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The secret of a successful startup ecosystem lies not just in the ideas or investments but significantly in the platforms that bring together its diverse players. This is where Slush, a leading startup conference, can be showcased as a platform that facilitates connections between tens of thousands of startup ecosystem stakeholders around the world. In the 42nd episode of the startup ecosystem podcast, Mahmod Shamsi welcomes Natalie Lingwood, Head of Expansion at Slush to discuss how they managed to organize a top startup conference.

The Genesis of Slush: From Humble Beginnings to Global Impact

The journey of Slush began in 2008 in Finland, with a modest gathering of 250 people. It was founded by a group of entrepreneurs who identified a lack of community and support for startups in Finland, which at the time wasn’t considered a hotbed for startup culture. They aimed to build a positive culture of entrepreneurship, establish the Nordics as a major tech hub, and attract international venture capital. From these initial goals, Slush has grown into a world-leading startup event, drawing 13,000 attendees, 5,000 startups, and 3,000 investors, facilitating over 20,000 meetings under one roof.

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Photo Credit: Slush 2023 by Slush Media

Natalie Lingwood: A Journey of Growth at Slush

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Natalie Lingwood’s story with Slush is an example of the event’s transformative power. Natalie’s first encounter with Slush was as a high school student volunteering at the event. Her initial motive was to enhance her CV, but the experience turned out to be much more transformative. 

As a volunteer, she served as a ‘Slush Buddy’ to one of the event’s key speakers. This role provided her with a unique vantage point to observe the inner workings of the conference and the impactful interactions that took place.

During her time as a volunteer, Natalie realized the world-changing potential of startups. This was a turning point that shifted her career aspirations from politics and international relations to the world of startups. She was inspired by the entrepreneurs who were not just talking about change but actively working towards it.

Driven by her newfound passion for the startup ecosystem, Natalie made a promise to herself to be a part of Slush in a more significant capacity. Fulfilling this promise, she joined the Slush team full-time in 2021, initially as part of the partnerships team. This role marked her first serious foray into the professional world of startups, aligning her career with her passion.

Natalie’s dedication and understanding of the startup ecosystem soon led her to take on the role of Head of Expansion at Slush. In this position, she has been instrumental in strategizing and executing Slush’s growth into new markets. Her approach has been pivotal in ensuring that the expansion respects and integrates the unique aspects of local startup cultures while maintaining the core values of Slush.

Natalie’s journey with Slush is far from over. Her vision for the future involves not only expanding Slush’s geographical reach but also deepening its impact on the startup world. She aims to nurture Slush as a platform that not only showcases and supports startups but also influences the way startup ecosystems develop globally. Her focus is on creating events that are not mere gatherings but pivotal moments in the lifecycle of startups and their ecosystems.

The Slush Experience: More Than Just a Conference

What sets Slush apart is not just the scale but the quality of experiences it offers. Participants often describe a ‘Slush magic,’ a blend of impactful moments and strong emotions that define the event. This magic arises from various factors – the shared excitement and nervousness of speakers, the candid sharing of challenges and losses, and the opportunities for volunteers and attendees to connect with influential figures in the startup world.

Many of Slush’s team members, including key figures like the CEO, started as volunteers. This trajectory highlights Slush’s role in not just shaping the startup ecosystem of Finland but also nurturing future leaders. The event serves as a platform for personal growth and professional development, enabling young talents to immerse themselves in the startup ecosystem and eventually take up significant roles in the industry.

Slush’s Impact on Finland and Beyond

Slush has had a profound impact on Finland’s startup ecosystem. It has helped transform the country into one of the top startup hubs globally, especially noteworthy for a nation with a relatively small population. By hosting Slush in the challenging winter of Helsinki, it has turned a potentially negative aspect into a unique charm, attracting thousands from around the globe.

A significant initiative under Natalie Lingwood’s leadership is Slush’D, an ambitious expansion project that aims to replicate the Slush experience in emerging startup ecosystems around the world. This initiative represents a bold step in Slush’s mission to foster entrepreneurship globally, extending its reach beyond the flagship event in Helsinki.

Slush’D is driven by a mission to identify and nurture nascent startup ecosystems. The idea is to find regions where there is budding potential for a startup culture but a lack of platforms like Slush to bring it all together. Slush’D aims to fill this gap by creating localized versions of the Slush event, tailored to the unique needs and characteristics of each region. This approach not only promotes local entrepreneurship but also integrates these ecosystems into the global startup narrative.

The process of choosing locations for Slush’D events is meticulous and strategic. The team, led by Natalie, looks for ecosystems similar to Finland’s in 2008 — places with underutilized potential and a need for a catalyst to ignite their startup scene. These are typically regions with a growing number of startups but limited access to international networks, funding, and broader recognition. The goal is to unlock this potential and propel these ecosystems onto the global stage.

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Photo Credit: Slush 2023 by Petri Anttila

The Future of Slush: Focus on Impact over Scale

Despite its popularity and the possibility of expansion, Slush remains committed to creating value for startups rather than pursuing profit or scale. This approach ensures that the event maintains its quality and relevance, focusing on connecting startups with investors and mentors and driving forward the next generation of company builders.

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Photo Credit: Slush 2023 by Dustin Preick

Slush and Government Participation

Slush also acknowledges the critical role governments play in supporting startups. The event encourages governmental participation, not just to showcase their regions but to learn from startups about their needs and challenges. This interaction is crucial for governments to understand how best to support their local startup ecosystems.

Photo Credit: Slush 2023 by Dustin Preick

Conclusion: The Slush Legacy

As Slush continues to evolve, it remains as an inspirational example of how a startup conference can empower startup community, collaboration, and innovation. It’s more than just a conference; it’s a catalyst for connecting the dots, a platform for growth, and a celebration of the indomitable spirit of entrepreneurship. Slush not only organizes the world’s best startup conferences but also shapes the future of the startup ecosystem worldwide.