‘The toy industry has to understand the world has changed’

Mexican entrepreneur Leslie Alfredsson founded her Malmö startup after a trip to buy a birthday present for her niece turned out to be an eye-opener.

'The toy industry has to understand the world has changed'
Malmö-based startup founder Leslie Alfredsson. Photo: Private

“We are challenging the toy industry,” says Malmö-based entrepreneur Leslie Alfredsson forcefully.

“They have to understand that the world has changed and we're living in a globalized world. It doesn't matter where you're from, what you look like or what you do – everyone is equally worthy.”

But let's rewind the tape by three years, to a few days before her seven-year-old niece's birthday.

Alfredsson, a 33-year-old from Mexico City, had gone to the toy store to buy her niece a present, and was stunned. But after the anger had settled, that defining moment turned out to be the start of something new.

“I went to the dolls' section and they all wore makeup and had big breasts and didn't look like children,” she explains. “It was quite scary to see this image children are being fed of beauty and success. At the same time there are eight-year-olds out there talking about going on a diet. I decided to change that.”

She created My Esteeme, a series of six dolls – all with different appearances, interests, hair colour and skin colour – designed to boost boys and girls' self-esteem and to promote diversity in an entertaining way.

“First of all, they look like children. If you go to a toy store, the dolls look either like babies or adults and there are not that many different ethnicities. These look like the kids themselves,” she says.

But the dolls also have an educational purpose. They are equipped with a device hidden in their feet, which when pressed makes them repeat phrases such as “I am worthy”, “I like who I am” and “I am a good friend”. Alfredsson's niece is still very much part of the project – she and her brother provide the dolls' voices.

“She is too old for them now, but she has been part of this every way. I have to say the most fantastic thing is the kids' reaction to the dolls. Normally they will take the doll that looks like them, but then they talk about the others as well: 'this is me, and this is my friend.' And when you hear the kids repeat the phrases, 'I am worthy, I am a good friend', it feels so good,” she says.

Although My Esteeme is a few years in the making, it was only this year Alfredsson decided to quit her job as marketing director at Malmö company Pixelant to fully focus on her new startup.

“I knew it was the right decision because I truly believe in this. My Esteeme is not just a business, it is something I stand for. It is my motto,” she says.

She has spent the past year developing the first prototypes and testing them in Swedish preschools, and is in the final days of a kickstarter campaign to get the project off the ground which will enable her to start mass producing the dolls and make them available for purchase.

The six dolls. Photo: My Esteeme

By coincidence, Alfredsson speaks to The Local just days after major Swedish retailer Åhléns was forced to withdraw parts of its Christmas campaign from social media after a picture of a young dark-skinned boy dressed as iconic saint Lucia received large amounts of racist abuse online.

“It is terrible. It really, really hurt us. We are four women in the company, all from different countries – my marketing manager is from Romania, my communications manager is from the US and our finance expert is from Colombia – so of course we're very sensitive about those topics.”

But just as the majority of social media users came out in support of the young Lucia, Alfredsson is convinced that diversity will win in the end, not just for children but in the adult world too.

“We joke that we are the most multicultural company in Malmö and we're very proud of that. I think it makes a fantastic dynamic in the office, with different points of view and discussion. It is key to the success of My Esteeme and I think many big companies could learn from that,” she says.

And diversity is not just about nationality, she argues, adding: “The funny part, even in Sweden, is that there are so many men running startups. When we go to events we are the only women there.”

“But Malmö has a fantastic, fantastic startup scene,” she quickly notes. “It's a small city, so it is really easy to schedule meetings, and we're like a family, we help each other, we encourage each other.”

Alfredsson and some of the children testing the prototypes. Photo: My Esteeme

Alfredsson was nominated as 2016 Female Inventor of the Year in Sweden, but getting to where she is today was not an easy ride. She faced the same struggle on the labour market reported by many other immigrants when she left a good job in Mexico City and moved to Sweden six years ago after meeting her husband.

“I have two masters, I speak English, I was working in communications as a press secretary for a politician in Mexico, so I thought 'how difficult could it be for me to find a job?'. Then I came here and had to face reality. I sent CVs everywhere, no one called me back. I felt depressed and like I had somehow lost my identity. In Mexico I was a person, but who was I here?”

When she asked Arbetsförmedlingen, Sweden's national employment agency, for help she was told to change her career and was assigned a temporary contract working at a pre-school. It did turn out to be useful experience for founding My Esteeme, but at the time it was a struggle.

Eventually she found a mentor and was shown how to improve her CV for the Swedish market, which helped her land a marketing job at an IT company, first in Copenhagen and then in Malmö.

“I am so happy to live in Sweden, it has given me so much. I love Malmö so much, I consider myself a Mexican Malmöite, and also Swedish,” Alfredsson laughs. “But it was tough, you know, it was very tough.” 

“I hope that my story can inspire other foreigners, because I know there are a lot of people in the situation I was in, that if you believe in yourself and if you have good self-esteem then things will work out in time.”

For members


Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”