Entrepreneur builds on experiences

01:36, May 21 2014
marise lehto
SURVIVOR: Marise Lehto.

Seeing Cherie Blair on television has given former Timaruvian Marise Lehto the opportunity to put a unique set of experiences to use, in Finland, writes Suzanne McFadden .

Marise Lehto is a survivor: plucked from the sea in a terrifying shipwreck, knocked down by swine flu, and plunged into a new life 17,000km from her hometown of Timaru without possessing a word of the local language.

It's these experiences that have helped shape the woman - and successful entrepreneur - she's become, the 48-year- old says.

And now she's using the wisdom and skills she's gleaned to inspire and mentor other women around the world. Her muse is none other than barrister, charity founder and wife of a former British Prime Minister, Cherie Blair.

Love led Lehto (nee Daly) to the village of Nousiainen in southwest Finland 18 years ago, after meeting a Finnish cruise ship captain in Hong Kong. At 16, she had left her convent school education in Timaru and taken up hairdressing.

By 20, she was on her OE and had begun a career in casino management. She was working on board the Royal Pacific in August 1992, when the cruise ship collided with a fishing trawler in the Straits of Malacca.


Lehto had just minutes to escape the sinking vessel with 529 other passengers. Thirty of them died.

"It was 2.30am, in pitch black and I can't swim," Lehto recalls. "It was certainly a life-changing experience. You see how, within seconds, your life can change; you discover what you are capable of. It was a matter of staying calm, in a very difficult, scary situation. I was in the water, covered in oil.

"I had to focus. When you have just a few minutes to save yourself, you learn the importance of setting goals in order to achieve what you want, what you need. I had to get off that boat alive."

She also learned the power of human kindness from another ship's crew who pulled her from the ocean and gave her food and clothes.

Undaunted, Lehto returned to working on cruise ships, where she met her future husband, Kimmo. She wanted to see his homeland, and "within three days of arriving in Finland, I made my decision this was where I wanted to be", she says.

But there was an obvious barrier - she didn't speak a word of the "incredibly unique" Finnish language, so she needed to learn and find a new line of work.

She'd always had an interest in English and public speaking - at school she had competed in national Toastmasters competitions - and discovered that English as a second language was a thriving industry in Finland.

"Many Finnish companies use English as a lingua franca in their business world, as their language of communication. They are linguistic kings and queens," she says.

Being a native speaker was enough qualification for her to start teaching in the corporate world. But she felt she needed to further her own learning with a master's degree in educational management, working fulltime while doing a distance learning programme through Aston University in England.

Two years into the degree, she realised she had outgrown the multinational language and communication training company where she'd worked for a decade, and finally had the skills and the confidence to start up her own company.

MLA (Marise Lehto Associates) opened its doors in October 2010, and now employs a team of freelancers around Finland. The company specialises in communications training, executive coaching and consulting organisations going through transition.

Two years ago, Lehto decided she wanted to help other women starting out in business. She had given the keynote speech at the Chamber of Commerce in her local city, Turku, at an annual event called Women Who Can, and was inspired to give back.

She found her outlet when watching Cherie Blair on CNN, talking about her Foundation for Women, which supports women entrepreneurs in developing countries.

"She said she wanted to empower women all over the world through knowledge of technology, finance and education.

" It resonated so strongly with me; I had to share my knowledge," Lehto says.

The Kiwi-Finn applied, and was accepted by the foundation as a mentor and is due to meet her first "mentee" this month.

"She could be from anywhere in the world. Through the marvels of technology, we will have our meetings through Skype and online portals," Lehto says.

"Many of these women are in a similar position as I was four years ago. There will be huge growth for me too."

Lehto knows the support technology can bring, especially as an expat far from home. New Zealand Global Women, the New Zealand Business Women's Network in London and Kea continue to provide professional lifelines for her.

She sporadically returns to New Zealand to visit her 84-year-old mum in Timaru and in June will spend five weeks here.

She is "incredibly proud" to be presenting her master's degree research paper at Victoria University at a conference for community languages and ESOL in July.

"Considering I left school at 16, and now I'm in preparation of putting together a PhD proposal, to come home and present the results of my research is a great achievement," Lehto says.

But Finland remains her physical home. She has conquered around 6000 words of the language and found her soulmate - not only in a partner, but in a country.

"It has a lot in common with New Zealand - it has incredibly genuine people who are great nature lovers and have a No 8 wire creativity about them too. It must be the isolation both countries share."

Suzanne McFadden is a writer for Unlimited, a magazine published by Fairfax Media. It is New Zealand's leading digital business magazine dedicated to entrepreneurs, start-ups, leaders and innovators. To subscribe, go to www.unlimitedmagazine.co.nz

The Timaru Herald