Walk The Walk: Three Female Entrepreneurs Weigh In On Diversity and Inclusion

Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Torbjørn Røe Isaksen and Minister of Education and Integration Jan Tore Sanner, opened the Diversity in Norwegian Entrepreneurship Conference on 12th June, emphasising the value of having diversity in businesses and the effect it can have on democracy.

Through Innovation Norway, entrepreneurs, representatives of different industries, investors and public policy makers were invited to give their input on how to increase diversity in the Norwegian startup ecosystem and create a more inclusive society.

Ka Man Mak, the founder of The Oslo Desk, Meryn Willetts, an Innovation and Strategy Advisor and also widely known as a co-founder of VipiCash, and Nikki Michelle Soo, a Productivity Coach and author of the international bestseller ‘It’s Supposed To Be Fun!‘ weighed in on diversity, inclusivity and integration into Norwegian society as a spin-off conversation from the conference.

Ka Man Mak talked about her 2018 investigation into the state of financial inclusion for immigrants and the importance of active economic citizenship. Read her full personal account here.

Nikki Michelle Soo talked about her journey being in limbo between visas, from her volunteering work to building her own company, and her love for Norway. Read her full personal account here.

Meryn Willetts drew on her experience as a political advisor in Australia to discuss how Norway could shift the needle towards fostering an inclusive and diverse culture of entrepreneurship in Norway. Read her full personal account here.

Dismantling A System of Hindrance

Ka Man Mak moved to Oslo eight years ago from Bristol, and a couple years after her move was met with a relationship crisis which resulted in her becoming a single mother to a baby girl. A turbulent time followed, filled with financial difficulties, finding work, learning Norwegian and managing a mental breakdown. Here is what she has to say:

I am a first-generation immigrant with roots in both England and Hong Kong. I have a masters degree in Environmental Geoscience, and like many internationals had to choose another career that didn’t utilise the skills I had from before moving to Norway.

In the most recent five years of my life, I discovered stories at the heart of immigrants’ daily plight in integrating into the Norwegian society. The emotional burden from the accumulation of barriers for a newcomer just starting to integrate into the Norwegian society cannot be overlooked and underestimated.

In the conference Marie Amelie, who interviewed migrant founders around the world, mentioned the obstacles immigrants commonly face when starting their own company in Norway, such as the lack of money to start a limited company (AS in Norwegian) and the problems in opening a bank account. This reminded me of my own investigation.

Hurdles and barriers to integrate
In 2018, I spent a little over half a year gathering respondents for a survey addressing opening a bank account, whilst also holding down a part time job and executing my duties as a mother. This survey of over 200 internationals living in different cities in Norway revealed the long wait to get a permit from UDI (Norwegian Directorate of Immigration) and then for banks to open their bank accounts. Many immigrants have found Norway’s process of opening a bank account to have contradictions, language barriers and inconsistencies.

This process can take up to a year to complete. Even if you get a D-number from your permit, it does not mean that you are necessarily able to open a bank account and start running your business.

What I learnt was that the pipeline to becoming a successful entrepreneur started with getting your visa permit, opening a bank account, registering your company, dealing with taxes and obtaining capital needs. There are just too many kinks on the journey of foreign entrepreneurs and immigrants which could be made simpler and easier.  

We could do as many conferences, workshops and seminars on the benefits of diversity for Norway as we like, but we must also confront the underlying issues that are persistent and hindering immigrants from fully integrating into Norwegian society. 

Learning the Norwegian language is often the go-to solution, but it neglects another important aspect such as intercultural communication. Its effectiveness in all industries and sectors would allow Norwegians and immigrants/internationals to meet halfway, rather than the immigrant/international doing all the work to integrate into Norwegian society.

In the case of easing the process of opening a bank account for non-Norwegians, and for a more inclusive society, I believe that there is a great need to make a determined and proactive move towards policies aimed at moving society forward. Not only so that everyone can be active economic citizens to improve on financial inclusion but for democracy’s sake too, so that all non-Norwegians living in Norway are given a voice. 

I will leave you with this quote from Ha-Joon Chang, in his book ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism‘, “Without our active economic citizenship, we will always be the victims of people who have greater ability to make decisions, who tell us that things happen because they have to and therefore that there is nothing we can do to alter them, however unpleasant and unjust they may appear.”

In Limbo Between Visas

Nikki Michelle Soo was born in Singapore, lived in Melbourne, Australia for most of her life, and never expected to move to Norway. She has this to say:

If you had told me three years ago that I would be living in Norway, I would have laughed. All I knew about Norway was that it’s a small, cold country. I was born in the tropics and lived in Melbourne, Australia for most of my life. I took my coaching and training business in Australia and made it ‘location-independent’, so I could work remotely from bases like Bali, Thailand and Gran Canaria. See how they’re all warm places?

What I love about Norway
Little did I know that I would love Norway, and its cold winters. I now nod my head in agreement when someone says they wish it were a few more degrees below zero, because I get it now: Snow is better than cold rain and ice on the pavement.

There are many things I love about Norway: the people, that sweet and salty caramelised brown cheese, and so many nature trails so close to the city of Oslo.

I have lived in Oslo now for 11 months. My marriage visa came through just a month ago. I can’t tell you how much this means to me. It feels like I’m a real person in Norway now… not in limbo any more.

It feels like I’m a real person in Norway now… not in limbo anymore.

