and event hosts who were hit by the corona pandemic. Inability to travel, to host events or workshops in person, which I was looking forward to, and inability to see the need for my services have had an impact on my work.

But luckily I had a consulting task at hand so I was quite privilleged in comparison to those who had experience a tornado effect of cancellations. I had spoken to many colleagues how they managed feeling irrelevant and similar to others I lost gigs, in Romania, Uzbekistan, Finland and the United Arab Emirates.

Interestingly, it is actually a second major crisis that I had to adapt to. First one was in 2009, during financial crisis, when I graduated from Aarhus University with my Master Degree in communications. I struggled with Danish immigration change of visa status from international student to temporary residence permit. Besides, a wrong advisory service from a trade union left me without any income, which was otherwise promised to me as a new graduate. I moved from Aarhus to Copenhagen and had to quickly find ways to manage. Luckily I found a job as a waitress (also tried working at the world’s best restraunt Noma), and selling French take away food to make my ends meet.

With no luck with a single interview or a job in communications field and I had to do a job, which I wasn’t prepared to do. Marissa Mayer’s advice at Women in Tech last year on career choices is quite accurate when I think in hindsight.

Marissa Mayer, Women in Tech 2019, Finlandia Hall, Helsinki

So I went into logistics, into second-hand container trading with focus on Russia, thanks to a tip from a former Danish classmate. I pivoted my career choices to something completely outside either my comfort zone or my professional interests. But in the end, this turn down was really great, I am happy for the choices I made back then, building a career in trading, procurement and later corporate sales with activity in a 28 country- portfolio within Maersk Line.

Below are my lessons and what has served me during this weird and difficult year. Similarly to 2009 I was left facing professional choices and finding ways to adapt and be valuable to my audience and potential customers. I hope it can be useful and help you reflect on your year from where you stand professionally.

  1. Build digital trust by engaging online

In April 2020 I was quick to launch an online webcast to do what I am curious about, and what I speak about, how to build inclusive spaces, workplaces and communities. I thought I will engage my audience and followers on my webcast on community building called #RiseInUnity. With few calls and chats with my digital expert friends and doers in the field, I found my ways around how to start my own first webcast, identify whom I know as perfect role models, how to shape different types of conversations.

I have never done this before, so it was completely new competence and experience. It may not be perfect but I’ve learned how to build the digital trust, to recognize the power of community building and community makers in Finland and abroad who help others build better ties locally and globally. And yes, as some of you may know, it is quite difficult to build relations here to locals and we need content in English and recognize the role of communities in times of pandemic and for thriving. This has now become my topic I speak about to spread diversity and inclusion mindsets. I already spoke to three audiences on this and it’s a truly rewarding.

2. Count where you have been valuable: Help and get helped

Inability to travel and feel people’s energy has made me feel inadequate and I am sure I was not alone. I realized that I was in Finland, strategically hot-spot for solutions and inspiration to spread positive energy including the female-led government. Finnish PM Sanna Marin was recognized for leadership to tackle COVID. More so I was in a space and ecosystem where I was making real impact with helping companies and underrepresented diverse talents build connections, inspire Finnish approach from education to well being and volunteering and inspire ways to build more momentum for mentoring, social capital exchange and drive impact for inclusion.

When it comes to being valuable, I have delivered many pro-bono webinars to educators, volunteers, launched a media platform #Uzbekistanwithafemalevoice. Thanks to the power of the Internet conneting with people from near and far was enriching and helpful. Each webinar requires preparation. It demands responsibility and ownership and get to know your audience. Each challenge faced is a new learning for next time.
Think how you can be useful and speak! In his book Self-worth safari, John Nyland has shifted my perspective on how to value life and work, something I recommend to all aspiring and seasoned speaker professionals.

I have donated money, skills, speeches, danced for #solidaritywithUzbekistan, supported my local, delivered webinar sessions, coached students and young professionals online. Locally I have mentored Talk the Talk and Dignity Impact participants how to deliver an energetic and embodied speech. This was a blast and brought me more ways and opportunities in 2021.

While we can use our skills and capacity in different ways, when it comes to digital, think how you can use your social media for an important cause. We are now into a holiday season and many NGOs including people are in a dire need for support. Address a deep seated issue, give your platform to someone else who needs to be heard. It is an easy step to stand for something good and support artists, civil society who work with underrepresented groups of people or issues.

Be a mentor, or suggest someone who can, people can learn much faster from each other than studying. And wonder how can you help someone make smarter decisions?

3. While this is all temporary, use time to experiment

Mel Robbins encourages to remember that this pandemic is temporary. It helped me to keep perspective and focus on being productive in different terms. For example, I used COVID to try out different topics to speak about, host workshops with audiences I was not used to and to also join conversations I would otherwise not join. I also had planned a workshop with a Finnish theater group but this has to wait for post-covid. Nevertheless, the creative process was energizing and at the same time giving ability to further deepen ways to make diversity and inclusion topics more tangible and valuable. Spring and summer time was used to explore and fill the curiosity but also the possibility to test something I haven’t had or talked about before.

