Charlotte Sundåker

Former CEO at Hyper Island

A few years ago I pursued a study opportunity at Hyper Island when I was making the shift from freelance to full-time here in Stockholm. Having only just dipped my toes in the water of Hyper Island during that process, I was so very curious to have lunch with a former CEO of the school.

Prologue

We met at Cafe Pascal; one of the newer, contemporary, and earthy places close to Odenplan. Perhaps I’ve mentioned it before but this little gem of a place is a reminder of Coffee Mecca Melbourne and when I’m here, regardless of rain or shine, I’m momentarily transported to jacket-on-jacket-off Melbs.

Even though I come into contact with a bunch of truly inspiring women through this blog, I am still constantly taken aback when meeting younger talent in the most senior leadership roles. So naturally, when meeting Charlotte, her young age and seniority at Hyper Island was one of the things that first piqued my curiosity. How does such an opportunity present itself to someone that might not have the longest CV in the room?

Chapter One

Going Hyper

Having worked in the US and at the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce prior to joining Hyper Island, I ask what persuaded Charlotte to join the Hyper team. If anybody has ever studied at Hyper Island, been to one of their fantastic workshops, or has simply come into contact with a former student, you’ll know that the place breeds a special kind of talent.

“I had no idea what Hyper Island was, and this was about 8 years ago. It was a really progressive school, but a really small one. It started in Karlskrona and then continued to Stockholm. So when I joined Hyper Island, it was really like I could not even understand what they were doing. It was so vague. It was just like, okay, here’s a house with lots of creative maniacs, and they call it education but they don’t seem to function as a real education because they don’t have teacher! They don’t sit and listen to someone talking and then write a test and then give a grade. They do something completely different. ” She remembers with laughter.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I had a really good feeling so I decided to join.”

Interestingly, Charlotte wasn’t a graduate of the school which I think speaks volumes about the mentality of Hyper Island and how infectious this can be to new recruits. Starting off in a marketing coordinator role, it was a role she would eventually spend 7 years of her life crafting and fine-tuning.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I had a really good feeling so I decided to join.

Though accepting the role didn’t come without trepidation. Since she had been responsible for marketing and sales in a previous role, taking a less senior position made her question whether it was a too much of a side track for her long-term development. But the outside-the-square approach the Hyper team took while recruiting her ultimately swayed her to join.

“They’re so open and opportunity driven, just like I am. They were asking me questions like “What do you dream about?” and “How could you contribute?” and “How can you contribute to your growth?” They were really personal and professional-development oriented. I felt like wow, this is really a place where I can grow. Here is the place where I want to contribute.”

Chapter Two

Success means trying. And trying. And trying. And trying.  

Seeing that Charlotte had quite high ambitions even before joining Hyper Island, I ask her whether she always knew what her stepping stones to success would be. Of course not! You have to start trying and the sooner the better. Unfortunately, traditional education and university is not always the quickest at shoving us into the unknown. 

“I didn’t get the chance to meet any companies or actually test my skills whilst in university. So I really had no idea about career opportunities at that time. You could read a magazine and you could see someone making a career but it wasn’t that in the way that we have now. This was before Facebook, the networking society and community building. I really had no clue but I knew that I wanted to develop, learn, create great things, and do things together with people. I knew that I wanted to accelerate.”

She continues to emphasise the importance of trying things out early. “How could you know if you haven’t tested things?” It happens at most lunches with these Boss Ladies, yet it’s still comforting to know that you don’t need to have it all figured out from day one.

So what is a concrete way of trying if you’re new to your industry?

“One thing that I did do before the whole Hyper Island journey was that I applied for lots of jobs. I knew I didn’t want to be in the company where I was, so I was kind of looking for the job that could start my career. And with that I applied for all the management trainee positions. But for those kinds of jobs, I was not the right profile.”

Why you might ask? Because those positions were looking for linear, numerical, straight-edged profiles that didn’t really offer an avenue for more creative problem solving. 

“I also went to a few interviews where I could really feel, in my stomach, that this was not a place that gave me energy and this was not a place where I could be myself. And I think that’s really important for me, to have that feeling that the person that I am can really be in service of the job I’m going to do.”

“I have so many examples, both for myself but also for other people, when we go against that (feeling). When we try to do things that we’re not. That is not building on our strengths. But rather, I’m really going to try to squeeze myself into this and do it.”

Chapter Three

Crossing the great divide

I want to know more about how Charlotte made the ascension into a senior position.

