Jenni Ahtiainen - COCHLEAR IMPLANT BASICS
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Jenni Ahtiainen

A recurring topic among hearing care professionals is why those with a hearing loss wait for an average of seven years before they seek help.
Vanity and the fear of appearing “weak” are the reasons that appear most frequently.
Jenni Ahtiainen is the founder of Deafmetal. (www.deafmetal.com ) Hearing loss runs in her family. She did not receive her first hearing aids until she was in her 40s. Being in the beauty and fashion industry, she arrived home wearing alien devices which did not fit her self-image.

“… I just took them behind my ears, and I put them on the table, and I started to think, “I’m being totally honest now. I’ve been a designer for 15 years. It was only logical for me as a jewelry designer to just do something around them so that they would feel more like me.”

Products are not the parvenue of Cochlear Implant Basics, but education and motivation are. I invited Jenni to sit down with me for an interview. I wanted to learn more about her motivation and her vision for the future for changing the perception of prosthetic hearing devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants.

For listeners interested in more information and a distributor in the USA visit www.deafmetalusa.com

A full list of offerings can also be found at www.deafmetal.store On the store site, there is a full list of countries where her jewelry can be found. Currently, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Denmark, Belgium, USA, South Africa, and Australia. The list will grow so check the store for updates.

Transcript

Voiceover:
Cochlear Implant Basics is a site for candidates and their families and friends. If you have been told you qualify for a cochlear implant, these podcast interviews tell how receiving a cochlear implant can be a life changing experience. You will meet recipients who face a hearing loss and then hearing aids could no longer provide comprehension of speech or music. They face growing isolation, inability to socialize, or compete in the world of business. The joy of music disappeared. They explain how receiving a cochlear implant changed their lives.
Welcome to Cochlear Implant Basics. A reminder, Cochlear Implant Basics is not sponsored by anyone nor is it offering medical advice. Please consult your own healthcare provider.

Richard:
Okay. This morning, we’re going to be doing a very interesting interview, slightly off-topic for Cochlear Implant Basics. Because one of the aspects I’ve always been interested in is why people wait seven or eight years to get help for their hearing loss. My own discovery has been vanity’s number one. So we are going to be talking with Jenni who has this very unusual company. And I think ties in with that topic. So if you just state your name, where you are, and the date.

Jenni Ahtiainen:
Hello, everyone. My name is Jenni Ahtiainen. I’m right now sitting in my living room in Finland.

Richard:
Okay. Jenny, let me ask you a little bit about your own hearing loss, a little bit about your background, if you can just tell me is some of the things you’ve gone through on your hearing journey.

Jenni Ahtiainen:
Yeah. So I lost my hearing. Well, I got my hearing aids in 2018.

Richard:
How old were you then?

Jenni Ahtiainen:
I was 40, but just a little bit older 40. But it runs into the family. The bad hearing runs in the family. My mother has hearing aids. And my grandmother should have had, but she never did. I think that that was the basis for my hearing loss story.
Then I started to play violin, even though I look like a punk rock person. But I started to play classical violin when I was in the age of three. When the doctor started to study my ears, before I turned 40, he realized that I had some severe problems in my left ear. I started to lose my hearing tremendously when I was playing violin.
So I was playing it for 15 years before I started to get interested in the boys and red wine. I had my own students. I taught them violin playing. But then the puberty and with the things that young people are interested in also, so they came along. And I stopped playing violin and I changed it to punk, which never made that hearing loss any better.
So basically that is the story how it all started out. And then we started to rehearse in a very, very small basement room. And that was the time of the world that nobody was wearing any kind of earplugs. And that is something that my company really trying to do is preventive work for hearing loss. And that’s like tell the people that how important it is to actually use plugs, because I’m a walking example of that kind of a person who never took my-

Richard:
I have a question right here because I volunteered in 24-time zones and even Cochlear works in 84 countries. So I’m always conscious of the nuances between cultures and hearing loss. Can you tell me a little bit about the culture of hearing loss in Finland? Is it accepted or is it something that you’re rejected? How is it handled?

Jenni Ahtiainen:
So four years ago when I got my own hearing aids, I used behind-the-ear hearing aids, that was kind of a jump from a normal hearing person life into the world of deaf people. What I realized then was that… So we have two foundations in Finland, the other one is for deaf people and the other one is for hearing impaired, well, hard-of-hearing people. And so, I mean, people like me who are using hearing aids, but aren’t totally deaf. And I understood that we… In Finland, people and the society kind of separates these two group of people. And even the foundations of the deaf people and hard-of-hearing people, they don’t want to talk to each other. And then I was like, “Okay, what’s going on?”
I remember when I established my brand, which is called Deafmetal, it is a jewelry brand for hearing aids. So I got quite much critics from the people of the hard-of-hearing community, not the deaf community. I got hate letters that, “What are you talking about? We are not deaf. We are just using hearing aids. We are not deaf.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So there is a way too little humor in people’s lives, generally.
So I think that one reason why my brand got viral, the first picture that we took in 2018 after I made the innovation, was because of the brand name was so fun. But the criticism, it was amazing, because even the older people they were telling me that the more I talk about hearing loss and the more I talk about hearing aid stigma, the more people start to feel stigmatized. And I was like, “Well, my logic doesn’t go like that.”
When I got my hearing aids, I didn’t have any hair to cover my hearing aids. I didn’t either have that attitude to do that. I knew the second when I got my hearing aids that, “Okay. They didn’t feel like me.” I haven’t been ever using hearing aids before, and they felt like medical-looking devices on a woman who has been focusing her entire life in fashion and beauty. So I’ve been doing two of the designing for 15 years. So, of course, I needed to do something. And that was only very logic step for me to just tune them up a little bit, like show them off.

