Standing in front of a classroom full of exuberant 17- and 18-year-olds in a high school just outside Gothenburg, Sofia Appelgren has no trouble getting the kids’ attention. Though the flame-haired 33-year-old Swedish entrepreneur doesn’t appear to have much in common with the students, all immigrants and refugees who mostly hail from the Middle East and Africa, they nod knowingly as she describes a recent trip to Turkey. When Appelgren explains that her Turkish in-laws love to embrace her and pinch her cheeks—gestures that are less than common in reserved Sweden—the students laugh and burst into applause. They know exactly what she means; many of their own families are very similar.
As the founder of Mitt Liv, a social enterprise that aims to place educated immigrants into jobs in Sweden, Appelgren has spent years bridging cultural divides. Mitt Liv—Swedish for “my life” —was launched in 2008, when Appelgren decided she wanted to help newcomers integrate into Swedish society. Her long-term partner and the father of her children is Turkish Swedish, so she had seen how difficult it can be for those with foreign backgrounds in her home country.
“I wanted to create a platform where people from all over the world can meet and feel included in society—and the labor market,” she says. It’s no small task. Sweden has a generous immigration policy and last year received the most asylum applications per capita in the E.U. Yet getting into the country is just the first step to a new life. As Appelgren says, Sweden is “a place with two doors. The first is the door to the country: this door is open. The second is the door to the labor market, and it’s closed.”
So Appelgren began pairing smart, driven young immigrant women with mentors who could offer advice on everything from résumés to job interviews to Swedish cultural customs (no cheek pinching, for a start). Mitt Liv is not a charity: some of Sweden’s top corporations pay the company to not only take on mentees but also to consult on how to diversify their workforce. That business model has helped the organization grow. Mitt Liv started with just 40 people in its mentorship program. Now some 400 people are mentored between September and June every year.
David Lega, the deputy mayor of Gothenburg and a longtime mentor to Appelgren, says it’s her habit of looking for solutions, rather than focusing on problems, that’s allowed Mitt Liv to flourish. “She focuses on what people can do, instead of always getting stuck,” he says. What’s more, he says, “she believes what she’s talking about.”
Appelgren has plans to expand further: she hopes to set up Mitt Liv in more regions—currently there are offices in Gothenburg, Stockholm, Malmo, Linkoping and Norrkoping. But she hopes that eventually an organization like hers won’t be necessary at all in Sweden and that integration won’t be a challenge for those arriving.
“Either you’re in the world or you’re creating your own little world,” she says. And in Appelgren’s world, there’s no reason why everyone can’t work together.