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'Coming to Sweden it felt like we were on holiday, every day'

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'Coming to Sweden it felt like we were on holiday, every day'
Sunil Ramkali thinks Sweden has its flat structure to thank for innovation. Photo: Private
07:59 CET+01:00
MY SWEDISH CAREER: When seasoned expat and London native Sunil Ramkali came to Sweden in 2003, it was far from the first foreign country in which he had put down roots. But it has proved to be the country that has felt the most like a home away from home.

It was his job that first landed the Brit, his wife, and three children in Sweden. Working in London in commercial roles for British pharmaceutical brand AstraZeneca, Ramkali was given the opportunity to transfer to the company's office in Lund, southern Sweden, on a short-term basis.

"Initially I came over on an expat contract of two years, but by the time those two years were up, my wife and I had decided that we wanted to stay in Sweden indefinitely."

The much-celebrated high standard of living and the warm welcome they received from their new friends and neighbours were two of the main draws keeping the family in the country. "Sweden is a very attractive place to raise a young family. I'm originally from south London, and we had started to feel like we wanted to get out of that rat race; to get away from the noise, the traffic, and the stress of living in the south east of England."

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Ramkali's first impressions of Lund reflected the traditional views which tend to be levelled at the Scandinavian country. "I guess my first thoughts were: 'Wow, this place is clean!'. One of the biggest things for me initially was coming back from the pub not smelling like cigarettes, as the smoking ban had already come into effect. Those were my primary observations – sights, smells. It was a new sensory experience."

As Ramkali got to know Swedish culture, he noticed more subtle differences between Sweden and the UK. "Going out with work colleagues and everyone buying their own drinks was a big one – at the beginning I bought rounds, but you soon realize that you never get a drink bought back!" he laughs.

There were other pub-related revelations to come. "If you're British and you go out and make an idiot of yourself at the pub over the weekend, you tell everyone about it on Monday morning. We're so proud to say we made a fool of ourselves. Swedes are different – here you pretend it didn't happen. You'd sooner deny you were ever there than admit that you did something embarrassing."


Ramkali in his role as CEO of W Communication Agency, Malmö. Photo: Private

Having worked across Europe, from Germany to Italy and Denmark, the now-communications agency CEO managed to largely side-step the culture shock that often goes alongside a move to a new country. "Coming to Sweden, it felt like we were on holiday, every day – from the very beginning. And that feeling really didn't go away for many years."

It was a feeling helped by the fact that Ramkali had had a head start on getting to understand Swedish culture; his Swedish education had begun before he left the UK, with his company sending him and his wife on a cultural awareness course of eight weeks. Sessions involved basic Swedish language, as well as nuanced topics, like etiquette. "We learned some things that I would never have known otherwise – like the fact that if you get invited to dinner, you must take the paper off the flowers. It's considered very rude not to. And of course, never be late."

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Although he was taught on the course that Swedes could have a tendency to seem aloof compared to their British counterparts, this wasn't reflected in Ramkali's experience. "It was quite straightforward for all of us – I was working in an international role, so was mixing with lots of Swedes who were well-travelled and were open to meeting people outside of their immediate circles. And we also met many parents at our children's Swedish school, who were very warm and welcoming."

Testament to Ramkali's success in integrating into Swedish life is the fact that he was quickly drafted in as coach of the local village football team, Blentarps BK in the southern Skåne region.

"It was thanks to my two sons, really – my sons started played football locally. So, when the team was looking for a new trainer and people knew that I was from the UK and I watched and played football, that was my cards marked. I love it; it's another way to get involved in our community here."

"I'm a strategist at heart. So, when I started coaching, I got my head straight in the books around tactics, how to organize the team, how to play to win. I'm a firm believer that if you do something, you should do it to the best of your abilities and never give up."


London-born Ramkali has found himself the coach of his local village football team, Blentarps BK. Photo: Sandau foto

This tactical mindset isn't restricted to the playing field. Far from it – in 2011, Ramkali moved to international communications agency W Communication Agency, becoming CEO of the Malmö office in early 2019.

With 15 years working as a communications leader in Sweden, he's experienced in the characteristics and quirks of the country's working culture. "The stand-out defining feature of a Swedish working environment is the consensus culture. I've spent time working in Denmark, Italy and Germany, and none of them have had the same. In most other countries it's more based in hierarchy – a mentality of 'If your boss says do it, you do it. No questions asked.'"

"But the Swedish way works for me. Yes, you must involve more stakeholders, yes it takes longer, but by the end everyone has been involved and you get buy-in. Everyone feels like they own it. They have a voice at the table."

To Ramkali's mind, this flat structure is partly to thank for Sweden's reputation as a nation leading the charge in innovation. "Listening to different opinions, questioning your own decisions and challenging others. It all helps you to examine what you take for granted, to start thinking differently – more creatively."

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"You only need to look at the number of patents held globally. I think Sweden is near the top, and if not the top, within the top five. Working within life science, Sweden is certainly at the cutting-edge of medical innovations, from inventions like the kidney dialysis machine to the pacemaker."

So far, so positive. But, of course, there are elements of British life that exercise a pull on the Londoner. "I definitely miss the pub culture – it doesn't exist here. Not in the same way. Sometimes I miss finishing work, going to a neighbour and saying, 'shall we go for a beer?' Here you have to plan about four weeks in advance!"

These small details, though, are far outweighed by the positives he sees in his future in Sweden – so much so that he and his wife are in the process of applying for Swedish citizenship.

From the standard of living to being able to work among high-performing people and companies, Ramkali doesn't take the opportunities Sweden has given him for granted. Even after 15 years, as he puts it, "being in Sweden still feels like a privilege".

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