“I started very young; I was in my 30s. It was a freezing water I had to jump in. But I enjoyed it because I always loved the concept of leading. Since I was a child, leadership was a big part of me.”
Persistent and insightful, Director of Business Operations at TAMK EDU, Carita Prokki has spent almost two decades of her life serving Tampere University of Applied Sciences in different roles. Although she started as a teacher in the early 90s, her leadership vision manifested in her actions, beliefs and goals opened doors to new opportunities and career advancements. Carita was soon appointed the dean of School of Business, a role she stayed in for many years and allowed her to practice side teaching.
“When you’re working as a manager or leader, you start missing the teaching. I was then teaching adults, mostly during evenings and Saturdays. I was in heaven those times. And I think the students loved it too because we all had a great time. I used different teaching methods such as group discussions, rather than lectures”, she recalls.
Carita surprised many people when she decided to step out of the dean role and the institution she regards highly. But she reached a turning point in her professional life and felt it was time to do something different. Therefore, she focused her attention on trying something new and completed a PhD in Organizational Leadership.
“If you are not satisfied with your job or life, it also affects people around you. You have to step out and try something new. It’s not always safe, you might fail, but actually, you’re growing all the time. You become stronger. Too many adults feel pushed in the corner and stay there afraid.
Have you ever paid attention to what they say during a pre-flight safety demonstration? If there is a loss of cabin pressure, the panels above your seat will open, and oxygen masks will drop down. If this happens, place the mask over your nose and mouth, and adjust it as necessary. Be sure to adjust your own mask before helping others. Think about it metaphorically. You cannot be good to others if you are not good to yourself. First, help yourself and then somebody else.”
Far from being over, her journey with TAMK took a new direction in the area of global education. TAMK has started this fresh concept in 2011 and Carita came into the picture two years later. In the beginning, there was only the 21st Century Educators programme, but Carita’s huge advantage was her comprehensive knowledge of TAMK.
“I know very well what this institution does and is capable of. You cannot sell Finnish education or tell other people about TAMK without a substantial in-house knowledge. The beginning was very fast, smooth and fruitful. But now, with other universities of applied sciences selling their expertise worldwide, the competition is getting harder, and we think it’s smart to cooperate and unite our forces. While the global trend is more present nowadays, the business ideology is not very developed in Finnish universities.”
So where does TAMK stand out compared to other universities of applied sciences? Carita’s reply is on point: “The vocational teacher education which TAMK takes very seriously. We want to do our best and deliver high-quality results. You need passion to do international business. When you’re passionate about something, it will separate you from the rest.”
On a global scale, TAMK has a unique product found nowhere else: Proakatemia. And Carita knows very well how to make good use of it: “It happened to me sometimes to go to universities above TAMK’s level. In 30 seconds I realised I have nothing to sell to them, apart from Proakatemia. Nobody in this world has Proakatemia. That’s the ace of spades in my pocket. And I can always use that card to sell our advanced entrepreneurial studies.
She continues: “Almost every day, I think how we can praise our country and education more. Finns are modest; they are not so used with words like excellent or amazing to describe their best assets. But when you go abroad, you have to start using these words. Almost the first question I get no matter where in this world I go is: “What is your ranking in Finland?” There are no rankings in Finland. We never aimed at, we never had any competition or ranked ourselves. I hope we will never do that because it will ruin the basics of our educational system. Let’s leave our references and results speak for themselves.”
TAMK EDU makes Finnish education available worldwide. The most important aspect is adapting to different realities, Carita believes: “Whether I go to an Arabic, Asian or Latin American country, I have to be very fast and clever with adapting to their cultures. I can’t go there with Finland tattooed on my forehead and say: “Hey! We come from Finland, and we do things like this.” Although everyone admires and knows so much about Finnish education already. To give you an example, China is such a big market that you can have all the Finnish amks (universities of applied sciences) to offer their services there, and it would still cover only a small part of it.
Chinese customers have a different understanding of a group size. We sent them a letter saying we can host a workshop for 30 people and their reply was that their minimum is 300. Last year in August, we flew there for one big training. We had 340 teachers and rectors in the auditorium waiting for us and wanting an interactive training. I was there with Mark Curcher (Program Director of 21st Century Educators and Senior Lecturer), and we had to split all those people into groups to make it interactive. It was a huge learning opportunity for us and an enjoyable experience.”
The Global Education department does not only provide learning experiences for the team that puts its soul into it, but also for TAMK’s teachers. Carita recalls one particular occasion that cracked open a strong taboo: teachers don’t work during their summer holidays.
“In 2013, I was facing a difficult situation. A group from Oman sent me a short notice message that they’d like to visit TAMK during July. Their arrival date was scheduled right after Juhannus, which in Finland is a popular public holiday. Most Finns celebrate it at their summer cottages with family and friends. I emailed the teachers in the morning with no expectations. Anyone who wants to come to work this July? A few hours later, all the teachers were at TAMK. I was amazed by the positive response, and everything went smoothly with the visit. Teachers confessed to me how grateful they were for this opportunity. I believe that the international context is the fastest highway to develop TAMK thanks to the possibilities it provides. International students are very active, they want to make the most out of their studies, and this makes it very pleasant to the teachers as well. There are an extra gratefulness and love you can feel during international courses.”
Carita travels abroad in connection with her work approximately one week each month. When everyone else is at home sleeping, she has to put up with long and often, uncomfortable flights. An alluring smile graced her lips when she detailed about showing up at a workplace: “Sometimes I feel I could be a gardener and grow flowers. But I think we all have moments in our work when we are not happy. Balancing those moments is important. I have to be patient with the global business; to build the trust and develop the relationship with our customers. In a way, I’m like an entrepreneur; I take care of sales, keep the things rolling all the time and motivate my people to sell. But I don’t put the money ahead. That’s not my style. I believe that when you show good results, the money follows.
She adds: “The Global Education department doesn’t receive a budget from TAMK. We rely entirely on the deals we make. “
Despite the high factor of uncertainty associated with her work, Carita collects distinctive rewards: “It’s challenging and the most difficult job I’ve ever done in my whole life so far. At the very moment, you can be challenged until the limits of your skills. But at the very another moment, you are in heaven with people, and you get your second salary from their sentences.”
An effective leader knows that storytelling is an essential part of leadership. And maybe another beautiful thing about Carita is that she is not afraid to pass along brave sentences on feminism and inspire other women to live an authentic life: “Many women have been under a lot of pressure for so long that they have forgotten about themselves. There are so many things women are capable of achieving in their lives. And I think that media is very cautious and not writing about all these things because they are afraid of empowered women. Women are multi-talented and multi-energized.”
Read more about TAMK Global Education
Text: Andruta Ilie
Photo: Tiina Suvanto