Board professional & senior communication/branding advisor
I moved to Sweden 3 years ago and when I first moved here I had close to zero professional contacts. I came here for a new adventure that comprised of one part job hunter and one part love for a Swede. I’d been working quite a bit within the Copenhagen startup scene but upon arrival in Stockholm, I realised that my 99% of my network was through my sambo*.
* Sambo is the word used in the Nordics to describe the relationship between you and your partner when you live together but aren’t married. Legally, there isn’t too much difference between this and a marriage certificate. It’s fantastic.
Initially, this wasn’t an issue but come 12 weeks later it became crystal clear that I really needed my own network. Not just for professional development but for friendship. I’d moved to Sweden in the middle of winter and settling into a foreign city under a blanket of darkness for the better part of 4 months was (at that point) the toughest thing I had mentally gone through.
In Copenhagen I had sat at a great coworking space called Republikken which had given me clients, contacts and comfort. I knew that I needed to find a coworking space in Stockholm that I could call home. I started looking around and spent half days at different coworking spaces. Each carried a different vibe. Each provided a space with a different purpose. It wasn’t the first space I tried and nor was it the last but somewhere in the middle, I came across a place called Entreprenörskyrkan.
And yes, the literal translation is entrepreneur’s church. Nothing weird, promise.
There are very few times that I would label a moment serendipitous but the moment that I walked into Entreprenörskyrkan was certainly one of them. There were two flights of stairs you had to walk up before you entered the church and already then I knew I might be able to call this place home.
As I walked through the big double-wooden doors, I tentatively asked the first person in the room if they could point me in the direction of someone called Jesper. As luck would have it, it was Jesper and I was welcomed with the warmest smile – something I think I really needed at that time. I spent the day meeting the other members of Entreprenörskyrkan and working underneath the impressively high roofs.
At the end of the day, I packed up my computer and headed in the direction of those big wooden doors. Jesper was there waiting to say goodbye and without even second-guessing it, we smiled and embraced in a huge hug. “I am so glad you came today, Sophia.” Jesper said mid-hug. I knew there and then that this was the place for me.
I joined the following week and was a member for just over a year. That year brought so many wonderful people into my network and friendship circle, some of which are still to this very day my closest friends.
You’ve probably asked yourself why I told that story when I haven’t even mentioned Helena Westin yet. Well, it’s important to know because it was through Entreprenörskyrkan that I had the chance to meet Helena. It’s important to know because that combination of openness and community warmth I found at Kyrkan (and later Slottet) is something that Helena Westin brings to a conversation. I hope that shines through in the following chapters.
The Board Room Queen
When Kyrkan became Slottet, a bunch of new people joined the leadership team to give it every chance in success. Helena was one of those people. We had met a couple of times in the cafe and at the housewarming ball. But it wasn’t until I sent an email asking for tips on who I should lunch with, that I knew I should lunch with Helena. It was Jesper that had given me the tip, his response simply being: Helena Westin, Board Room Queen.
Helena and I were to meet at one of the iconic cafe’s at Stortorget, Gamla Stan. It was approaching the end of September and yet, it was uncharacteristically warm in Stockholm. This gave us the chance to sit outside on the small decks the old cafe’s construct and deconstruct every year according to the seasons. Since we were meeting smack bang in the middle of lunch, all the cafe’s were full. The town clock was also chiming reminding passers by that it was time to eat. From 20 metres back, the whole scene might look like the opening of a Woody Allen film.
We don’t waste any time in ordering food and while we are waiting, we start chatting about Helena’s current role or, what’s more realistic, roles. Having worked in a variety of sectors within communications, marketing and branding, Helena now splits her time between paid, client work and pro-bono work.
But before we delve too deep into that, I really wanted to explore Helena’s journey to where she is today. Being a well-known leader not only in Stockholm but also Sweden, lead me to be really curious about where her story all began and what shaped her into the person she is today. So where better to start than university.
