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Expat puts ‘Faith’ into starting travel business

US expat Faith George tells The Local about how she mastered the Swedish language, seeing the positives in being made redundant, and how she plans to show Swedes another side of the United States.

Expat puts 'Faith' into starting travel business
Faith George. Photo: Private

Faith George, 47, made the move from the US to Malmö back in 2002 to be with her Swedish sambo (registered partner). Twelve years on she hasn't looked back, having established herself in Sweden as an in-demand businesswoman. 

"I started off by doing SFI (Swedish for Immigrants language course), and it took me about a year before I found my first job," George told The Local.

"To bring in some extra money I started up my first business in 2005, doing proofreading and translation services in English for several companies in the area."

Her early forays into running a business were successful, but in 2008 she wrapped the firm up for other pursuits.

Like many skilled foreigners in Sweden's south, she landed a job with ST-Ericsson, initially working as a technical writer before taking on added responsibilities with the company.

In late 2013 George was laid off but decided not to let that be the end of it. Instead, she used her time away from the workplace to pursue another ambition – establish her own travel agency.

"I was fortunate that my redundancy package was quite generous, so that enabled me to really investigate what I wanted to do. Back in the States I used to work in the travel industry so it was something I wanted to pursue again," she said.

Establishing a business, such as a travel agency, in Sweden requires a great deal of form-filling, particularly in regards to licensing. And it's not cheap.

Fortunately for George, she was approved for a financial benefit known as 'Starta Eget Bidrag'  (start your own business grant) to help get her new company off the ground.

This is a benefit available to a limited number of people every year who have been unemployed for some time before starting their companies. The grant is intended to help cover living costs while setting up the company. Those interested can apply for the benefit from their local employment agency (Arbetsförmedlingen).

"For me it is very important as it is a start-up company. In Sweden you get a lot of support when it comes to establishing a business," she says. 

George hopes her prior knowledge of the travel industry will help her new agency succeed. She has chosen to target Swedes who are eager to see another slice of the US, as opposed to the standard fare usually offered.

"There is so much more to see, and for me the focus is on a market where there is a good niche. For instance, our main package is a trip to Louisiana, an area I know very well, and visitors will get to see something different with the whole Cajun experience," George explained.

See tips in English from the Employment Agency for starting your own company

"Another package is going to be heading out to Washington State. We don't want to do the major locations as those are well catered for by existing travel agencies," she says.

Setting up a travel agency in 2014 may seem a bit strange considering how much is done online, often cutting out the middleman.

"There is a lot of competition out, there but having done my market research, there is are opportunities. Swedes love to travel, especially to the US. If you ask somebody they will say with a lot of enthusiasm 'Oh I've been there.' There is plenty of interest is going to America," George said.

Communicating with the Swedes isn't a problem for the US native, as she has long got to grips with the Nordic tongue.

"At the start the language barrier was the hardest. I used to feel like I was in kindergarten when I was trying to speak to people. Now my Swedish is really good. I had to be sure of my level of Swedish before I could really approach the idea of starting this new business."

It's not just Swedes who want to visit America that she sees as her potential market. The businesswoman is also putting together a package for Americans who want to explore southern Sweden.

Right now George is just waiting for the green light for her business to go live. Her Swedish sambo has created the website and is also chipping in with some financial backing.

She also has office space sorted, which is provided as a member of a Malmö start-up incubator.

"The intention is to be up and running in August and really get the business moving then," George concluded.

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MY SWEDISH CAREER

My Swedish Career: How labour market training got me a job at Capgemini

Two years after she arrived in Sweden, Shreya Sai, from India, decided to use Sweden's 'labour market training' system to learn to code from scratch. A year later she was working as a developer at Capgemini.

My Swedish Career: How labour market training got me a job at Capgemini

Sai moved to Älmhult, the small town that hosts Ikea’s headquarters, back at the start of 2019, after her husband got a job working for the flatpack furniture giant.

She is a qualified physiotherapist and had spent two years practicing back home in India. But it didn’t take long for her to realise that it would be difficult to work in Sweden in her chosen profession, given the difficulty of getting a license to practice. 

“After coming over here, I saw that there were so many hurdles in medical fields, and it was a very long procedure of almost four years [to convert],” she says. 

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She worked as a substitute teacher, but after almost two years in Sweden, her handler at the Swedish Public Employment Services suggested she retrain. 

“I had a chat with my case officer. And I told her about my problems, the language barrier, and how, in the past, I had studied something related to IT, so that’s why she suggested I go for these certifications.” 

The case officer enrolled Sai on a six-month full stack developer course at Lexicon, an education supplier in nearby Växjö. It was a tough few months, but Sai didn’t lose hope. She completed the course in February 2021, and then started as an intern at a Stockholm startup the next month. 

“It was really tough for me initially, but anyhow, I grabbed some momentum and started understanding coding,” she remembers. “It’s so tough to be a coder, and it is the purest pressure in my whole training time, because I didn’t know anything about coding. All types of coding were alien to me.”  She had last studied computers when she was at upper secondary school.

The Covid-19 pandemic was still ongoing, so both the course and the internship were done through remote learning, but that did not stop her from getting a four-month contact as a web developer with a heating technologies company upon graduation.

Then in February this year, she started a permanent contract at Capgemini, after being hired through their Ignite graduate program. 

Sai believes that the Public Employment Service’s labour market training courses are a good option for newcomers to Sweden, with some 400 courses on offer, mostly provided by private sector suppliers such as Lexicon, Lernia, or AU utbildning. 

 You can see a full list of available courses here. And here is some information on going on a study visit.

“You choose which field you want to belong to, and when you choose, they give you some type of study visits,” she says. “And then you go and explore and receive information, and then your case officer enrolls you if there is a vacancy after a short interview.”

In May, the employment service reported that 20,210 people had undertaken labour market training in 2021, and that there were currently 40,000 people either awaiting a decision or engaged in labour market training. 

The program is expensive, costing Sweden’s government 1.5 billion kronor in 2021, but according to the report, 43.7 percent of those who took courses were working 180 days after their course was completed, and 36.2 percent were working 90 days after the training finished. 

While studying, you still qualify for unemployment benefit from the Swedish Social Insurance Agency.

Sai says that there were people on her coding course from Ireland, Israel, Iran, Sweden and Poland, among other countries, and that only about 20 percent had a direct background in IT, with the rest having had careers in other fields.

She was the only one in the class with absolutely zero experience with computers or coding, however. 

“It was very, very, very hard for me. I was like, ‘I will quit it. I won’t be able to do it.’ But my family supported me a lot. And they said, ‘you have to do it, you can’t back out because you can you don’t have any other option'”.

She lacked the qualifications, she says, to do a less intensive computer programming course at a university, and lacked the qualifications needed for other jobs in Sweden. 

“I used to like studying day and night, and somehow, I managed it. Right now, I will not say that I’m the best or a perfect coder in today’s world, but I’m working towards becoming a good coder.” 

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