Work

Gothenburg, Sweden

My Brilliant Career

Mitt Liv

November 12, 2015

An entrepreneurial social venture connects talented young immigrant women to employment opportunity.

“Sweden is a place with two doors. The first is the door to the country; this door is open. The second is the door to the labour market, and it’s closed” – Sofia Appelgren, Founder, Mitt Liv, and Ashoka Fellow.

Source: Mitt Liv

Source: Mitt Liv

Sweden leads the world in its embrace of refugees from around the world, in 2014 receiving more applicants for asylum than any other country world-wide in per capita rankings.

The Swedish state does not base any statistics on ethnicity, so there are no exact numbers on the total number of people of immigrant background in Sweden. However, the country’s generous immigration policies have resulted in a population of 1.3 million foreign born residents living in Sweden and accounting for slightly more than 14% of the population. Within this group, young immigrant girls face the highest levels of joblessness of any demographic in the nation.

As a successful serial entrepreneur and innovator whose earliest business ventures began in high school, Sofia Appelgren was shocked by the discrimination faced daily by her “second generation, Turkish Swedish born” husband. Appelgren founded Mitt Liv in 2008, a social enterprise that works on two fronts: to create more professional and career opportunity for young immigrant women, and a labour market that values and promotes diversity. Mitt Liv matches dynamic and entrepreneurial young immigrant women with Swedish entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Through mentoring, training and a wide range of contacts, Mitt Liv (which translates to ‘My life’) opens doors for the ‘best and the brightest’ women of immigrant backgrounds and provides them with access to training and employment opportunities. To balance the integration equation, Mitt Liv partners with business to address social challenges through innovative business solutions.

Beginning in Gothenburg on Sweden’s West Coast, the program is poised to spread to Stockholm, Malmo and beyond.

An Invisible Wall

In Sweden’s close-knit business culture, corporate hiring operates on networking, personal relationships, and references. To a very large degree, immigrants do not have access to these resources. Immigrants in Sweden have tended to settle into affordable high-rise public housing on the city’s edge, reinforcing a segregated society and exacerbating their integration challenges. In the suburbs of the Sweden’s most segregated cities, Goteborg and Malmo, for example, over 80 percent of city residents were born outside of Sweden. And the population is booming, with forecasts predicting an increase in the foreign-born from 14% to 27% over the 10 year period ending in 2015.

Another problem is that the Swedish labour market favours the familiar; Swedish employers take fewer risks in hiring “unknowns” with foreign names and limited CVs. Often described as the “invisible wall,” this division makes employment and integration into the business world difficult for immigrants without personal and professional networks and Swedish work experience. In fact, it takes the average migrant between 5-9 years to access the Swedish labour market.

Not good enough, says Appelbaum.

“With our program, we are able to shorten this period considerably,” says Sofia. “The great force of our program lies in the fact that we do not approach women as victims, but work from their power. These women are very motivated and have often had a good education, they simply do not know their way around in the business sector. That is where we come in.”

The Mitt Liv Model

The organization believes that finding work is the key to positive integration. It seeks highly motivated young immigrant women and matches them with established Swedish business leaders who value diversity and seek to better understand and leverage its power to drive innovation and better business solutions. Mentoring is the catalytic experience that unleashes their potential while seeding diversity and new ideas into old world institutional culture.

Mitt Liv recruits immigrant women with what Sofia calls “true will” (drive and ambition) and enrolls them in Mitt Liv Chans (‘Chance of a Lifetime’), its individual mentoring program. “If you are driven and want to make a start in a job that is close to your competence, then this is the program for you” says Sofia.

The Chance of a Lifetime program matches ambitious young immigrant women with pre-screened mentors from the professional and business community. Promising young people gain access to insider knowledge, skills and network, while mentors gain knowledge and insight from a talented pool of young recruits about how to promote and manage diversity as an asset within their workplace. It’s a win-win for mentee and mentor.

And it’s hard work. For mentors, a nine month program, at least ten mentoring sessions, additional networking meetings and events – some on weekends – plus a programming fee and formal commitment from the host organization.

Eligibility requirements for the mentees are just as rigourous. Mit Liv puts out a call for applications through local school and community networks and selects potential program participants based on their immigrant status, background and educational attainment. Mit Liv is looking for young immigrant women with post-secondary education (or higher), valid residence permits, who are without job equivalent qualifications and lack professional contacts and networks. Applicants must also have basic Swedish language proficiency so they can hit the ground running.

