Customer Experience Ledarskap

The startup owner’s manual: Interview with the engine behind Malmö’s ”Highway to business”, Fadi Barakat

The world pandemic has made a lot of people lose their jobs, increasing unemployment rates in the labor market worldwide, and creating obstacles for companies and jobseekers to find new work opportunities. We hope that this interview with Fadi Barakat from Malmö Stad will be especially of help for those who decided to start their own business in response to unemployment, and those who want to stay relevant in the market.  

Hi Fadi! It’s a pleasure to be talking with you today! You are currently working as a Business Development Manager at the Business and Trade Office of Malmö Stad, and we would like to speak about your project of helping want-to-be-entrepreneurs open their own business in Sweden. We will also discuss possible ways to adapt to this difficult pandemic situation, and give our readers a bunch of other useful information! 

Thank you, Daria! I’m glad to be here! 

You have a very interesting story, with the impressive stages of career development. Your background is in biomedicine, and your dream was to become a biomedical engineer, but after the studies you started working in an absolutely different field – as a Sustainability Manager at Manpower. That happened due to certain challenges that you encountered while entering the labor market, could you tell us about them? 

In my opinion, the most challenging part is unfortunately bias in the labor market that you don’t see in the beginning. You may think: “Maybe my CV is incomplete, or maybe there’s something wrong with my competence, that’s why I don’t get any job offers…”. It’s easy to start questioning yourself. But I would like to reassure you: very often it’s not your fault. In a lot of cases the real reason lies within the companies that hire people. Thereby, it is always important to understand how diverse the company you want to work in is, and whether the company’s culture is inclusive. Maybe it’s not, maybe something is biased there, and that might be a big obstacle then… 

You have also completed a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Public Organization from Malmö University in order to confront the challenges in entering the labor market, right? According to some career development theories, getting a higher degree increases chances of a better career progression, do you agree with that? 

Education is a very important part of the career-building process indeed, but it’s not the only thing. I think that it’s also your personal capacity that matters a lot. As for me, I’ve never used the acquired skills from my Bachelor’s degree: I’ve been working with humans, not cells, all this time. But of course, studying expands your horizons, gives you new perspectives of looking at the things. Moreover, it’s important to look at the education as a constant process, as a way of living. It’s crucial to acquire new skills, and continuously keep your knowledge on the level. Life is changing, it’s getting more digital, and the people who have a high level of “learnability” are more relevant in the market, since they can adapt to changes much faster compared to others. 

Learning also improves your analytical thinking, and opens your eyes on finding new solutions. For instance, after my Master’s, I have started connecting some puzzles in a different way. When I studied at Malmö University, I met a lot of international peers who gave me a new perspective of seeing things alongside with the challenges they faced. They were new to Sweden, and they were struggling a lot with something that I could understand after having lived in Sweden for a long time. The experience of studying itself and meeting people from all over the world has been of a great value to me too. 

That’s so true! I am getting a Master’s Degree at Malmö University now, and yes, I agree that studying in the international and diverse environment is a very precious experience! So, after making your own path in the rough labor market and receiving two degrees, you are now in one of the main social organizations in Malmö. Could you please describe to us your current role at the Business and Trade Office of Malmö Stad? 

I am in charge of a lot of different projects, but I would like to tell you in particular about one of them called “Highway to business”. It involves newcomers to Sweden who want to start their own companies. We want to discover potential in the internationals to realize their business ideas. We have professional business developers at Malmö Stad who help entrepreneurs find opportunities and seize them. It’s like a recruitment process in business. We offer five different courses in the programme, plus a tight connection with a business developer. We help entrepreneurs go all the way from an idea to a registered business. We also offer micro-loans through Almi, opportunities to meet investors, as well as subsidies through Arbetsförmedlingen (those are our partners in this project).  

Can you give some examples of the places that started operating with the help of this project? 

Sure! We helped several companies open their business in Malmö: a sushi place in Västra Hamnen, the first Malmö’s Humus Bar in Triangeln, Toti Health Food Store, to name a few. Around 20 new companies started their life in Malmö thanks to the project. And what is especially good is that now they create new working places, they hire diversity, and even more importantly – they help the societies with integration. I would call it “a good side effect” of this project, which helps change the system from within and make it more inclusive.  

Sounds great! And what about the length of the programme?  