The two most common scenarios in my experience has been that A. The CEO is a founder or B. The CEO is headhunted from another top-performing company. Rarely have I seen true promotion of management into the lead role. Additionally, when looking at advertised senior positions, all are asking for prior leadership experience that eclipse some lifetimes. But at some point, there must have been a leap from zero to hero.

For Charlotte, the leap from Marketing Coordinator to Head of Marketing was a larger leap than to standing CEO. “That was actually a bigger mental leap for me.”

With almost no hand-over period between her predecessor and herself, Alexandra was quite frankly, thrown into the whirlwind that was Hyper Island at the time.  

“What I realised soon after I got that job was that the owners and the management of Hyper Island had big plans. So, at that time, it was only a school in Sweden. But they had plans for starting schools all over the world; starting different executive programs, working with companies to tailor-make programs.”

We started schools in Singapore and Manchester, and opened offices in London and New York and Sao Paolo.

She goes on to explain what the next years entailed. “From that point and for the following 6 years, I was part of being responsible for the brand, for the marketing, for the communication and the student recruitment. We started schools in Singapore and Manchester, and opened offices in London and New York and Sao Paolo. I launched many programs across the world.”

She tried to palm it off as lucky timing but I’m quick to shoot (kindly) back that yes, timing can be important but you’ve got be good at what you do to be considered for the opportunity to begin with. Conceding, Charlotte adds that timing and the willingness to put up your hand plays a huge influence in role progression. 

“For me to get that position was a result of me going to the CEO pretty much every day and saying you know, if you can’t find anyone, I’m really interested. I think I can do it. I made it impossible for him to forget me.” 

“I think that is a key thing; to make sure that everyone knows what you’re really interested in. Make yourself visible and (let people know) that you’re secure about yourself enough that you could learn the job. You’ve got to make it clear that you don’t know it, but you’re willing to work hard. I’m willing to really learn it.”

When the prior CEO resigned, Alexandra had been on her way out to start her own business but with one foot out the door, she reconsidered her situation. “I called the chairman of the board and offered myself to take the job.” 

“I spoke to all of my colleagues in the management team and got their support. I was ready to take that responsibility for however long that could be. If you have good relations and you’ve been working hard and working in teams before, people will support you in taking the leadership.”

A core value of Eat 52 Lunches is to have lunch with Boss Ladies regardless of age; this whole exploration is about finding ways to accelerate knowledge so that age isn’t a barrier for women new to their field. But since Charlotte is the youngest CEO to be interviewed (at time of writing), it was important for me to understand what trials and tribulations she had walked through after grasping the CEO role. 

“I think that there are much tougher environments for women to be in than Hyper Island but on the other hand, Hyper Island is filled with super passionate, creative and driven people…you get challenged every day.”

If you have good relations and you’ve been working hard and working in teams before, people will support you in taking the leadership.

Even if you’re inexperienced in a particular role, you still have to deliver. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help from those around you. 

“It was obvious I was an underdog. I was really open with it and asked for help. So in relation to understanding how do I as the CEO report effectively to the board, I called one of the people on the board that I knew had a lot of board experience. I asked if he could help me and educate me.” 

I really admire that level of transparency and believe that this is a great learning for women looking to accelerate their learning; you don’t have to have done things before but you do need to know when and who to ask for help.

Chapter Four

Taking on the journey…again

When we take the leap into a new role, the energy spent in the evolution of yourself can be quite frankly, exhausting. When we come out of the other side of such a whirlwind journey, it’s inevitable that we ask ourselves if we’d ever take the journey again. Would Charlotte do it again?

“I would. But I was totally beat after a year.” Understandably so. She explains that what made the year a marathon wasn’t perhaps the job at hand but rather that it started out as a three month assignment that turned to six months, and then eventually one year. Once the new CEO came in, Charlotte took the time to recuperate and regain energy again. 

We finish up our meals and simultaneously, our conversation. I ask what Charlotte has planned for the next 12 months. She ponders a little before answering. “I’ll continue starting projects with passion and curiosity and where I see big challenges or problems that I think could be fixed, and opportunities to work where value can be created.

“That’s how I navigate now. If there’s this cool person with a cool idea, I ask myself how can I support that? Can we start something? Or I have an idea and then I approach people that I have followed, that I think it’s great to work with, and we start from that.”

And in the long term? “I have a long-term vision of moving all my products in some way towards creativity and learning, and challenging and changing the world of education.”

You can keep tabs on what Charlotte’s up to over on LinkedIn or by following one of her latest ventures, Ownershift.

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