“You feel the joy more when you have actually created it yourself.”
That was the lesson one of Sweden’s most exciting young social entrepreneurs, Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, took away from her experience in the slums of Nairobi back in 2010.
While there, Golnaz met a lot of people who had been able to turn their lives around by starting their own business with support and guidance from microfinance institutions.
“Those days were actually some of the most inspiring of my life,” she says. “To see the pride, the joy and the hope that these people had, despite suffering great loss, because of what they had built.
“I wanted to be a part of that, and to create those opportunities.”
And she did.
Golnaz founded the social enterprise Inkludera Invest just a year later, having discovered that social initiatives in Sweden were struggling to build the financial stability needed to have a substantial and lasting impact.
“There’s a very limited pool of money to finance these kinds of initiatives in Sweden because we don’t have a big philanthropic culture,” Golnaz explains.
“I realised the best thing we could do was to help them build financial sustainability and the scale to reach more people by taking what these organisations did and create a service that we could sell to government agencies, because that’s where the money is for social issues.”
That’s precisely what Inkludera does: support social entrepreneurs who have developed innovative and powerful solutions to combat social exclusion by investing – not money – but knowledge, experience and time.
Having supported initiatives that reached more than 25,000 people in 2016, Inkludera is now going from strength-to-strength, helping an increasing number of social initiatives find financial stability and make a meaningful impact on Swedish society.
As an established author and lecturer with an MSc from Stockholm School of Economics, it would be easy to think that Inkludera Invest is just the latest achievement in a life of success for Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde.
And it is. But it’s also more personal than that.
Golnaz admits she's always been an overachiever, feeling somehow she had to prove herself – largely because of her background.
Nearly 30 years ago, her parents fled their war-torn Iranian homeland as political refugees.
“During the revolution in Iran, my parents were leftist revolutionaries,” Golnaz explains. “They had this great image of Sweden being an ideal place for socialism where there was justice, freedom, and tolerance.”
As such, Golnaz and her parents sought refuge in the small town of Gustavsberg, hoping for a new life of opportunity and freedom in Sweden.
As the first people in that area from a non-European country, however, things weren’t always that simple.
“Quite early on, I learned that I was an outsider,” Golnaz explains.
And it wasn’t so much the differences in values as it was the blatant expressions of racism that left Golnaz feeling excluded from Swedish society, particularly at school.
“Teachers would treat you differently, and kids would beat you up during break,” she recalls.
“I had this middle school teacher who came from Saltsjöbaden, who always had this view of Saltsjöbaden being a much better place with better people,” Golnaz recalls, referencing a well-to-do suburb of Stockholm.
“She would always talk about how there was a great high school in Saltsjöbaden, so I decided that I would transfer there. But when I walked up to tell her, she just looked at me for a moment and then said, ‘Not all types of people belong at that school.'”
That experience would later make it into Golnaz' first book, 'She is Not Me' – fiction inspired heavily by her own life.
But in spite of such experiences throughout her life, and although it meant giving up a lot of her Persian identity, Golnaz is appreciative of growing up in the Nordics.
“I do feel very specifically Nordic,” she states.
“I don’t know how to describe how grateful I am for getting to grow up here and getting to be a mother and raise a daughter here. There is nowhere else I would want to be a woman or a mother, and especially not the mother of a daughter.”
Until recently, however, gender equality was not a big issue to Golnaz, thanks in part to her Nordic upbringing, but also because of her parents and their strong liberal values.
“When I grew up, no one ever taught me that I was a girl – gender was never a thing,” she explains. “My parents always told me you can do whatever you want, and not ‘you can do whatever you want, although you’re a girl’ – it was just never an issue.”
That was until last year – specifically November 9th of last year.
“The 2016 US election night is one night that I’ll never forget as long as I live,” Golnaz exclaims.
She recalls watching the election with friends who were confident that Hillary Clinton would win and become the first female US president. But she awoke the following morning to learn otherwise.
“I’ve never really felt that gender equality is a big issue – I kind of felt that if you want it, just work for it and you’ll get it,” she explains. “But that night changed my view on that.”
“It just shows that the world is much uglier than I want it to be,” she adds.
Donald Trump’s nascent presidency, Golnaz hopes, will come as a rude awakening to a lot of people, and not just in terms of gender equality.
“We take all of our freedoms for granted,” she says. “And it’s very easy for people to forget that they’re free – people think they can just sit there and watch, but you have to take action to keep it and cherish it.”
Having been raised and living in the Nordics, Golnaz believes that the true value of freedom, and the privileges that come with it, is an all too important part of her life to simply forget or disregard.
“I really hope that all of these events will make people realise that they have to speak up,” she exclaims.