Introducing the Honorary Consuls of Finland: Jim Kurtti, Upper Peninsula of Michigan

In this series, we highlight the important work done by our honorary consuls around the 35 states in the jurisdictional area of Consulate General of Finland in New York. Jim (James) Kurtti, the honorary consul in Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is working closely with the Finland-Michigan clean technology partnership and supporting Finnish businesses through FinnZone, a local softlanding platform. In the interview, he sheds light on Michigan’s climate work and the business environment it offers to foreign companies.

Jim Kurtti sitting in a chair, which was part of a gallery exhibit in the Finnish American Heritage Center of the furniture designer Päivi Mikola of Porvoo. Porvoo is Hancock’s sister city. Image: Nathan Miller

Education: Suomi College, Helsinki University & University of Minnesota – BA Social Work & Finnish Studies

Profession:  Director of the Finnish American Heritage Center (FAHC) & Editor of the Finnish American Reporter at Finlandia University (formerly, Suomi College). The FAHC is the home of the largest and oldest collection of Finnish-American archive and artifact collection, as well as the Finnish American Folk School.

Favorite thing about Finland: my relatives, sauna, the lakes, Brunberg chocolate, the education system, and how artful design is reflected in even more ordinary things.


Your history with Finland stretches back to the 1970s. How did you initially get introduced to Finland and later, your role as the Honorary Consul?

After studying two years at Suomi College, I received a Ministry of Education (Opetusministeriö) scholarship enabling me to study at Helsinki University (1977-1978). For a nineteen-year-old boy from a small Upper Peninsula village, the experience was totally life-changing. From the first day, I was smitten with all things Finnish.

For one, I had the wondering opportunity to get acquainted my three living great aunts in Kuusamo, as well as many of my father’s 160 first-cousins and their families. To this day, I am as close to some of these relatives as my own siblings.

Inspired by my year of study in Finland, I decided to expand my social work studies to a double major which included Finnish Studies, selecting the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) as the suitable place to do that – with the assumption social work would land me a job and Finnish studies would honor my immigrant grandparents.

Two weeks after graduation from the University of Minnesota I did land a social work job in the Houghton Co. Juvenile Court. Houghton County, Michigan has the largest concentration of Finnish-Americans in the country. Today roughly 33% of the population claims Finnish heritage. Within two years, I was Juvenile Court Administrator.

After 18 years in the court system, I was given an opportunity to utilize my Finnish Studies major when Finlandia University President Robert Ubbelohde offered me the directorship of the FAHC, as well as editorship of the Finnish American Reporter, a monthly, English-language newspaper for North American Finns.

In 2008, at the retirement of Dr. Ubbelohde, I was appointed as his replacement as Honorary Consul for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Finland has partnered with the state of Michigan to promote a carbon-neutral economy and ambitious climate action. How do you see the role of trans-Atlantic relationships and partnerships like this one in supporting research, innovation, and industrial transformation needed to transition to a sustainable bio and circular economy?

It’s no accident that Finland has partnered with Michigan in addressing carbon-neutral economies and climate action, nor is it a result of the fact that Michigan has more Finnish Americans than any other state – although, it doesn’t hurt. In September [2020] Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order aiming to make Michigan’s economy carbon-neutral by 2050. Numerous Michigan cities, often heavily influenced by innovation and leadership from Michigan universities within their communities, have much earlier goals. Michigan is committed to taking a leadership role in addressing global climate challenges.

Likewise, Michigan’s automotive industries fully embrace the fact their future success relies on innovatively responding to the climate crisis.

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, The Great Lakes Research Center (GLRC) at Michigan Technological University provides state-of-the-art laboratories to support research on a broad array of topics. Faculty members from many departments across Michigan Technological University's campus collaborate on interdisciplinary research, ranging from air–water interactions to biogeochemistry to food web relationships. A state-of-the-art building, the GLRCs serves to educate the scientists, engineers, technologists, policymakers, and stakeholders of tomorrow about the Great Lakes basin.

In September [2020] Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order aiming to make Michigan’s economy carbon-neutral by 2050. Numerous Michigan cities, often heavily influenced by innovation and leadership from Michigan universities within their communities, have much earlier goals. Michigan is committed to taking a leadership role in addressing global climate challenges.