Bye bye, baby
“My big plan was to get my university degree and then get a job in the alpines because I love skiing. I thought I’d make a great ski-guide. But I flunked an exam in my early years at university and I was devastated. It was a catastrophe! I realised perhaps I wasn’t such a bright student”.
“So I did a list of all the companies that did trips from Stockholm to the Alps. I called them up one by one saying ‘Hi, I’m fantastic and a great skier’ with all the enthusiasm of a young person. They would just laugh at me saying ‘Well we only hire people over the age of 25 and we do that in March and it’s now October’.”
“I called the last company on the list, with tears in my eyes, crying through the call” Helena retells. She re-enacts the call with a sobbing voice “Hi, my name is Helena and I think that I would be a fantastic guide but I have to be honest with you, I’m an unsuccessful student.” I laugh with her but also recognise how tough this must have been for her 20-year old self.
As fate would have it, the person that happened to be on the other end of the sobs was also a failed student; just 20 years previous. He was the owner of the company and had unfortunately already hired all the staff he needed. However, Helena recalls an invitation she didn’t expect from him “You sound like you need a lunch. Come down from Uppsala and I’ll buy you lunch”. The two met for lunch and 2 weeks later he called Helena and offered her a job in the French alps.
Not your average 21-year old
During that time, Helena was splitting her time between the ski season and the summer season. Having figured out what she was doing during the winter, Helena realised that she needed something during the summer. “I needed a summer job and there was a sailing school that was on the verge of bankruptcy. So me and a couple of friends sort of said ‘Well that’s too bad’ because we needed a summer job and we didn’t want to be inside. We wanted to sail. So we decided to rescue it from closing down. I did that for 8 consecutive summers. Back then, you were not ‘startups’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.” Helena says with a small chuckle.
So while she spent her summers running a sailing school, winter was spent skiing in the French alps. It didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial bug to bite again. But this time it was to start something from scratch with her then-girlfriend. “In a resort with 10 000 tours per week, there was nowhere for people to hang out during the evening. There were a couple of restaurants and one lousy discotheque but no bars.” Their answer? “Let’s start a bar.”
Let's start a bar.
Juggling these two lifestyles successfully shows that Helena has had entrepreneurial blood running through her veins for decades, cutting her teeth on slopes and waves in both the physical and metaphorical sense. But in 1988 she would be faced with a new challenge – life without skiing and sailing.
From small biz to huge biz
In the beginning of her third ski season, Helena suffered a broken knee for the third time and it couldn’t be fixed. Knowing that she could no longer sail or ski, Helena needed to start looking around for another job.
“One of my friends said to me you’re a marketer; everything you’ve been doing up until now is marketing”. At first, Helena didn’t really equate the two. “I said, ‘What? Is that marketing?’ I was very unconscious that I was running a business. Of course I had the relevant tax processes in place like an AB company but I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing”.
After reevaluating what it was that Helena wanted to do, she returned to study. “I went back to school to study a Masters in Communications and that was like coming home for me. Because there were theories behind everything that I had done with the sailing school and bar, intuitively”.
“I graduated in 1990 and since then I have mostly been employed full-time with companies. My first job after graduating was with Bank Girot and I was there 3 years. Then I joined the predecessor to Svenska Spil. I had no interest in gaming or lottery, I’ve never bought a ticket in my life but I really liked the advertising”.
All of a sudden I was the youngest person...and I was managing a marketing budget of 350 million kroner
Helena reflects on her role “All of a sudden I was the youngest person and the only women in the management team. My responsibilities was for all the gaming brands, from lotto to triss, and I was managing a marketing budget of 350 million kroner”. It was impressive that Helena was propelled into such a high-profile position and I wanted to know what it was like for her, particularly from the perspective of a woman in a male-dominated environment.
Being one of the boys
I ask how many challenges Helena encountered as a woman in that workspace. “Plenty.” Helena adds quite quickly. I ask whether that experience was something she expected? And if reflecting on that position versus what she does now, how is the experience different? She takes her time to answer, deliberating on how best to answer. “I don’t really know. I’m more aware now. I was a well-trained feminist already then. I think that it’s very different actually because I’m a lesbian”.
