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Stockholm’s startup scene seeks more diversity

Swedish capital has created a world-leading tech startup environment, but it still lacks the diversity of people needed to move it to the next level

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Nordics: CW Nordics: Klarna alumni energise Stockholm’s startup scene

Swedish organisation Changers Hub is looking to encourage  diversity across Stockholm’s startup ecosystem after noticing that one of the most exciting parties in global tech was not necessarily inviting all rungs of society.  

After Silicon Valley, Stockholm boasts more tech unicorns per capita than anywhere else in the worldBut even though Sweden is renowned for its socially conscious society based around equality, this is not necessarily reflected in the diversity of founders in its capital. 

Much focus to this end has rightfully been on the gender gap, but diversity extends far beyond the male and female divide, and Changers Hub has looked to extend this effort. Its belief, and that of co-founder Siduri Poli, is that entrepreneurial opportunity should be available regardless of name, address, background, gender or race. 

“Our vision is to democratise success, which we translate into working for under-represented entrepreneurs to make the best out of their ideas,” she said. “There is an innovation party going on in Sweden, but not everybody is invited. What Changers Hub does is create more tickets for people to get into that party.” 

Located in two free-to-use co-working spaces – an academy and a music studio – the organisation was formed in 2015 by Poli, alongside Amanias Abraha, Victoria Escobar and Fares Hamed. All four were raised on the outskirts of Stockholm and noticed a disparity of opportunity when it came to creating a network, accessing knowledge and being exposed to role models or success stories. 

They embarked on a journey to reverse that fortune for others in their situation, and about 7,000 entrepreneurs have since been supported by Changers Hub. 

“We noticed that, traditionally, the ways to get into Stockholm’s tech startup ecosystem weren’t open to everyone,” said Poli. “You had to be a specific ‘type’ of fit to gain the right knowledge, or network introductions. 

“Even now, if you study in a prestigious school, you’ll get a strong network from there, but to get accepted to those schools, you have to be an A-grade student. And we all know that grades don’t always make the best entrepreneur. As such, we need more visible ways into the ecosystem, and that’s where Changers Hub steps in to pave the way forward.” 

Based on a method of social recycling, Changers Hub has a lot of startups at seed level, but aims to be able to follow and support entrepreneurs throughout their journeys. To this end, it will grow its co-working spaces over the coming months, while it will also look to empower companies through its media reach – epitomised by reaching more than 20 million people in 2020 through only positive or neutral articles, with a marketing budget of zero. 

Read more about tech diversity in the Nordics

Poli said early successes over the past six years can especially be found in the category of gender, with 65% of those within the network being women. Across its private investment course, 73% are women, 90% of them of non-Nordic heritage.  

It is a breakthrough that DanAds has been particularly inspired by, having recently entered a partnership with a similar network, Mitt Liv. Founded in 2013, and now a leading provider of self-serve advertising technology, DanAds is an enabler for publishers of all shapes and sizes, so they can receive fair and elevated advertising revenues regardless of resources or background. 

Co-founder Istvan Beres is especially invested in improving gender diversity in the wider ecosystem. He said: “As a whole, I would say that the tech scene is becoming increasingly diverse, especially when it comes to attracting talent from other nations. 

“The gender gap, however, is where the ecosystem is still lagging behind, with leading, tech-heavy roles primarily held by men. This is a systemic issue, but Stockholm is definitely one of the many cities working hard to push for change on this matter. 

“However, it is also clear that the suburban areas of Stockholm are under-represented in the entrepreneurial scene, with the majority of new startups coming from the city centre. 

“We started our collaboration with Mitt Liv last year. It sprang from the fact that we wanted to formalise something that we already see as a hugely important part of our company culture – namely, the diverse team we have at DanAds.” 

Catalysts for change  

Innovative retail-based company Returnado has directly benefited from the Changers Hub network. Now a thriving enabler of digitised returns, its founder, Haider Abdo, reflected on the difficult journey of getting an innovative idea to market. 

“As an extremely busy and growing ecosystem, Stockholm, to a degree, has become a victim of its own success,” he said. “Now, for founders and entrepreneurs whose ideas and methods don’t fit the mould, accessing investor networks can be extremely tough. 

“This is why organisations such as Changers Hub are really good at sharing their networks, matching people and providing the resources which could be the difference between quitting or bankruptcy within the first year, or becoming a multimillion-dollar company.” 

But Abdo noted that the ongoing ambition to become more equal and representative is proof that Stockholm is not there yet. 

“The paradox to the startup self-image is that it is a culture that prides itself around innovation, cultural liberalism and disruption that goes against the norm – but still the founders of most startups that are being funded and supported by the ecosystem, typically have similar backgrounds,” he said. “Currently, there is still very little investment and attention being shown to founders who are female, non-white or from outside Stockholm.” 

Citing notions of visibility, networking, knowledge-sharing and collaboration as core components of the Changers Hub proposition, the outcome of such a micro-ecosystem is that the network can now push together to encourage future progress in these exact areas, he said. 

“Entrepreneurs that step into the hub witness the power of collaboration – something that is extremely beneficial in the long term, and in particular for the future success of Stockholm as an incubator for tech startups,” Abdo concluded. 

Beres added: “Organisations like Changers Hub and Mitt Liv serve as important catalysts for change, both when it comes to educating companies around equality, and also in changing attitudes. 

“I believe what is happening inside Swedish companies is that the notion of a diverse workforce is becoming even more important. Ultimately, this is what makes a difference both from a societal and an integration point of view, but it also makes these tech businesses stronger and able to deliver better results.” 

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