At Twomentor, we share bi-weekly thought leadership from phenomenal executives and social entrepreneurs focused on: a diverse skilled workforce, social impact entrepreneurship, mentoring cultures, sponsorship and elevating women in their careers. This week we are thrilled to catch up with Sara Wallin, CEO of ALMI Väst, supporting thousands of Swedish innovations to become viable companies with the help of capital, strategy and peer mentoring.
Gunilla Girardo, Vice President or Global Partnerships @Twomentor: Sara, let´s start with your inspiring journey from an administrator at Waves to the CEO of Almi Väst. How did you get to where you are today?
Sara Wallin: My journey began way before my first ’real’ job after high school, which was with Waves. I grew up on a small island on the Swedish West Coast. There, it was easy to get a summer job…so I started working when I was only ten years old.
Thanks to my various summer jobs I gained valuable experience from different industries and I also gained financial muscles. One of my many jobs was with a bank, where I was an assistant to a stockbroker, which resulted in me making my first stock market investment. At the same time, I became interested in a telecom start-up in my area: Waves, which I decided to invest in.
It was not a good decision. But it gave me experience.
I studied finance, marketing, and psychology at the University of Gothenburg…but I didn’t fully understand until later what a great combination of subjects this was for my career. Now, that I’m older and wiser, I understand that I have been using the combination of all three academic fields in everything I have accomplished in life.
After my university studies, I engaged in various entrepreneurial start-ups. I used my business know-how and mentoring in everything I did and the return on investment has become much bigger the older I get.
It is all thanks to all the experience that I gained from working with start-ups that I landed the big job as CEO for ALMI Väst in 2009. We have a portfolio of nearly 2,000 West Swedish companies, many of which are Sweden’s next growth companies, that will contribute significantly to the overall growth of our country in the coming years.
A strong current trend among companies in Sweden, which I’m very excited about, is that young entrepreneurs have become more visible on the global market, which is a result of Swedish trailblazers with global success like Skype and Spotify to name a couple.
Gunilla: What are the biggest opportunities that women business leaders and/or investors create for themselves to succeed in business and/or investing?
Sara: We need more women to dare to invest, start a company or buy a company. Sure, the number of women who are engaging in start-ups is increasing….but it’s still way low. In addition, we need to help girls replace their Cinderella dreams of marrying a prince and live happily forever after with aspirations of becoming the next Estée Lauder (who built an innovative global company with an annual turnover of 7 billion dollars)
It’s a big problem that there are so few women that have the Estée Lauders of the world as role models. I hope we’ll see a steep increase in the number of female business superstars that Lauder in my lifetime. In order for this to happen, today’s leaders must invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs and also see the value of women-owned businesses. Sadly, current data shows that women have an increasingly difficult time to gain access to external capital and funding.
Gunilla: What’s your secret to success? What´s your skill/superpower?
Sara: Estée Lauder is one of my role models. She said: ”I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.” I love that quote! Personally, I have never really reflected on my career. Rather, I have always and I am thoroughly enjoying my work responsibilities and delivering results for myself and my community, the organization that I represent, and the many businesses we support. This mindset in itself has opened many doors for me and has continuously brought new opportunities to excel.
Gunilla: Who is/was the most important mentor in your life?
Sara: My mom. I think having a Mom who always worked and led companies has had a big impact on me. I have also been fortunate to have individuals who have believed in me and offered me opportunities to continuously develop as a professional.
Mentors have played a significant role throughout my career. I’ve had several different mentors, which I think is healthy. Depending on where you are in your career or a challenge you are facing, I value different perspectives and experiences that mentors can offer.
Gunilla: What advice would he/she give you today?
Sara: Be courageous, dare try new things and believe in yourself. To choose a new path or go in a different direction can be scary since many people along the way will challenge your decisions and doubt your ability to succeed. Don’t be afraid of thinking outside the box and stretch your own imagination. Ignore glass ceilings and push yourself to new levels. Dare to pursue your ideas and work hard to realize them.
Gunilla: If you looked in the rearview mirror for a few minutes what are the things you wish you had known professionally when you were 20? In other words, what´s the advice you want to give our Millennial workforce?
Sara: We are on this Earth for a limited time. Don’t wake up one day when you are in your 60s and realize that you didn’t pursue the dreams you had when you were young. And since we only have one Planet Earth I hope the things you are dreaming of will not cause more damage to our planet than already done by mankind.
Take people’s advice into account but make your own decisions. When I was younger I cared too much about what people thought. As we get older we know who to turn to for advice when we need it.
Gunilla: What´s next for you Sara on your impactful entrepreneurial investment journey?
Sara: I recently joined the Board of Directors of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden’s largest university. I am one of the few directors with a business background. In this new exciting role, I will work hard increase collaboration between our university’s world-class researchers and the region’s strong and innovative young entrepreneurs.