I was a well-trained feminist already then.
She continues “I think that the challenge for women, and for men, is that we always have a sub-conscious sexual game; with flirting and where the woman often becomes the prey, in a way. And that happens very much but very unconsciously and very subtly in the business world. It’s all about looks and sexiness…but I don’t respond to that. So in a very strange way, I become one of the boys”.
This is a fascinating perspective because I realise in that moment in an almost epiphany-like style that even though Helena and I share many similarities (both women, both professional communicators), our experience of interaction with male colleagues is totally different. Likely because of our sexuality.
I push further and ask how long it took for Helena to be treated as one of the boys. “After a while, and when they realise that I don’t respond”. Helena notes “This is something that even at the time, I wasn’t aware of. It’s come to me over the years”.
Continuing, Helena tells me “They (men) start to do some subtle flirting, even when they are married, even when they have kids. There is always this man-woman game. When I don’t respond to that, some men get really frustrated. Most of the men I have worked alongside, with very few exceptions, have come through that. They see that I’m just a friend, that I’m not a physical object. I just don’t read that language. So therefore I become one of the boys. But also not entirely, I’m not into the bromance thing”.
Choosing your battles – and winning them
We keep talking along this line of gender-based workplace interactions. “I’ve had really senior and top leaders say to me (Helena puts on a deep macho voice) ‘Yeah we can look at tits together’.” My jaw dropped as she tells me this and I jump in immediately asking whether this was something that had happened within the last 10 years. “Oh yeah.” Helena responds. “And I think it could happen again”. I’m pretty flabbergasted.
We talk about whether statements such as these are something said only by men. My experiences show that it’s usually a male comment but Helena adds that it can just as well be a woman.
When these kinds of remarks are made the hardest part can be deciding what to do about it. Do you say something? Do you let it slide? I ask Helena for her perspective. “I’ve never really been an activist on the floor. I decided to be an activist structurally. By that I mean changing societies through what I do best; communication and doing huge things rather than taking the individual fight. I think I work more with understanding and making people respect me as a person than taking fights over little things”.
She considers the perspective of fighting over the smaller things and responds “Always pulling the gender or racist card is not the way forward. I’m seeing that (in my own network) women in their 30’s who are now starting to feel the glass ceiling and start pulling the gender card and that’s not the way to do it. That’s not going to change anything. You have to be smarter”.
Contributing to the structure of society
We’ve just briefly touched on Pride and I want to learn more about how that came to be. Without a doubt, one of Helena’s biggest contributions to Stockholm’s open and tolerant culture has been her effort in bringing Pride (as we know it) to Stockholm in 1998.
“We had freedom weeks but Pride as we know it today, that was first done in 1998. There had been something called Europride. There had been one in Paris and Copenhagen and we were the third of fourth city in Europe to have Europride”. A year and a half before the festival was to be held, the team responsible for the event called Helena and asked her to be the project leader. She is humble when she answers “I didn’t invent the idea, I just executed with the rest of the team”.
I have family, friends and colleagues who are a part of the LGBTQIA community and I stand in solidarity with them 100% wherever and whenever I can. I am strong in publicly voicing my opinions of marriage equality the world over and for fair and equal representation of LGBTQIA in society. However, hearing some of the adversities their community has faced over the last four to five decades shows me how much I can never possibly understand simply because I’d not yet been born. Even just touching on some stories with Helena shows me her resilience and strength in the face of adversity. I admire her truly and deeply for that.
The roller-coaster that is stress
Something that I tend to ask all the Boss Ladies I lunch with is how they handle stress because it is an unavoidable reality in modern life. For Helena, her relationship with stress took on a new meaning in 2002 when she experienced a breakdown that took two years to return to full time work.
“I’d gotten the position of CEO at a much-hyped advertising agency called DDB Stockholm. I was the first women in the CEO position and we were the first Swedish agency winning Lions in Cannes. I’d been with them for 5 years. Personally, I was in a really bad relationship. At work you know I’m the big sister, I take care of everyone. I’m a better caretaker of people around me than I am of myself”.
