I have recently been contacting alumni from the Creative Sustainability program to hear what my fellow students are nowadays up to. The Creative Sustainability master’s degree program is an interdisciplinary program that teaches students how to solve complex sustainability problems by using creative teamwork, design, and systems thinking. Last time I interviewed Karoliina Hovi (blog post in Finnish only) who is running her own sustainability consulting company, Hovi Creative. In this blog post, I tell the story of how a linguistics student from New Jersey ended up working in the field of sustainable finance, in Helsinki, Finland.
Nicolas Dolce grew up around different languages and cultures. Like many Americans, Nicolas’s roots are in the old world: his mother is a Swedish-speaking Finn from Turku and his father is an Italian American. Many of Nicolas’s friends also had international backgrounds, some with immigrant ancestors and others who had migrated more recently and still had fresh family ties overseas.
“In high school, I had friends from all over the world who would visit their families whenever they had the chance. One friend had parents who were Danish, and during the summer he would go to Denmark and I would go to Finland to visit family. I also had friends from South Korea, India, and Poland who would visit their families every now and then. Some people might still say that they’re Italian even though their family came from Naples in the 1880s.”
This cultural diversity and being exposed to different languages had a big impact on Nicolas’ life, sometimes in very concrete ways. Nicolas learned Swedish thanks to her mother, which contributed to his interest in linguistics, especially after an aha moment during an English class in high school:
“We were reading the epic poem, Beowulf, which is similar to the Finnish Kalevala. We read a version with modern and old English text side by side, and I realized that some of the old words seemed similar to Swedish. That got me interested in historical linguistics. I don’t think that would have happened if I didn’t know some Swedish.”
However, Nicolas had broad interests and linguistics was not the only thing that felt compelling. After high school, he enrolled at The College of New Jersey, where he majored in International Studies. International Studies allowed him to study a broad range of topics, including history, political science, economics, and of course, linguistics. This combination of interests led to fascinating experiences and study projects, one of which involved meeting the Mapuche indigenous people in Chile.
“I studied in Chile in 2013, where we had a meeting with the representatives of the indigenous Mapuche people. Being a linguistics student, I was very interested in their language, the Mapudungun. The language is a mystery because it’s not related to any other indigenous language in the area and no one knows where it came from. The representatives also told us that nobody knows about the Mapuche and he asked us to go and tell other people about them. That left a deep impression and made me interested in learning more about indigenous peoples.”
Meeting the Mapuche later culminated in a senior thesis where Nicolas analyzed why certain indigenous people seem more respected than others.
After graduating from The College of New Jersey, Nicolas had a wide range of options open to him. Although he was primarily interested in linguistics, pursuing an academic career didn’t seem like the most attractive option. The field is very competitive, and the job prospects for professional linguists seemed uncertain. Nicolas also wanted to do something more practical and applied, and he spent a gap year in Finland considering his alternatives. In Finland, he heard about Aalto University’s Creative Sustainability master’s degree program, which brings together students from different fields to learn how to solve sustainability problems through interdisciplinary teamwork. Sustainability and environmental protection were other long-time interests of Nicolas, and the program seemed like a good fit.
“I’ve been interested in the environment ever since I was young. For example, I remember raising money with my brother and sister to donate to an elephant conservation foundation after reading about it in National Geographic. With sustainable business, I also like the idea that you can make a difference, get into organizations, and have an impact on a pretty direct level. I found the Creative Sustainability program to be a really good fit because even though I didn’t have a traditional business background, I could apply to the business track because of the program’s interdisciplinary nature.”
Nicolas was accepted to the program and his studies began in 2016. There was a lot to learn: the program combines courses in sustainability, business, design, and real estate, but also involves studies in systems thinking, service design, and creative teamwork. However, the new ideas connected well with Nicolas’s already interdisciplinary background and he enjoyed the challenge. Nicolas further expanded his horizons by studying Analytics and Data Science as his minor, a decision that would later prove invaluable. Today, Nicolas looks fondly back at his time at Aalto.
“I thought Aalto University was an amazing place and I have great memories from studying there. I think I got the most out of Aalto by being in the Creative Sustainability program, which mixes different schools and fields. My favorite part was the Capstone course. I had never done anything like that, working with a team for a client to solve a real business problem. Always keeping an eye on what the client wants, what is the brief, and working your way to a solution that is possible but that also makes the client happy.”
Interdisciplinary teamwork, systems thinking, and design are crucial to progressing sustainability, but they also helped Nicolas and his three classmates win a social hackathon arranged by Deloitte Finland and a Finnish bank, Osuuspankki, in 2017. The winning prize was a summer job that would allow the team to pilot their idea at both companies.
“We pitched an idea that combined lots of different elements, which we had learned to do in Creative Sustainability. The brief was to solve a social issue in Finland, and we chose isolation among the elderly as our problem. We pitched a service that combined wearable devices, gamification, and social interaction with family members to help activate the elderly. As the winners, two of us ended up working at Deloitte, and the other two at Osuuspankki.”
Nicolas ended up at Deloitte, where he later continued working as a trainee in the Sustainability Services team. From the very beginning, Nicolas got to participate in various sales projects and do billable work related to sustainability, the circular economy, and sustainability reporting. The work was challenging but rewarding.
“The assignments could be challenging and sometimes you were thrown into the deep end. For example, I got an opportunity to create a sales offering for science-based sustainability targets for a prospective client. I didn’t know that much about the topic at the time, so I had to learn everything from scratch, create completely new materials, and research the clients’ needs. The learning curve can be steep, which also means that you get to learn a lot very fast. “
In January 2021, Nicolas left Deloitte to join KPMG Finland as a senior analyst in the Responsible Investment and Sustainability Services team. At KPMG, Nicolas feels like he has truly landed on his niche, where he can combine his understanding of sustainability, data science, and economics to help KPMG’s customers become more sustainable. Reflecting on his journey, Nicolas uses the Japanese word Ikigai to describe his current work, which refers to having a purpose in life.
“Starting from international studies and linguistics, I’ve been narrowing down on what my Ikigai is… and I think that something related to sustainability impact calculation, data science, and sustainable finance regulation seems to be my specialty.”
Nicolas’s story serves as a reminder of the importance of following one’s interest while maintaining a flexible, growth mindset. Although Nicolas was originally interested in linguistics when he embarked on his journey, he also found pleasure in learning about business, politics, economics, sustainability, and even data science and finance. Had he followed the advice to “follow your passion”, he might have never learned about his other passions.
How to develop a growth mindset:
Cal Newport articulates well why it’s not always a good idea to follow one’s passion: