‘There’s a Swedish mentality of not mixing’

For this week's My Swedish Career feature, Irina Jingqi Liu from China tells of her struggles to make it on Stockholm's start-up scene.

'There's a Swedish mentality of not mixing'
Irina Jingqi Liu enjoys meeting new people. Photo: Private

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.

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My Swedish Career: How I became Swedish Lapland’s first local wedding planner

Lisa Tousignant’s Swedish journey began with her taking a teaching job with IES in Stockholm. This month, she launched Arctic Lapland’s first wedding planning company.

My Swedish Career: How I became Swedish Lapland's first local wedding planner

Tousignant’s new company, Arctic Weddings of Lapland, opened for bookings on July 1st, and she is now focusing on arranging weddings for the coming winter season. You can see some images of weddings Tousignant has done on the company’s Instagram account. 

The idea came to her after colleagues she worked with while employed as the wedding coordinator at Icehotel, in Jukkasjärvi outside Kiruna, told her they often got weddings queries from both abroad and within Sweden.

“The photographers and the florist that I work with said they got calls all the time from people wanting to plan  weddings, but who had no idea where to start,” she said. “There’s no one doing destination wedding planning for Swedish Lapland who actually lives here and this area has so much to offer.”

Icehotel, the big international tourist draw in Jukkasjärvi, hosts dozen of weddings each year and Tousignant is set to continue her relationship with the hotel next year by doing wedding day coordinating. She hopes that Arctic Weddings of Lapland can build on the success that Icehotel has had with their customisable packages by offering different options for adventure within the whole region for winter and summer as well.

“I just had all this support from local people encouraging me to do it, because there’s so many options up here for beautiful weddings and adventure elopements. It’s hard to know where to start and how to navigate all the possibilities.” she says “The overwhelming support made me realise I have been building this idea in my heart for so long and wedding planning is what it is.”


A wedding at the Björkliden Mountain resort near Kiruna. Photo: Rebecca Lundh

She wants to what she calls “adventure weddings”. This week she was visiting the Nutti Sámi Siida offices to discuss collaborations. She plans to work with Fjellborg Arctic Journeys, who arrange dogsled trips and have a beautiful lodge camp that could accommodate large wedding parties. With her connection to Tornedalen, she plans to work with Huuva Hideaway, who specialize in Sami food, culture and history, and is also hoping to collaborate on events at Lapland View Lodge and Art Hotel. “i’m going to work my way down Norrbotten from Kiruna to Luleå connecting with all the venues and suppliers, “ she laughs.

 Tousignant’s journey towards being an Arctic wedding planner began 15 years ago when she left what she describes as “a successful career” doing public relations for CBC Television in Canada. 

“It just felt like life was supposed to be more than going back and forth to a job I didn’t love anymore,” she remembers, “I quit…sold all my stuff and went to Central and South America where I worked in hostels and roamed around for nearly two years getting to know myself in my mid-30’s.”

After her two years of travelling, she applied for teacher training college in Canada, got hired by Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), and moved to their school in Nacka outside Stockholm. She thens taught at IES, and then at Futura Skolan International, for nearly 6 years, before following her sambo Martin Eriksson to the far-North of Sweden. 

“My sambo and I decided to have kids, “ she explains. “Making this decision really pushed him into wanting to change careers and follow his dream of becoming a shoe maker. We really try to support each other in following our dreams, so he moved up to Övertorneå in August while I stayed to complete my teaching contract.”

She moved up to Övertorneå in December, a week before their daughter was born. 
For her, moving to the far North of Sweden felt like coming home. “I immediately loved the North! People up here are chatty and friendly and very open.”
They lived in Övertorneå for almost three years, while Eriksson built up a successful bespoke boot business. But the Covid-19 pandemic reduced custom, and Eriksson took a job in Malmö shooting videos for the local police. But Malmö did not suit them. 
“After living in such a sleepy town, having two kids in the city was overwhelming and everyone missed the snow, so we took the first job opportunities we could in Norrbotten, my sambo [shooting video]for IRF (The Swedish Institute of Space physics) and me for Icehotel,” she says. 

An image from the website of Arctic Weddings of Lapland. Photo: Arctic Weddings of Lapland.