“I became so stressed that I stopped being me. I never slept for more than 1.5 hours at a time and never more than 4 hours in total. I totally broke down. So I stopped working for 7 months and then slowly came back. DDB were so amazing to me during the whole experience and they gave me everything I needed”.
“Today I’m really happy it happened. I realised that I need stress. When I returned I was in another position and people were like oh no we shouldn’t have Helena in this meeting, it’s too stressful. I almost got burned out from boredom. Because I want the stress! I like the pressure, I like to be out on a limb! I need stress, I need lots of it (but not too much) and I need to be out of my comfort zone and I need to think differently.”
I ask her what made her learn that about herself and she explains that it was through cognitive behavioural therapy. “It’s fantastic, I think everybody should do it. You learn that the way you feel is a reflection of how you think and what you see. I’m really glad it (the breakdown) happened to me because I became a much better boss after that. Much more reflective and much more mindful”.
Helena goes on to describe this kind of stress she likes as characteristic of the advertising industry and that it’s needed to create something great. “If you don’t think to yourself ‘Oh this isn’t going to work’ then it’s not good enough. If you think your work is good then it’s not award winning, it won’t change anything”.
Work is your stock portfolio
Knowing how much the breakdown has contributed to who she is today, I want to hear more about how it continues to direct Helena in new roles. She explains “Five years ago, I was running a company with my partners, a media and communications agency, and I realised that I was going to work angry. That was against everything I stood for”. Helena continues explaining how she sought better balance in her work-life during that time.
“A friend of mine said that I should look at my work-life as a stock portfolio. You need to have some things that are high risk and some things that are low risk. So applying that to work, you want some work that is really good pay (the low risk), something that is good for the heart (the high risk) and then something that is really easy (low risk) and then some where you learn (high risk). That’s how I look at it”.
It’s a really refreshing perspective and I’ve never really thought of dividing my time in that way before. It’s more or less me asking myself in a somewhat hysterical voice “How on Earth am I meant to fit this all in?”.
Currently, Helena is a board professional and senior communications advisor. You knew that already from the top of this blog post. What you might not know is that 50% of Helena’s board work is pro bono.
“The world that many of these companies operate in, there isn’t a lot of money. They could never pay me…so therefore instead of working for these organisations, I would rather work with them and for them on my own conditions”. Helena references the stock portfolio way of looking at work. “I want to separate my commercial life and my ideological life. And I find that’s the best solution for me”.
Accelerating AND finding happiness
We touch back on the foundation of this blog and I ask her what advice she would give to young women new to their roles. What more can we do to get ourselves faster to leadership positions. “Do this.” Helena states with certainty and in reference to our lunch and the blog.
...the basic thing is to have fun because if it's fun you do a better job
But she adds that we should be weary of too much planning. “I haven’t really planned my career. I think planning is a good thing of course but I think it can hold you back. I think the best thing you can do to move fast is to work hard and make sure that you are seen. Not because you are the person that is the feminist etc etc but because you are the positive person that comes forward with great ideas that executes and delivers. Because then things will come to you. If they don’t, change employer. But the basic thing is to have fun because if it’s fun you do a better job”.
It’s a natural progression to move onto the topic of happiness and satisfaction at work. “Working in this society is so complex and complicated and so difficult that if you don’t like what you’re doing, if you’re not happy, change”.
“With happy, I don’t mean laughing all the time. I mean feeling that you’re learning, that you grow, that you contribute and that you like the people that you work with. If the people are great, it’ll be great. But if the culture and the atmosphere isn’t great – leave”.
With that, Helena and I finish our lunches, fix the bill and leave the scenic decking of the cafe. We’ve shared in some really hearty discussion and I feel educated and inspired after just an hour with Helena. She is in every sense of the word, a true Boss Lady.
The coworking space I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post is called Slottsbacken 8. If you ever feel you need to be around a group of people that will appreciate you for who you are and what you bring to the community then I suggest you sit there. Even if for a day. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and drop my name and this blog – he will welcome you with open arms just as he did to me.