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Sanna Marin, the popular former prime minister of Finland, on Putin, powerful women and legislating in the age of AI

Earlier this month, at the Slush tech conference in Helsinki, this editor had the opportunity to sit down with Sanna Marin, the popular former prime minister of Finland who became known internationally for socializing with friends, but whose accomplishments in office are far more significant, including successfully pushing Finland to join NATO to better protect the country from its neighbor Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

Marin, who opted out of Finnish politics in September, works today at the Tony Blair Institute as a strategic counselor; she is also working on a startup with one of her longtime political advisors. Still, based on the rapturous crowd that Marin drew during our conversation at Slush, it’s easy to imagine her eventual return to the political arena.

She didn’t rule it out during our sit-down. However, we spent much more time talking about what Russia’s aggression means for the rest of the world, why women should more readily trust themselves in positions of power and the promises and perils of AI — and what lawmakers should do about it. Here are excerpts from that chat, edited lightly for length and clarity.

In late 2019, you took on a job that’s typically the culmination of a long career in public service and you took it on fairly early [at age 34]. What was it like to be thrust into that position?

Well, of course, when you take that kind of position or job, you’re never fully prepared. When you do the work, then you learn what the job is, so it’s a leap of faith. In Finland, we’ve had a few female prime ministers, but if we look globally, the situation isn’t very good. We have 193 countries in the UN and only 13 of them are led by women, so the world isn’t very equal [when it comes to] leadership and it never has been. I only hope that we will see more female leadership in the world in the future.

We’re sitting here in front of a very big audience of tech founders who are trying to knock down walls and also shatter glass ceilings. What’s your advice to them?

My main advice is to trust yourself. Believe in yourself. If you’re in a position where you are able to take a leadership position, then think, ‘Maybe I am capable. Maybe I can do this.’ Especially women, many times they question themselves. Are they ready for that job? Are they good enough? Can they do everything perfectly? Men don’t think like that. They think that ‘Yeah, I’m better. I’m the best one for the job.’ I think women also need that attitude and they need the support and to be encouraged to take risks and leadership positions, because women are good leaders. And if you’re at that point where you can take that position, it’s because you are good and you are capable. So go for it.

You went through a lot as PM. Soon after you were elected, COVID took hold of the world. Last year, Russia invaded Ukraine. You have a very long and complicated relationship with Russia. You’ve got a very long border with Russia. Can you take us back to that day when you heard the news [of the invasion] and what was going through your mind?

I can remember vividly, like it was yesterday, because we knew by then that it was probable that Russia would attack Ukraine. During that [preceding] summer, almost half year earlier and during that whole fall, Russia, for example, slowed energy flows to Europe to lessen different countries’ storage, and thus, Russia could use energy as a weapon against Europe later on. Russia also put many troops near the Ukrainian border, saying it was a drill and they wouldn’t attack. Now we know that was a lie. Many leaders were in contact with Putin, trying to find diplomatic, peaceful routes out of the situation before the full attack started, and he lies to everyone. Now, we have to learn from that. I have said on many stages that Western countries, democratic countries everywhere globally, should stop being naïve. We should wake up to authoritarian regimes and [recognize that’s how] they function and see the world and their logic is very different from the democratic countries. We thought in Russia’s case that because we have close economic and business ties with Russia that those connections could secure peace because it would be so costly and so stupid to start a war. Because it is stupid. It’s illogical, from our perspective. But authoritarian countries don’t think like that. So it didn’t prevent anything.

You’ve talked before of people’s naivete when it comes to dealing with authoritarian governments, including as it relates to tech, where you believe that autonomy is also important. I’ve heard you express concern about Europe’s broad reliance on chips from China, for example. How would you rate Finland’s progress on this front?

Finland is doing quite well compared to many other countries . . . When we look at tech, the most important thing is to invest in education from early childhood to universities [and to invest heavily in] R&D and new innovations . . . We agreed in Finland that we are aiming to raise our R&D funding to up to 4% of our GDP by the year 2030, which is actually a very ambitious goal . . . but I’m an optimist and I want to believe that technology can actually help us in solving the big issues of the future, like climate change, loss of biodiversity, pandemics and other critical problems. So we need technical solutions. We need innovation. And we need to make sure that we also have the platforms and the will to encourage building that. . .

How would you grade the European Commission’s work?

In many ways, the situation in Ukraine has deepened the relationship between Europe and the States and also Great Britain. Europe as a whole has a great role in making sure that we have good rules internationally when it comes to big tech and the development of AI. So we need ethical rules that every country in the world should or have to follow. I can see a lot of risks if the European Commission or other legislative bodies don’t work with the entrepreneurs or private sector businesses because the development of new technologies is so fast, so cooperation is key. And I would like to see more interaction and cooperation between private and public.

We’re already seeing so much good from AI when it comes to healthcare and education. We’re also hearing more and more about risks to humanity. I know you’ve been excited about AI for some time. Have you changed your view about its potential?

Every technology — everything new — comes with risks. There is always a negative side to everything. But there is also a positive side, and that’s why I would like to see more and more interaction between the ones who are creating the technology and the legislative people who are creating the rules for these technologies . . . so we can make sure that there are more positive sides than negative ones.

I love the work-life balance in Finland, and I also love that there’s some aversion to outsize wealth, the very extreme opposite of which we see in the U.S. and especially in the Bay Area, where people tend to value themselves based on how much money they make. I do wonder if that is a gating factor to ambition here or to attracting and retaining entrepreneurs.

It’s very important that you have balance in your life. If you only work, you can work very hard for a certain period of time, but then you will burn out. I think we should encourage ambition but also [ensure people] have free time that they can spend with their family. In fact, we renewed the parental leave system in Finland [when] I led the government to ensure more time is given to fathers to spend with their small children, while also [making it more possible] for mothers to build their careers. I haven’t ever met a father who has said, ‘I really regret spending time with my kid when he or she was small,’ right? Nobody ever says that. That time away from work gives people perspective.

You’re now a political consultant working for the Tony Blair Institute. What do you make of the characterization of TBI as the ‘McKinsey to world leaders’?

Well, [my longtime advisor Tuulia Pitkänen] and I used to do this, working in almost 40 countries globally, advising governments, advising heads of states on different matters. Of course, it varies from country to country whether it’s to do with agriculture, technology or many other things, and my job [at TBI] is to [similarly] advise heads of state and also different governments on certain issues. You know, when you are in that position of leadership, leading a country, nobody really understands that. You cannot read it in a book, you have to experience it. So leaders need that kind of interaction — to speak with people who really know the job and how hard it is and all the factors that you have to consider doing that job. So that’s my job there. But I also do many other things like speaking at different events and interacting with people. I still want to change the world. I haven’t lost my passion about the issues [that compelled me to enter into] politics in the first place. I still have all those passions, but now I have of course more freedom to do other things and I’m open to them.

You were so popular as a prime minister. You’re also still very early in your career. Are you interested in going back into politics at some point?

I haven’t said that I wouldn’t ever go back. Of course, it’s a possibility. Someday, I might find that passion to pursue a political career once again. But for now, I’m doing something else. And I believe you should always close some doors to open new ones. Closing some doors, doing something else, finding new paths has worked well for me so far. So I never have had a five-year or 10-year career plan or any plan of the sort. I believe opportunities come to you, and then you take them or not. You can always choose. But my advice is to not plan too much of your life because life is always a mystery and it’s always unknown and that’s why it’s so interesting.

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