Language is access
Quite soon after getting my marriage visa, I attended the Diversity in Norweigan Entrepreneurship Conference. It was amazing that they had one English speaking table, in an otherwise Norwegian event. Great for newcomers like me! 

And even though I’m a newcomer, I’ve had my own business for a long time prior to moving to Norway. It was wonderful that I could provide some input to an event like this – without language being a barrier. 

However, there are other barriers to entrepreneurship for newcomers in Norway that I was not able to highlight at the conference:

Having to say no to income
Before getting my marriage visa, I was not legally allowed to operate my existing business online, or start a new business. The UDI was very clear about this. I risked being deported if I broke their rules.

For 15 years, I’ve been helping business and community leaders get more done, in happier and healthier ways. When I moved to Oslo, my Australian clients asked me to continue coaching them online from Norway. I had to say ‘no’ to them in order to keep living in Norway and not be deported.

It seemed to me a lose-lose scenario. 1. My clients were disadvantaged. 2. I couldn’t make a difference for them, or earn an income. 3. Norway missed out on additional taxes and my little contribution to GDP. But rules are rules, right?

It’s a long wait for a sole trader visa
Why did I apply for a job seeker visa and not a sole trader (enkeltpersonforetak) visa right away? (It’s interesting to note that prospective immigrants can only apply for a sole trader visa. They cannot apply to start a company here, which places restrictions on the conduct of their business.)

Firstly, I seriously considered taking a job as part of the transition to Norwegian life. If I had been offered employment, I would have gladly taken it as part of settling in Norway.

More importantly, UDI was taking 10 months or more to process sole trader visas. I remember meeting a frustrated applicant who was in high demand. He was being offered work (as a sole trader) but unable to take it because of this long processing time. Meanwhile, he was very stressed because his money was running out.

This is why I applied for a job-seeker visa instead. It took three or four weeks to process, giving me temporary residence in Norway, and all the rights and tax obligations that come with that.

Big picture: I was able to get two visas: a job-seeker visa and a marriage visa – in possibly less time than it would have taken for a sole trader visa to be approved or even rejected. And the advantage now is that I can start a company if I want to, because I have a marriage visa.

But in either scenario, I would still have had to wait in limbo for 10 months (or more) – unable to work with willing clients in Australia, and unable to explore a new business here in Norway.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade
My options were to be a reluctant housewife, or volunteer – provided I met UDI’s restrictions around that. So to escape boredom and to meet new people, I joined many other immigrants volunteering with simple tasks at conferences in Oslo.

I know dugnads are part of the culture in Norway. It’s interesting that the majority of volunteers I meet at the English-speaking conferences are highly skilled immigrants. Some are there to build their network and get some ‘work experience’ in the hopes of getting a job. 

Perhaps like me, many felt a tiny glimmer of purpose… even if that purpose was simply to alphabetically arrange a few hundred name cards on a registration desk. It was a nice distraction from feeling like a shadow of a person: not allowed to have a real life, or participate in one. Not allowed to fully contribute in a meaningful way.

I feel extremely lucky that I was invited to run two workshops for a not-for-profit organisation during this time – on a voluntary basis. It’s one thing to feel useful by doing simple admin or menial tasks. It’s another to be using my skills and experience: designing and delivering content that will make a meaningful difference to a few people’s lives.

I wanted to do a lot more of this, but I also had to make sure I was following UDI’s restrictions on who I could volunteer for, what I could do, and how long I could do it for.So, as you can imagine, being in visa-limbo was a challenge. With so much enforced spare time on my hands, I had to work hard to keep my mental and emotional health in a positive state. Some days were easier than others.

Getting used to waiting
It’s good to be on the other side of that now.

I finally have the freedom to explore a new business idea: helping international teams collaborate in inclusive ways. Best of all, I get to test this concept commercially now, free from visa restrictions. I can also set up a company.

Of course, I also got in touch with my old clients in Australia when I received my residence permit. They were happy to hear from me. A few of them were happy to continue with my coaching, even after my long absence.

I was excited to register an enkeltpersonforetak (sole trader business) in Norway so I could invoice them. That excitement faded a little when I realised that the online registration form was only in Norwegian, with no English option. I’m learning Norwegian but I’m very much a beginner.

I don’t have the competence to read business forms in Norwegian yet, and they’re too important for Google Translate, with its sometimes-inaccurate translations.

It doesn’t matter how many times I encounter this language access barrier – whether it’s a tax form, or another diversity conference that is in Norwegian – it feels a little deflating. With my Norwegian husband’s help, I made it through this online form.

That initial excitement of registering a new business took another dive when I realised that it would take 15 days for an enkeltpersonforetak registration to be approved. 15 days! I was shocked because the same process took me five minutes in Australia. Even registering a company (AS) takes much less time in Australia: just three to five business days online.

So again, I had to let go of ‘time is money’ and embrace ‘patience is a virtue’.

Still, do I wish the process was easier, more accessible and user-friendly? Of course. Entrepreneurship is enough of a challenge on its own.

Heia Oslo! (Translation: Go Oslo!)
I think it’s great that Oslo is aspiring to be an internationally preferred hub for startups and entrepreneurs. I hope one day it will be.

Before it can achieve this, there are significant access barriers to address. These include language barriers in official forms and other essential communication, restrictive immigration rules, long waits for personal ID numbers, jaw-dropping waits for getting a bank account, and other bureaucratic delays. 

Oslo, I’m part of you now. Your success is my success and vice versa. So… Heia Oslo! I’m rooting for you.

Shift The Needle

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.

Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.