Meryn Willetts. Photo: Privat/The Oslo Desk

This article is part of a collective opinion piece, ‘Walk The Walk: Three Female Entrepreneurs Weigh In On Diversity and Inclusion’. Read about the other female entrepreneurs’ thoughts here.

Meryn Willetts, an Innovation and Strategy Advisor from Australia and widely known as a co-founder of VipiCash among other positions, has this to say:

For a thriving business economy in Norway.
I believe that if Norway really wants to catch the next wave of growth, we must leverage the diverse and international talent we have right here.

I’ve attended many events, conferences and seminars at which the importance of diversity is spoken in Norwegian, where multiculturalism is preached to audiences without a single ethnic person in the room and where gender equality is heralded to a forum without male decision-makers or champions of change to support and enact what’s being said. There are numerous initiatives and insights that these discussions bring, and having them discussed in the first place puts Norway a league ahead of other nations – but how are these being turned into action?

Let me share my experience as an Aussie professional looking to enter the Norwegian market.

“It will take you forever to find a job”, “It will be difficult to make Norwegian friends”, “Go home and hold tight of the fond memories you have”, “You’ll never be able to handle the winter.” When I touched down in February 2017, these were some of the comments shared with me by my international counterparts. They told me that regardless of my plethora of working experience, it would be extremely difficult for me to find a job or create one myself, and that regardless of how friendly I am I would have trouble finding Norwegian friends. When I am confronted with such challenges I accept them head on, but it’s been far from an easy journey for me.

The Nordic philosophy when it comes to social policies, work-life balance, technological innovation and Scandinavian design is globally renowned. We can use this to draw talent into places like Norway. But Norwegians must first buy into the benefits of a truly international and diverse workforce. And that means going beyond the plethora of research out there on diversity and inclusion to taking a bit of calculated risk and bringing in new ways of thinking.

The ketchup bottle analogy
Beate, a Norwegian friend (one I made all by myself) who has become my cultural guide to all things Norwegian, shared a simple but insightful analogy using a ketchup bottle, an elegant way of explaining the benefit of other embracing other perspectives.

When a Norwegian is looking for the ketchup (in the land down under we call ketchup tomato sauce) they will most often go to the fridge. However, in many other countries the red bottle is in the cupboard. So, if you’re ready to tuck into your food and the ketchup is missing, if there are only Norwegians around, they may overlook the cupboard and miss out on a key ingredient in the great Norwegian grille/Aussie barbeque!

This analogy could be the ‘secret sauce’ to identifying new growth opportunities in business and could be particularly interesting for a market that needs to rapidly and effectively diversify itself from oil and gas.

Here are three ways a person with a diverse background can help grow the Norwegian business economy:

1. Fresh eyes

Engaging someone from another country, gender, sexuality, race, disability, age etc. gives new perspectives on how to develop operations, work with people differently, engage in new business activities and find creative new solutions a company may have overlooked or been blindsided by.

2. Global mindset

Having perspectives from professionals who have worked abroad can mean a richer understanding of current and potential markets. These professionals can help you identify innovative best practices from other firms and countries, identify new target countries, better understand existing or new customer segments and processes, and extend your business further abroad and adapt to new ways of doing business.

3. Connections

Most people that come from a diverse background have strong networks and connections that can offer a richer perspective on your current business opportunities. For example, if you’re trying to get involved in Pride without rainbow people in your organisation, how do you connect with the needs of this audience needs beyond the parade and the glitter branding? Can you do more to impact and empower this audience? In the same vein, many countries operate on a currency of trust, and if you have a person with strong networks in other places, you can tap into hard to reach areas because that trust has already been established.

There are many wonderful things about life in Norway, but why are you making it so difficult for us to help us help you? By unlocking the potential of international talent, you can no longer play it safe, you are challenged to push the boundaries.

By unlocking the potential of international talent, you can no longer play it safe, you are challenged to push the boundaries.

Fostering an inclusive and diverse culture of entrepreneurship in Norway
I am fortunate to have realised early on that if I wanted to progress in this country, I would have to create my own luck. This led me to create my own business and become a co-founder of a diverse Norwegian fintech startup where I get to put my skills and working experience from the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Australia to good use. I am also a board member for two organisations and a business advisor and mentor for several local incubator programs.

After attending the ‘Diversity in Norwegian Entrepreneurship Conference’ run by Innovation Norway to effect policy change, I reflected on my own experience as a political advisor in Australia, where we focused our efforts on creating a fertile environment for entrepreneurs to thrive. Australia is currently ranked 5th out of 100 countries on startup ecosystem strength according to a recent report by StartupBlink Startup Ecosystem Rankings 2019.  It increased its rankings by six points partly due to the recent new ‘unicorn’ status of Canva, an online platform to make graphic designs easily, but also through a lot of collective efforts across sectors.

Whilst Sweden ranks 7th on the list, Finland 12th and Denmark 16th, Norway comes trailing behind in 46th place. This is by no means a reflection of the work being put into the Norwegian startup ecosystem, but from my experience success in this area requires a greater collaborative effort from government, the private sector, investors, academia and the entrepreneurs themselves.

For a country with enormous potential for a thriving startup ecosystem, I think Norway has the ability to really make their mark if they can have more focussed efforts. Norway can start without the ingrained legacy issues of Silicon Valley and many other homogeneous markets that seem to face more unconscious biases.

After two years of entrepreneurial life in Norway, I have identified five factors I see that could enable the country to really benefit from a thriving, diverse entrepreneurial economy. I believe there are underutilised policy levers, business initiatives and still overall fragmented efforts that, if overcome, could really shift the needle on how we grow this new economy.

  1. Tapping into the diverse and international talent pool in Norway
  2. Accessibility and Environment
  3. Ecosystem building
  4. Risk support
  5. Capital and Scaling opportunities

Meryn Willetts will delve further into the policy drivers in her next installment for The Oslo Desk.

Meryn Willetts

Meryn Willetts is an Innovation and Strategy Adviser and also widely known as a co-founder of VipiCash among her other positions.