“You know, after years of taking care of the kids, you lose confidence, you forget you were once a career woman,” says Virginia, who moved to Sweden when her husband came on assignment for Telia in 2004.
Virginia gave up her 12-hour a day career as a corporate coach in India to come to Sweden and take care of the couple’s 10-month-old son. With no support structure in place, the couple decided Virginia would be a homemaker for a while.
The tiny baby proved to be key in the young family’s integration in Sweden. Unfamiliar with the Swedish pram, the tiny baby would bawl his eyes out whenever she put him in the stroller.
“It was the first time he’d been contained and strapped in, so of course he was screaming,” she says about her first few months in Älvsjö, southern Stockholm.
Yet she was determined to ease him into the routine of going out, so she’d take him for brisk walks. One day, as she took her son for a ten-minute walk, a woman in her sixties asked her for directions to the station.
“I said I didn’t speak Swedish,” says Virginia, who hadn’t tried to learn the language as her husband’s job contract was temporary and the family didn’t yet know they’d end up staying.
“But she switched to English and I walked her to the station.”
Kerstin, the woman Virginia helped guide to the station, and her husband Hasse have since become firm friends and stand-in grandparents to Virginia’s son and daughter, who was born in Sweden.
They do everything any grandparents would do, from celebrating the children’s birthdays to giving them Christmas presents. They have also visited Virginia’s family in Kerala, southern India.
“I think Swedes are very aware of their reputation of being cold, also in the corporate world, but I don’t find them cold at all. It just that it can take some time to get to know them,” she says.
These cultural perceptions later helped Virginia in setting up as a consultant, dedicating part of her time to giving seminars and workshops on how to do business in India.
“Be patient, that’s the main advice I have,” Virginia says with a laugh about what Swedes need to know about doing business in her home country.
That also applies to her own life, as once she decided to start working again she had to start from scratch.
“I feel Swedish society is more supportive of the various constraints a woman has while she builds a career, such as taking maternity leave or working part-time,” Virginia says. Yet she faced an uphill slog.
“I didn’t have a reference in Sweden, so I literally networked for three years, just attending workshops and giving seminars for free,” she says.
The networking gave her a mentor, and later on, she found her business partner Jenny Bisther, with whom she established Synergy Partners.
“I think it helps tremendously that we are an Indian-Swedish team, people like and feel confident about the balance,” she says of Synergy Partners, which has expanded into export-related activities with a focus on clean technology.
Furthermore, despite Virginia’s fluent Swedish, she says having a Swedish partner was helpful when navigating red tape.
“The hardest thing for me has been to understand nuances of setting up a company, like differences in the obligations and liabilities from a tax perspective,” says Virginia.
“In any country I think things become much easier if you have a local partner.”
Going solo, rather than returning to employment, also allowed Virginia to work around her husband’s and her children’s schedule and gave her the power to structure her own workday.
The company has now extended its reach, by applying and getting a grant from Tillväxtverket (the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth) to help a Swedish producer introduce its solar-powered lamp and charger to the below-poverty-line market in India. Their first target is to roll it out to 1,000 rural families.
Sweden is synonymous with high quality, Virginia says, which is good for marketing, yet high production costs can affect Swedish companies’ competitiveness – as market prices are relatively high.
The Hilight India project was exactly what Virginia and her partner wanted to work with.
“We wanted to do good, have fun and make some money,” smiles Virginia.
She and her partner have a hectic few months ahead of them, as a manufacturing company has signed them up for workshops with 150 employees on how to do business in India.
“As long as you have something unique to offer, Swedes in my experience are willing to listen and give you an opportunity,” Virginia says as a general word of advice to expats wanting to start their own business.
“But such things don’t come on a silver platter, it takes a lot of time, persistence and commitment to make a career of it.”