Richard:
I have a question right here because I’ve been involved in the arts my whole life. And one of the things I always found fascinating is the spark of inspiration. Did that spark of inspiration come to you about making-

Jenni Ahtiainen:
Yes.

Richard:
… the jewelry? Did it come at night? Did it come into your sleep? Do you remember-

Jenni Ahtiainen:
No.

Richard:
… the fact that spark?

Jenni Ahtiainen:
It was beautiful. I go pitching a lot. I go and compete a lot with Deafmetal because it has such a big social effectivity to people. We have changed the lives of people who are using hearing aids and cochlear implants. So how it happened was that I got my hearing aids on Monday, and then I had to go to work on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. And Saturday was my first day off from work. Then I went to my workshop and the first thing I did, I took these shits behind my ears. This is how I have been describing this moment to my friends and to everybody. So I just took them behind my ears and I put them on the table and I started to think, “I’m being totally honest now. I’ve been a designer for 15 years. It was only logical for me as a jewelry designer to just do something around them so that they would feel more like me.”
And it took five minutes. I have been using leather, very thin Finnish reindeer leather in my accessories, in my former life as an accessory and jewelry designer. So leather was a perfect material also to put around the hearing aid because of the receiver. You cannot put any tough, any hard material on it because of the very sensitive microphones. And so I took the black reindeer leather, and I made patterns, the smallest patterns ever, so that they would fit perfectly around my hearing aids. And then I attached there some earring-looking leather strips, and I just felt like I needed to put there.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea what I was doing, but my child, Ilda, it’s in English, her name is Evening. So Ilda came into my workshop and she looked at me, and I had the things in my ears already, and I was there all by myself, and she looked at me, and I looked at her. And I told her that, “Look what I did. Look what I did. I made these look like earrings. And these look like me, and I looked like me.” So I didn’t know what was going on. I just tuned up my own hearing aids.
And then I went to my husband and I told him that, “Please take a picture of my ear.” Because it’s very, very difficult to take a side picture of your ear. So he told me, “No. Why do you want me to take a picture?” And I said, “I just have the feeling that I need to tell everybody now. I need to put this on social media for the people to see… where all my customers, when I was doing just the basic jewelry design.” He was like, “Okay. So we have to go to sauna soon. Nobody’s watching you coming out of the closet on Saturday and telling that you have hearing aids and that you did this kind of jewelry on them.” And I said, “No. Take the picture.” And then he took the picture and then I put it online.
Immediately, I saw that there was something happening. I mean, there were these red dots, they just kept coming on there. And I went to toilet with the children and my husband, and I needed to come back in the middle of sauna and just look at the phone and it got viral. I mean, one reason was maybe the fact that nobody was expecting that. One reason was the fact that I was not trying to sell anything. I was just honestly coming out of the closet and telling people that I made these jewelry, that this is something wonderful. And then it started to spread. That was the moment. And every time when I go pitching, every time I had a-

Richard:
I’m so sorry. You made this prototype they caught on, did you start producing them one at a time or-

Jenni Ahtiainen:
Yes.

Richard:
… how did you just evolve from that?

Jenni Ahtiainen:
So what happened is that amongst the other contacts that I got from the Hearing Association of Finland, and Phonak and WESOUND contacted me. These hearing aid users wanted me to design different kind of jewelry for them. Of course, all the hearing aids, they were different, they were from different manufacturers, they were different models. And suddenly, I noticed that I have these patterns for different hearing aids, which were the smallest patterns I have ever made. And I was keeping them in a matchbox because I could fit all the patterns in the matchbox. And then at some point I needed to make some stitching into the, I call them Holsters right away, and the Holster… that is just purely the jewelry holder, which is adjusted around the hearing aid. And into that Holster, you can put any kind of jewelry you want, but you needed some kind of a holder.
Then quite fast I realized that I need to make these holders from some more wiser material because I am going to kill myself and my adulthood by just doing these little handicraft works, these holders from leather. And then I started to develop this jewelry holder from silicon with a Finnish silicon factory. And that ended up really good. And actually today, I was talking to our silicon factory again, because we are developing now just for cochlear implant users, their own holder, silicon holder, which is called the Holster. So basically, the first Holster was made for behind their hearing aids. And now we are doing especially for cochlear implants.

Richard:
You’re now at the cusp of an explosive business.

