Boasting success stories such as Spotify, Acne and Cheap Monday, Sweden is known as the place to be for start-up hopefuls. But cumbersome bureaucracy and close-knit Swedish social networks can form a glass ceiling for foreign professionals, Irina Jingqi Liu tells The Local.
“One of my favourite things about Sweden is that you have the freedom to do what you want to do, not what you're supposed to do,” says the 28-year-old communications expert, whose media studies brought her from her home city of Chengdu in China's Sichuan province to Sweden in 2009.
“I was always interested in intercultural communication and after I left university in Beijing I applied to different countries. I got a scholarship to go to Sweden and thought it sounded cool. Everyone else in China was going to the US and I wanted to do something different,” she says.
But it has not been an easy ride. Although she had a large group of Swedish friends in the early years during her time at university in Uppsala, she has found it difficult to make new ones in Stockholm as well as connecting to the entrepreneurial community.
“There is a social mentality in Sweden of not mixing with others. You have your own social group and you don't meet people outside that group. Also, especially for me as a non-EU citizen there have been a lot of barriers. I can't even change my job unless someone is willing to fix me a new work permit,” she says.
Irina Jingqi Liu at Midsummer's Eve last year. Photo: Private
Irina is currently employed as an IT product manager for an international Swedish firm. But it's her numerous side projects she is the most passionate about, particularly Time Village, a time-sharing project which allows users to connect online and share skills and interests in real life.
“I was friends with the founder and earlier this year I got talked into joining the team. I like it because it gives me the chance to meet interesting people and do interesting things. That's how I get my energy,” she says.
“But I've felt like my friends and I have missed a lot opportunities because we're not natively connected to the start-up community. It's been a little stressful not having that network,” she says.
The idea behind Time Village is this: suppose, for example, that you are a culinary buff who offers someone a lesson in sushi-making. In return, they “pay” you an hour of time which you can then use to ask another member to, say, fix your bicycle. Or teach you French. Or walk your dog.
“You use the currency of time to exchange activities with others,” explains Irina.
One of the stereotypical images of Swedes is that they are shy, modest and do not easily open up to others. Irina admits it has been difficult to convince Scandinavians to join the Time Village project.
“We are trying to get more Swedes involved. It started with an expat group because naturally they were the ones who were more interested in making new friends and sharing their time. But as long as you want to meet people and share time you're welcome,” she says, adding that she has not get decided whether she will stay on in the Nordic country or try her hand at other projects abroad.
“I love the international community and meeting new people. So far Sweden is treating me pretty okay and I feel like I'm doing something different. But I'm keeping my options open,” she says.