By: Nodumo Fikile Magadlela – SE Entrepreneur, SE Outreach 2016
There is something in the air in Stockholm… It’s in the constant juxtaposition of beautiful old buildings and the modern brand names and sophisticated vehicles on the streets. I had come to Stockholm with the desire to decode its magic. What is it about this place that has created some of the world’s most innovative start-ups?
On the 8th of April I got on a plane from Johannesburg with the sole intention of immersing myself in all things Swedish and to study the people, the culture the way they dressed; anything that I could get my hands on to dissect and analyse. I was so determined to find out what it was about this place that had this magic… The magic of Skype and Spotify.
The first thing I noticed at Arlanda airport is that the dress sense is very casual. People dress in a manner that is comfortable to them and not specifically to send a point about their social standing. Coming from the Southern part of Africa were a business suit and a big watch get you noticed, this was very unusual to me. I quickly pulled out my diary and made a note to myself: “First step to creating the next Spotify is dress in jeans and sneakers for meetings.”
My three week long experience living in Stockholm was like a whirlwind of experiences and culture shocks. I have been struggling with this blog post for the past three weeks since my return. What I have gathered from all the notes I made in my diary are just a collection of assumptions and I stand to be corrected.
For most part of the program we were based at the Impact hub in Stockholm and here I met some of the most innovative and creative social entrepreneurs in the world, but the first thing I noticed is that the morning greeting, even between friends, was a very short and abrupt “Hey!“, and the other person responded with another equally short “Hey!’ and that was it for the morning greetings. I thought to myself that in Africa we greet people properly, we look them in the face and we ask them about how they slept and if their family is fine. But since I was committed to learning I pulled out my notebook and wrote: “Keep greetings short and abrupt!“
One evening I had an appointment with a mentor who had been assigned to me, and after getting lost a bit, I found the building from which her business operates. Being aware of her profile and the nature of her business the building didn’t come as a surprise and so after being ushered into this fancy building , she opened the door and said “ This is my seat here.” This caught me completely off guard! I was expecting a glass office in the corner with a view of the whole city! But this is where the COO sat? Right on the same open plan space with developers and sales people?
When our meeting had been concluded we left together and we both took the public transport. After she had shown me the correct subway to take I stood and watched as she seamlessly integrated into the throngs of people rushing about in the station. I stood there because I wanted to see something I would write in my diary that night: “To create the next Kivra use the public transport system.”
My diary entries are full of many entries that seemed silly at the time but I recorded diligently. On some nights I would leave the hotel and just go on the subway and just watch people and try to kick-start conversations. Everyone seemed completely absorbed in their earphones and with their mobile phones. I made a note of this as well, including how in all the apartments I had seen , very few people seemed to be concerned with closing their curtains… What a strange place Sweden had turned out to be. For many weeks since I returned to South Africa I found myself stuck with this diary. Thinking and wondering, but finally what gave me the courage to start typing this blog is that it has started making sense…
The greeting that seems abrupt and cold is actually born out of an inherent desire to be punctual and to be precise. I had attempted the greeting a few times until I got it right. It is said with a burst of brief emotion and cheer. It’s a very precise version of a long conversation but still conveys just enough affection. This translates to everything in Stockholm, the bus and the trains arrive on time with the same precise courtesy of “Hey!”… Meetings begin on religious time schedules and I am in awe how such complex systems as an entire city’s transport system can be run with such perfection. I cancelled my earlier entry and wrote: “Show courtesy by being punctual and precise and professional in all your dealings… Forget African time!”
The dress sense which I had misdiagnosed as being too bland and casual actually emanates from a desire to be authentic… When I realised this it left me with a very deep conflict. The reason why I wore suits was to appear important and to impress others. It was never about me … Authenticity hits you from the moment you land in Arlanda. The grandeur of my previous stop over in Dubai was put to shame by the simplicity of this airport. Here there is no need for excess… In this place there is no need to have more than what is necessary… My new entry reads “Be authentic!! Be real!! Be true!!“
What I had been exposed to that night visiting my mentor is an unassuming style of leadership… The very flat organizational structure of most businesses in Sweden inspires by using inclusion and equality. These are people who have mastered the art of building corporate culture. In Africa it is unimaginable to be sitting in the same working space with the CEO as an intern or someone who is working in sales. How does one build such a culture? Well I quickly cancelled over my last entry and wrote: “Forget titles, we are all the same.“
Some of the seemingly strange things I saw in Sweden still baffle me. I know I have made many sweeping claims and a lot of generalizations about Swedish people in my quest to learn about myself and how I can translate all of this into the business I co-founded… I know I have made many erroneous claims, but this blog is just a tool for me to examine my own personal learning. My experience of Sweden was limited to just three weeks around Stockholm and I acknowledge that this does not qualify me to speak at length about Swedish culture.
Perhaps that is why cycling has become so prevalent? One the most humble and a simple mode of transportation that requires a lot of effort is quite popular in Stockholm. As the co-founder of a bicycle sharing start-up I find myself thinking about such things. I want to understand the culture and how it is constructed so I can create it in South Africa in a major city like Johannesburg. In the next 4 months iBoni Bike Share is going to launch a pilot project in the middle of Sandton in South Africa. We have been awarded a grant by The City of Johannesburg to pursue a pilot project and as part of The Green City Startup competition we are in line to secure a potential prize as a grant to further develop our bicycle sharing system.
Stockholm is a small city compared to some of the world’s capitals and therefore it becomes relatively easier to network and meet people. As a result of this and the spirit of generosity that exists with entrepreneurs it became possible for our business to secure a deal with a Swedish booking software company called Boka , and iBoni is going to be their first international partner. We have progressed to a point where the software is ready to go online on our website in mid June 2016.
What motivates me is the desire to have an impact on the world and to use my life towards something that matters. Currently I am the co-founder of a bicycle sharing company in a country that doesn’t have much of a cycling culture. My experience in Stockholm gave me hope for South Africa and for Africa at large, that it is possible to design cities that work for the people that live in them and that public transportation can be made to work efficiently and sustainably.
My stay in Stockholm has influenced my development in ways that I’m still unpacking… I have a whole diary of entries that I’m still trying to figure out. Many of the experiences I will cherish and hold dear as they have helped shape who I am as a person.
It is my dream to one day see the top CEO:s on the continent of Africa taking a bicycle ride home. Perhaps still wearing designer suits, but at least the bicycle will belong to iBoni Bike Share.