I have deepened knowledge on online engagement with Canadian Ten Directions workshops. Trying all things new helps always to get unstuck.
It is this mindset of “what if” that can help one re-create ones work or approach and and bring one closer to the next breakthrough.

This pandemic will be over sooner or later, and while it is going on, try to experiment and build several scenarios and stay stubborn! If it does not work out you can always blame it on the covid?!

4. Protect your passions and dreams and keep on dreaming

I am a doer with high energy and had to sort of shift gears and in autumn my work has reconvened as I got a number of speaking gigs and hosting online workshops from the comfort of my home office. I can’t say I enjoyed just looking at screens all the time — I love people and love my job and by scoring high on extrovert scale it was a great rejuvenation! Moreover, it is great to secure some orders in the books and deliver a good and memorable experiences despite the format.

Keep conversations going apart from family and immediate friends. I joined a virtual book club online with FLEX was fun as well as another ability to practice your own public speaking so you are in touch with your peers.

Took over a Twitter thread on EU resilience with fellow European Young Leaders, joined social capital exchange with Friends of Europe community of scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs and journalists and more. Current discussion is on the future of culture in Europe and this shows that being out there and harnessing your own interests will ultimately bring you to like-minded people and potentially projects.

5. Diversity and inclusion is everybody’s business and well-being, including yours
They say a crisis is an opportunity. As a speaker in a field of diversity and inclusion, this year has brought visibility which was needed to uncover the level of scorch structural racism and rising inequality has on the society and the Finnish job market not to mention Europe. Finnish Linkedin, Optio business magazine, Inklusiiv, and other business media such as TalousElämä has increased visibility of issues connected to immigratin, integration, international talents and access to job market. Finns with various ethnic backgrounds were portrayed more in the printed media as well and it was a focused approach. Representation is badly needed as well as growing need for a better diversity and immigration narrative for Finnish economy, society and future especially to go back better.

Working in a nation-wide ecosystem called Talent Boost showed how difficult it is to build awareness from across the sectors, join forces and utilize each other’s competencies and will in order to deliver on the cross-sectoral projects. As a serendipity moment, while we are all work in progress, this also became a topic of interest from abroad and recently I delivered a keynote to Canadian youth employment service professionals and have also shared this to European Youth Work Convention participants.

But we must push on. It will take a whole of a government approach but will need to be led the way so that it can get a whole of society buy-in to succeed.

Reflecting on the past, this year was a massive work from my side to adapt my work including Hanken HIT online, pushing with video content, giving visibility to deep-seated issues and working in a unison with other colleagues and speakers in the field.

I encourage you to take a meaningful stand in your space and have a conversation where and how our prejudices affect our decision making and question diversity in your space. The rising inequality is a threat to Finnish dream and now diversity and inclusion is everybody’s business, including yours.

6. Trust in serendipity moments in personal and professional life

Two books were quite a savior this year: Serendipity mindset by Christian Busch coupled with Humankind by Rutger Bregman. Both have a positive overview and evidence that spell out ways to look at your environment, keep a bigger historical picture in order to keep faith in tomorrow and seize the needed life-giving serendipity moments. This approach is much better than letting one bad headline after another keep you of track and leave you in cynical inaction. I got enough of a-ha moments despite facing my own personal setbacks, that I have spotted more potential opportunities and why I need be open to the unexpected.

Take a long view for reflection, growth, change and develop your own resilience. I know that my growth and serendipity will lie in the long run and I wish you the scoop the same. What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger Niteszsche) and the upside of it is that we each get more sisu at the end.

Hosting hybrid event Arctic 15 — matchmaking event for businesses, startups and investors

7 Emotional wellness and mental health is here to stay.

Sports has been an inseparable part of my life for performance and to make sure I can stay fit and healthy. Still I was also affected on mental level. Luckily, mental health has also been recognized on societal level as well as in many companies as professionals faced each of their vulnerabilities when lock downs happened.

Like many others I went through multiple anxieties and stress over family members who all suffered the consequences of covid personally and financially. When you run your own consulting and work in two different markets, it can be difficult to navigate the privilege of living in Finland and then responding to a tragedy of Uzbekistan which has suffered significantly. Figuring out ways to cope is individual, but putting yourself first is always a priority. Mental health gives you energy, with energy you can utilize the time and practice more speaking, write better stories and speeches, sell more and serve your purpose. If you do not have energy due to mental fatigue you loose time and ways to create revenue and also contribute to this world. Thankful to Jim Kwik for his teaching and recommend you to listen to his podcast.

Also what helped me is to join emotional wellness space Breathe Helsinki recently opened in Helsinki and services are in English.

Next year for sure is full of hope to go and adopt more ways to make own breakthroughs, thrive and reconnect to your own voice, values, make better choices and truly manifest your power to your community.

“Life is the C between the B and the D, where B stands for Birth, D stands for Death, and C stands for Choice.” — Jim Kwik



Kamilla Sultanova

I’m a keynote speaker and entrepreneur with a passion for diversity and inclusion and all things cross-sectoral.