Each participant is matched with a personal mentor with similar interests and career path in areas ranging from engineering and law to economics. Mentor and mentee work their way through the Chance of Lifetime curriculum together, covering topics such as Swedish work culture and social norms, designed to ease the transition into the labour market. Participants build networks, personal relationships, and life-plans—giving them solid contacts for the future and opportunities to incubate their own ideas and develop their entrepreneurial skills.

Mitt Liv started with just 40 people in its mentorship program. Today over 400 people are mentored every year. Participants come from Syria, Somalia, Turkey, Iran and 40-odd other countries.

Reciprocity

Mitt Liv operates on the principle that integration is a two-way street. The organization works with both employees and mentees equally. Overturning the structure of traditional mentorship models, Mitt Liv has created a professional solution, creating a win-win, symbiotic interactive program for participating partner companies.

The goal is to support the women to see their own dreams as an option, offer them the tools to be competitive, and build a culture of entrepreneurship in a demographic inclined towards it.

The young program participants are not “victims” needing help, but rather equal partners who can contribute ‘expert’ insight and education to company employees. Sofia feels that “a relationship well-built has profound impact.” The young participants reciprocate by sharing their knowledge of immigrant life and markets through paid lectures, participation in consumer research focus groups, forums, and field trips.

Partnership

Companies pay for the privilege of working with the MittLive participants and employing their services—the joint partnership is celebrated and its high visibility attracts new people to the idea. In addition to mentoring programs, Mitt Liv offers lectures, training, counseling, networking meetings for organizations interested in the areas of diversity and development. Mitt Liv generates income by selling the partner package deal to a broad range of companies – from cosmetics to finance – containing access to guest lectures, discussion groups, mentoring, a forum to exchange experiences between partners within both internal and external diversity efforts. Financed by collaborations with partners that recognize the value and benefits of increased diversity in the workplace, the program is free for the mentees.

Today, Mitt Liv works with over 30 large corporations who are committed to a future of greater diversity in the Swedish labour market including Volvo, Danske Bank, Länsförsäkringar, Stena Fastigheter, the NCC, the Municipality of Norrköping and many more.

Mitt Liv’s newest collaboration is with Vasakronan, one of Sweden’s largest property companies, aimed at developing Vasakronan’s diversity efforts. The organization’s Regional Head Kristina Petterson in Gothenburg recognizes that while the organization is making efforts to recruit diverse staff they also need to work with their values to create a more inclusive and tolerant work culture. “Partnerships with social enterprises like Mitt Liv are incredibly valuable because they create opportunities for our employees to learn more about the foreign born population entering the Swedish market”

Success

In 2011, Mitt Liv sealed a deal with the city of Gothenburg for financial support – such a partnership between a major Swedish city and a social enterprise is a historical first in the region.

David Lega, the deputy mayor of Gothenburg and a longtime mentor believes that it is the Founder’s habit of looking for solutions, rather than focusing on problems that has allowed Mitt Liv to flourish. “She (Sofia) focuses on what people can do, instead of always getting stuck,” he says. What’s more, “she believes what she’s talking about.”

Accolades have poured in. Sofia was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2010 for her work “tackling the dual challenges of integration and joblessness among immigrant community in Sweden.” In 2012, the organization won the Anna Lindh Scholarship for being an organization with the courage to fight indifference, prejudice oppression and injustice. The following year, the organization was appointed by Ben and Jerry’s ‘Join the Core’ program as one of Sweden’s best social entrepreneurs. In 2015, Mitt Liv was nominated as one of Gothenburg’s best businesses.

With offices currently in Gothenburg, Stockholm, Malmo, Linköping and Norrköping, Mitt Liv has plans to expand further. While initially focused on young women, the program is now targeting both young men and women.

Sofia hopes that one day, an organization like hers won’t be necessary at all in Sweden and that integration won’t be a challenge for the newcomers to the country. For now, she points out: “Integration is not a quick fix, it’s a long term, hard work project.”

Making it Work for You:

  • Think outside the box! What is your value proposition? Find innovative collaborations and vibrant partnerships that can help fund your enterprise
  • With most of the net growth in the labour force depending on immigration, it is not only about attracting immigrants to fill the labour gaps but also about finding ways to make the transition easier to encourage skilled immigrants to settle in our cities
  • Mentoring is an important development opportunity not only for newcomers but also for existing staff and for organizations to learn how to operate in this global economy – what is your organization doing in this area?

Maytree

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