Jenni Ahtiainen:
It is growing. This is something funny that I have discovered. When you have a new innovation, when you have a new idea, even though it would be very logical idea, most of the people they don’t adapt to it right away. They are the younger people who might be very open-minded to new ideas. But for some people, and we are talking about entering new markets, it takes approximately one year to really get the sales done.
I established a company in 2020, just one month before COVID19, for Deafmetal, and now we are selling in four different continents and 12 different countries. So we are growing really fast. But it is really helping that it takes one year to enter the market for the people to adapt to a new innovation like Deafmetal.

Richard:
Right. Those are the innovative buyers and marketing what you’re describing is very classical, so that you basically have started off strong and it just takes time. The biggest problem you’re going to have in the future are imitators, obviously, but if you hit quickly, you’ll be the leader of the field. Obviously, I don’t wear them. I haven’t used your product, but I’ve been very impressed with the feedback I’ve gotten from those who have bought Deafmetal.
So you do have distributors around the world, I understand there’s somebody in the United States. And I’m going to list all the links at the beginning of our podcast posting so that people will know where to find you. Because like I said, this is really the first time I’ve had a podcast about a product, but it’s more than a product. It’s more about getting people to lose the stigma of getting a hearing aid and to get help. And you’ve made a tremendous leap in that field.

Jenni Ahtiainen:
Yeah. This is something that I have been thinking a lot about. Because of the feedback, it has made me realize… I mean, there is not one feedback that I don’t read and cry because it really has changed people’s lives. For example, our customer from South Africa, she bought her first Deafmetal from our distributor in South Africa called Southern ENT. And then, she wrote me a hell of a long email and I was reading it. My husband asked me, “Are you getting a flu?” And I was like, “No.” It was the third time that I was reading it because I was just getting so emotional. But she was writing like so beautiful way, I mean, like so beautiful way that nowadays my company’s copywriter is from South Africa. We are in the same time zone with South Africa. So basically, we can work at the same working hours with them, official hours.

It has made me understand the different aspects that people have towards their hearing aids. One aspect is especially the fact that we are not just selling jewelry, we are selling attitude. For example now, we are searching for models, cochlear implant models. And I put into our Instagram, I put there a wanted post that we are searching for cochlear implant models. And for the first time when I made the same kind of announcement for our customers who have started to call themselves Deafmetalists, nothing happened in the first week. Nobody wanted to. And I was like, “Oh my God, we are not going to find any model.” Because I choose only real, authentic hearing-impaired people, people who are using hearing devices, not any just cool-looking model. I mean, normal hearing models. No. They are all from deaf community.

And so, nothing happened in the first week. And then they started to drop really long emails, people with their selfies, and they were really coming out from their closet, and telling all their hearing loss story for me. And the fact that they have the guts to do that, to be a model for a hearing aid jewelry brand. And then they decided that, “Yeah. This is the end. I will not be ashamed about this anymore.” I’ve seen how people grow. I mean, how they come out and how they realize just the one snap in the head, and they realized that, “Why have I been doing this to myself?”
Okay. When I got my hearing aids, I started to think really fundamentally. Well, if you have a bad eyesight, you get to choose from different kind of eyeglasses, no matter if you’re a man, woman, or a child, or any genre. If you have a bad hearing, you are just stuck with these devices for the rest of your life, and you can’t do anything about them. And even the hearing aid manufacturers, the whole hearing aid sector, it’s paradoxical because they are kind of feeding the same shame that people are feeling because they are making the hearing aids more smaller, smaller, and smaller, more invisible. And the signal that it gives is the thing that nobody can see that.

Richard:
You’re absolutely right. But they are also catering to a market that would not get a hearing aid otherwise. So there are two sides or no consumers are going to fit every pattern, so I understand two sides of it. But I’m so fascinated by what you’ve done. And you’re right, you get emotional when people change because of your work. It’s just incredible. I’m just so fascinated by what you’re doing, and I hope it grows and grows and grows. And I hope you stay in touch with me. And maybe we’ll do another interview six months or a year down the road to see how your company has evolved and how the attitudes change as well.

Jenni Ahtiainen:
And hey, one thing, can I say into the end of this? Look at the world, look how you can’t see hearing aids or hearing loss anywhere. And that is one reason why people are feeling ashamed about it. You cannot see any pictures of hearing aid users in any lifestyle magazine, anywhere. We have to make it more visible and then everything comes more easy.

Richard:
I agree with you 100%. Hey, together, we’re going to move the world in the right direction for these.

Jenni Ahtiainen:
Yes.

Richard:
It is an invisible disability. Let’s face it. I think America actually just reached a new threshold because we’ve just approved over-the-counter hearing aids, which I think is going to be very interesting. I’m not sure if I’m in favor or opposed to it at this point, but it’s going to definitely play itself out. And your company Deafmetal is going to play a role in that as well. I’m sure.

So thank you very, very much. I appreciate your time. I appreciate talking to you. And we will be back with more within it is about a year or so from now and we’ll see where we’re at.