My Swedish Career: How falling ill inspired this Canadian’s start-up in Sweden

My Swedish Career: How falling ill inspired this Canadian’s start-up in Sweden
Denise Fernandes created her rehydration product after a bout of Vinterkräksjuka. Photo: private
For Canadian Denise Fernandes, it was the less-than-happy experience of falling victim to Sweden’s notorious vinterkräksjuka [norovirus] that led to her setting up her own business in Stockholm.

For the Toronto native, despite having lived internationally between homes in Canada, the USA and the UK before moving to Sweden, she was unprepared for the onslaught of the seasonal illness.

“I had absolutely no warning!” she laughs. “My husband – who is Swedish – hadn’t told me about vinterkräksjuka. So, when my whole family became ill, it took me completely by surprise.”

“The illness is famous here. Now that I’ve been here longer, I’ve had people give me their stories unprompted – they’re almost like war stories, with people saying, ‘let me tell you about the Christmas when we all had the bug and we were staying in my parents’ house which only has one toilet.’ And after you’ve experienced it, the stories make perfect sense: it comes violently, everyone in the family gets it, you’re debilitated; no one wants to come and help you because if they do, they’re going to get sick. It’s a challenging thing.”

READ ALSO: Six common illnesses to avoid in Sweden this fall

To combat the bug which had taken hold of her household, with her husband and their two young children also unwell, Fernandes searched for over-the-counter rehydration remedies in Swedish pharmacies. Finding only one option, with what she considered excessive sugar content – and, armed with the benefit of a background in pharmaceuticals – Fernandes set about to create a “cleaner” alternative to the medication on offer.

“I worked with a lab for a year, researching all-natural formulations. And the product we’ve created – Dropp – is now on sale across the country in Apoteket [Sweden’s state-owned pharmacy],” she says.

“We've created it especially for a Swedish market – the label, ingredients, website – everything's in Swedish, so people can have complete control over what they're consuming. It's important here, people have a real understanding that artificial sweeteners aren't good for the body. It's just come onto shelves here, but the response has already been really positive.”

Denise Fernandes tested her rehydration product over 1,000 times before reaching the final formula. Photo: Private

Winter maladies aside, the move to Stockholm in 2015 proved to be a process of transition for Fernandes and her family.

The most difficult adjustment for the seasoned nomad was adapting to Swedish cultural norms. Fernandes describes Swedish people as “reserved” – not a trait she sees as naturally compatible with her Canadian roots: “As a North American, I probably speak ten decibels louder than the average Swede. I’ve even been ‘shushed’ in a yoga studio…”

“As a foreigner, you’re sort of embarrassed by your own loudness versus Swedes’ quietness,” she admits. “I’m much more aware of that now.”

Aside from being married to a Swede, Fernandes notes that she had no real exposure to Swedish language or culture before moving to the country. “Personally, as a Canadian who had lived in central London for around eight years and had studied in the US, I was struck by the fact that there was much less contact here with individuals you didn’t know, Swedes seemed hesitant to speak to people they were unfamiliar with. It took me a bit of time to pull myself back and not engage with strangers so much.”

READ ALSO: My Swedish Career: When you're based in Sweden, people take you seriously

When it comes to the local language, Fernandes receives Swedish tuition in an unusual form – from her own young children, who are both bilingual in English and Swedish.

“I spent a short period studying Swedish, but I started working as soon as we arrived in the country, so I didn’t have any real dedicated time learning it. I’ve learnt the most from my children speaking it to me and around me. I guess you could say that my children are my Swedish teachers! It’s their first language, so it’s natural for them to explain something to me in Swedish that they don’t have the words for in English. They correct my pronunciation all the time!”

Despite feeling she has a way to go before she’s mastered the Swedish language, she’s found making the effort in speaking it has had a huge positive impact, in both her personal and professional life. “Swedes are very tolerant and forgiving of people who don’t speak their language” she says, adding that this has given her the confidence to immerse herself in situations where Swedish is required – and she encourages others to do the same.

“Give it a try” she advises. “I was a bit hesitant because I’m not fluent, but I’ve been surprised by how you can get by. I’ve sat in meetings in Swedish and, through a mixture of hand gestures and words, you can make yourself understood! The reality is in Sweden people really want to see you succeed – and want to help you get there.”

And for those who have a burgeoning business idea in Sweden, Fernandes’ outlook is similarly positive: “If you’ve got a concept that you think could work, share it. In Sweden, there’s really no barrier to success. If it’s an idea that could benefit society, people will be receptive to hearing what you have to say.”

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