The MoU between Finland and Michigan was formed to develop solutions for clean technology, including smart mobility, battery technology, and sustainable bioeconomy. Michigan is the home to, for instance, many of the top universities in the US and three country’s largest automobile manufacturers. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for Finnish businesses and research organizations in Michigan?

Michigan, demonstrating its own version of sisu, has reinvented itself from the years of decline connected to a strong reliance on the auto industry. The State is increasingly diversifying its economy, and embracing green technologies and innovation. Michigan abounds in renewable resource and possesses human and entrepreneurial capital to move forward.

It has been unfortunate that almost immediately after the MoU between Finland and Michigan was signed, the State and for that matter, the world, went into a COVID shutdown.  Despite the obstacles, I’m really pleased to be part of the efforts to actualize tangible outcomes from the March 2020 signing of the MoU, such as the recent teleconference between Governor Whitmer, Finnish Minister of Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä, Ambassadors Mika Koskinen and Mikko Hautala.

You have been actively involved with FinnZone(Link to another website.), a Finnish-American commercial launchpad located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that assists Finnish companies entering or expanding in the U.S. Could you shed a light on that work and what type of support you have been able to provide for Finnish companies?

I am very proud to lend support to the FinnZone (created 2018), as well as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan Chapter of the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce (created 2014). In their short histories, both organizations have hosted visits by Finnish companies in bioeconomy, mobile applications, advanced wood product design, forest machinery and others.   

The FinnZone, with physical sites at both Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation building and Finlandia’s Jutila Center, both SmartZone incubator and innovation centers, are committed to providing soft-landing services to Finnish business in the U.S.

The FinnZone recently participated in a webinar relative to Michigan’s Smart Ships Coalition and Finland’s OneSea Ecosystem about Autonomous Vessel Testing, focusing specifically on the Great Lakes region – a result of the spirit of recent Finland-Michigan MoU.

FinnZone, partnering with Finlandia University’s Business Professionals of America and Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences’ XES Helsinki Student Entrepreneurial Community, hosts its first transatlantic video business plan presentations by XES and other Helsinki-based entrepreneurs, commencing 17 Nov 2020. The entrepreneurs will then receive feedback and advice from a panel of business experts from FINNZONE and the Keweenaw’s business network. 

The Finnish American Chamber of Commerce and FinnZone, working with videographer Kristin Ojaniemi, are currently producing a series of short videos delivering the compelling story of Finnish businesses that came to make a soft U.S. landing in our region.

Turku native Santeri Seppinen, who is currently studying at Finlandia University, is an intern with FinnZone, where his business major and native Finn perspective serves well. Because of the enduring Finnish presence in community, Santeri is a local celebrity with his videos "Santeri Says," teaching pronunciation of Finnish words to local community members.

How do you see the COVID-19 crisis affecting sustainable development in Michigan both short and long term?

The COVID-19 significantly impacted the 2020 plans of our regional efforts. Two delegations from Finland, scheduled to arrive in May and June of this year, had to postpone their travel plans to visit Upper Michigan. One group, sponsored by Business Finland and representing seven Finnish companies, continues delegation preparations anticipating the eventual lifting of travel restrictions. We are using this time to be all the more prepared for the delegation’s arrival. 

What are the challenges you would be able to support Finnish companies with and what type of companies would you encourage to contact you?

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is uniquely positioned as the soft-landing site for Finnish business, in particular, small and start-up companies. We have created systems specially designed for these purposes. Our universities drive the local economy, bringing academics and researchers from around the world; we have an abundance of renewable resources in our forests and lakes; and a population which understands the Finnish way of thinking and doing. The Upper Midwest region of the U.S. has been called “The Sauna Belt” because roughly half of the Finnish-American population lives here. If that is indeed true, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s Copper Country is the shining buckle on the “belt.”  Tervetuloa Kuparisaarelle!

Honorary consulates

The honorary consulates augment Finland’s network of diplomatic missions, made up of embassies, consulate generals, consulates and other liaison offices. An honorary consulate is headed by an honorary consul. Honorary consuls are private individuals who take care of their tasks on a part-time basis without remuneration. Read more about all of our honorary consulates here:

Read other "Introducing the Honorary Consuls of Finland" articles

Introducing the Honorary Consuls of Finland: Elaine M. Kumpula, Minnesota

Introducing the Honorary Consuls of Finland: Frank Donnelly, Texas