The preliminary plan was to make it 6 months, but then we understood that it would kill people’s motivation, so we reduced it to 2 months. That’s why it’s called “Highway to business”. One of the things that we learnt is that we should not have projects in a time span; it is more beneficial to keep them rather short. And “Highway to business” doesn’t actually need to be longer: you have a finished business plan in the end of the two months’ period. As the main result of the programme, you get to know and understand your customer. Every individual is complex, and each one has their own needs – it is crucial to take into consideration while doing business.  

That’s exactly what we constantly say at Danji  Know your customer well, and your customer will always be loyal to you – it’s one of our core values. It’s so good to hear that “Highway to business” teaches entrepreneurs such important principles! But have there been any shifts in the programme due to the pandemic crisis, has it changed the structure of “Highway to business”? 

Yes, the coronavirus has affected the project. For instance, we had physical meetings before the pandemic, and now we have them online. But another good thing about the programme is that it’s quite customized. The main focus is on flexibility within the project – it means that there should not be just one solution to the problem, since everyone is so individual. And language is not a barrier between us and the entrepreneurs either: we hold meetings in English, Arabic, or Swedish, depending on the person. 

There is one more change: the work group of “Highway to business” is handing over the project to our partners Almi, Arbetsförmedlingen and Tillväxt Malmö; they will be the ones to continue working with it from now on. Their business developers have been helping us during this project, and now they will keep it alive further on. Arbetsförmedlingen has in particular been recruiting people for the project, since starting your own business could be a good solution to unemployment. So, Arbetsförmedlingen offers entrepreneurship as an option to people seeking jobs, if there is a potential and desire to do it. 

And are there any specific initiatives that Malmö Stad is doing during the pandemic?  

Yes, of course. Malmö Stad introduces a package of different subsidies and solutions to help companies in Malmö. The organization also increases awareness through the call center – you can  phone them and get advice, if you need it, and they will guide you in the right direction. There is also a separate section dedicated to the pandemic on the Malmö Stad website (see it here), where you can find all the necessary information and answers to your questions. Now thanks to the crisis, we started realizing how important it is to communicate in different languages. 

Could you please clarify what exactly you mean by that? Do you think that the current situation created new opportunities for us? 

It has definitely exposed certain things that don’t work in the society, such as some negative sides of one-sided communication in the cities. It showed side effects of segregation in the society. The current situation showed us both good and bad things, though it sounds like a paradox, but now it is clearer what we should work on in the future. Digital meetings turned out to be faster ways of communication compared to the traditional ones, and better for the environment in general.  

The societal structure has become more optimized. It’s a call for us: we really have to wake up and deal with the situation, especially when it’s life-threatening like now. Nowadays we’re more effective at doing things, we work harder to fight the crisis. As for the communication effects, information about the pandemic came out, but at first a lot of it was in Swedish. Within a short time framework, it created issues for non-native language speakers, they did not know how to behave properly. That’s how we finally started to understand the value of communication in different languages (it can also be related to filling in tax declarations, receiving insurance information, etc.) And it’s not only about the public organizations, it’s also the private sector: companies are missing potential customers this way. 

I completely agree with you, I really struggle with it sometimes. This time luckily, I got help with filling in the tax declaration in Swedish, otherwise I can’t imagine how I would have done it myself! That’s why we at Danji have our website, blog, and podcast in both Swedish and English, not to leave anyone out! 

Anyway, enough with my complaints about Swedish haha! So, finally, what advice would you give to start-up companies on dealing with the corona situation, how to adapt to this new way of living? And what are some crucial skills to improve to be relevant for the labor market in these challenging times? 

First of all, be creative, think outside the box. Second, become more digital. A lot of countries have been digital already even before corona, and now the pandemic has speeded up the process. Many entrepreneurs also make a mistake in designing companies in one single way, so they don’t know anything else. Those that are experts only in one field, they get beaten really hard in the current situation. Just imagine: if corona affects the one thing you are good at, what happens next? So that’s why those that suffer less are the ones that have a broader range of products and services.  

Try also asking yourself a question, “How are we prepared if something else happens in the future?” Companies need to be better prepared for different situations. They should be more flexible, adaptive, creative, and innovative. They should also learn to be good at finding new solutions to the problems, according to their capacity. 

Great, thanks a lot, Fadi! Looking forward to reading your book “Sverige 2.0 – behovet av en ny vision” for other interesting advice and tips! The book is coming out in Swedish and other languages soon, stay tuned!