Foreign students scrub their way to success

Four international students who share a passion for sustainable development have filled a gap in the Swedish market for eco-friendly cleaning. For this week's My Swedish Career, we meet the founders of a new green business designed to make a lasting difference.

Foreign students scrub their way to success
The green cleaners. Photo: Private

Coming from different parts of Europe, students Alexis Bouges (France), Jan Cihlar (Czech Republic), Liridona Sopjani (Kosovo), and Martha Mancheva (Bulgaria) met when studying the same master’s program in Sustainable Development at Uppsala University.

"Seeing how socially and economically advanced Sweden is, I believed it would be the best place to study and learn from people and culture here," co-founder Liridiona Sopjani from Kosovo tells The Local.  "And then later I can contribute to my country."

But like many students, she was unable to find any work without speaking Swedish. So, she and her friends decided to create their own jobs – by building a company from scratch.

“We felt the need to step up, use our academic background in sustainability, and change something,” she tells The Local. 

Since May of 2014, the student entrepreneurs have been running a sustainable and eco-friendly start-up in Uppsala: the Grandma Knows Best cleaning company.

Photo: Grandma Knows Best

Sweden is renowned for being at the forefront of sustainable development and environmentally friendly products. For most Swedes, being environmentally conscious is a way of life, and looking for alternatives to meet their demands has become second nature to many.

Eco-friendly and green cleaning is not an entirely new invention – but as an increasing number of Swedes hire home cleaners, the students’ timing couldn’t have been better.

They say that what makes Grandma Knows Best unique is their 'refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle' policy in every aspect of their work. From their products to their mode of transportation, the aim is to provide a cleaning service that is environmentally sustainable – leaving behind a squeaky clean home and happy, environmentally aware clients.

In order to avoid using solutions that are harmful to the environment, Grandma Knows Best develops and manufactures its own cleaning products.

It is quite a lot of work for the students, who are all still studying full time. They clean homes in the morning, then rush off (on bikes rather than busses of course) to lessons, and manage the business after class. 

Alexis Bouges takes care of the company's finances, Jan Cihlar handles internal management, Liridona Sopjani works with communication and brand management, and Martha Mancheva leads marketing. Swedish student Josefin Brodell joined the team shortly after its foundation, taking care of customer service. Today the five-student team is on the way to small-business stardom.

"Everyone is definitely interested in knowing more about what products we use," the students explain. "Especially how we can clean so well with simple raw materials such as baking soda and vinegar!"

Photo: Grandma Knows Best

Czech student Jan Cihlar, responsible for product development and testing nature-based cleaners, says he was surprised to find that the range of natural products available to cleaners is very limited in Sweden.

“The amount of chemicals and toxic agents found in our homes is alarming. We saw that there was a need to find more natural alternatives to maintain a clean living environment.”

The team behind Grandma Knows Best has managed to stay away from perfumes and preservatives altogether. 

Still in the process of perfecting their brand communication to reach a wider audience, the start-up is gaining momentum and the students say they are hoping to inspire other young entrepreneurs.

In the words of Martha Mancheva from Bulgaria: “Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your business idea out there. Use your academic knowledge out in the real world.”

Mimmi Nilsson

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Foreign students risk losing Swedish university offers after embassies close for interviews

An Iranian student planning on starting university in Sweden this autumn has told The Local he and many others risk being unable to take up their places after the Swedish embassy cancelled their visa interview appointments.

Foreign students risk losing Swedish university offers after embassies close for interviews
Amin Ansari, a project manager and and part-time lecturer, fears he will not be able to start his course later this month. Photo: Private
Amin Ansari, a project manager and and part-time lecturer from Iran, is due to start an MSc in Innovation and Industrial Management at Gothenburg University later this month, but before he can come to Sweden, he first needs to have an in-person physical interview at the Swedish embassy in Tehran. 
But after applying for an interview on July 23rd, he was informed on July 26th that the embassy had cancelled all scheduled visa interviews, and was not currently taking new appointments. The embassy also announced the cancellation of all appointments in a statement on its web page
“Such a decision will prevent us from travelling to Sweden on time, we may lose our offer of admission, which will profoundly affect our academic future,” Amin Ansari, a project manager and and part-time lecturer told The Local. 
“Also, it is worthwhile to mention that we have spent a considerable amount of time and money up to this point, which will be lost thoroughly by this decision.” 
Ansari has formed a Whatsapp group with roughly 70 Iranians who had been hoping to study in Sweden.
The students complain that even though it is less than two weeks before their classes are scheduled to start, and only a matter of days before they reach their tuition fee reimbursement deadline, they have not yet managed to obtain any indication of when or if their interviews would be rescheduled.

Ansari said that he felt Iranian students were being unfairly singled out as “Swedish embassies in many other countries, regardless of the intense Covid-19 pandemic, are fully active”. 
He said he and other students had repeatedly contacted Sweden's Migration Agency, the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the Swedish embassy in Tehran, and its ambassador, without getting any indication of when or if interviews might be possible.  
“We have been told that the embassy ruled this policy as an internal resolution,” he said. “But unfortunately all our efforts so far have not yielded any results.”

A screenshot of an email, seen by The Local, sent to Amin by the Swedish Embassy in Tehran.

When The Local contacted the Swedish foreign ministry, a press officer suggested instead contacting the Swedish Migration Agency, suggesting they were responsible for student visas. 
But in an email to Ansari, the Swedish Migration Agency, said that embassy interviews were in fact the responsibility of the foreign ministry and could not be influenced by the Migration Agency. 
“The coronavirus pandemic has compelled embassies in certain countries to take measures to protect their visitors and staff, such as delaying appointments, and this is not something which the Swedish Migration Agency is able to influence,” the agency told Ansari in an email. 
The KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm told The Local that it had “a number of overseas students prevented from getting to Sweden”. 
“In most cases, this means that the foreign authorities need to open up to implement the biometric part of the entry permit,” it said.
“For this reason, KTH has extended the possibility for non-Europeans to begin their studies until September 7th. However, they must come physically to Stockholm and KTH. No one is allowed to start their studies at a distance.” 

Iran is by far country in the Middle East worst-hit by coronavirus, with leaked figures sent to the BBC's Persian service by an anonymous source indicating that almost 42,000 people died with Covid-19 symptoms up to July 20th – triple the official figure of 14,405 reported by the health ministry.
Since the start of June, the country has been hit by a severe second wave of the pandemic, with as many people dying in mid-July as during the country's first peak in March.