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Sofia Wingren: “What if every family could take in, commit to, and take care of a stranger — just one; Then integration of culture, language, power, and tolerance would happen in an instant”

What if every family could take in, commit to, and take care of a stranger — just one. Then, integration of culture, language, power, and tolerance would happen in an instant. If I could inspire one family at a time to integrate one person into their life, even if only for once in a while, the world […]


What if every family could take in, commit to, and take care of a stranger — just one. Then, integration of culture, language, power, and tolerance would happen in an instant. If I could inspire one family at a time to integrate one person into their life, even if only for once in a while, the world would be a better place. My family was fortunate enough to meet a young man from Afghanistan a few years back. He lived in a refugee camp and was doing everything in his power to make a decent life for himself, studying hard, but having very little to hold on to. We were able to help him with his studies, with learning the language, with a dinner now and then, but most importantly vouching for him, and through our wonderful network helping him get a job. Getting that job made all the difference. He now leads a stable life, he is a good citizen, he’s getting married. I couldn’t think of a more fulfilling opportunity than to be able to help provide someone with a platform like that.


As part of my series about “Women of the C-suite” I had the pleasure to interview Sofia Wingren, CEO of Hyper Island. Sofia joined Hyper Island as CEO in October 2016, on the back of an impressive international resumé in the education, technology, and media sectors, and has led the resurgence of an organization once dubbed “the digital Harvard”. In roles as President and Director of Sales & Marketing at EF Education First (another vastly successful Swedish educational export), Sofia was based out of Hong Kong and EF’s Swiss headquarters in Lucerne. Coupled with this is her pedigree working within media and entertainment with Kinnevik-owned digital entertainment company, Modern Times Group. Sofia holds a Masters from the Stockholm School of Economics. Her interest in communication and education is reflected in the five languages she speaks: English, Swedish, French, German, and Japanese.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I ended up in education partly thanks to a friend — but also as something of a fluke, as I desperately needed a job in order to stay in Hong Kong, the city I lived in and loved at the time. Once I started working at EF Education First, I got to enjoy the wonderful sensation of seeing people grow and gain confidence through education, and I started to love what I was doing. Today, at Hyper Island, I get to feel the same excitement about what I do. People come out of our programs stronger, taller, and real-world-ready. We empower people to shape their future.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Not long ago, I came across a survey of corporate self-assessments, which outlined organizational expectations around future competence needs. It concluded that 50% of current employees were deemed to need some sort of training in order to be able to remain at their company. It also highlighted that some 35% of current employees were not competent enough, and would need to be replaced. Ultimately, the conclusion was that companies expected these shifts to occur within the next three to five years.

Although the scale of the task we have ahead is somewhat daunting, I strongly believe that we are well equipped at Hyper Island to support companies and the people in these kinds of organizations, to future-proof themselves, stay relevant, and preserve prosperity. The digital shift must happen in a sustainable way. When we help drive digital transformation in the world, we must remember the impact it can have on human capital, and also that learning can keep up with societal changes. Many leaders think that the solution is to replace employees. At Hyper Island, however, we strongly believe that, with the right facilitation and learning design in place, we can provide employees with enough retraining to enable them to stay on in new roles. And this results in crucial savings for businesses and society alike.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We use Slack internally at Hyper Island, and I had never tried it prior to joining. So, when I first started, I made plenty of mistakes in front of many colleagues, and I’m sure I was laughed at a lot. However, as with any new tool — there’s no way you can win if you don’t try. Trying and failing are the parents of learning, and we often need a little courage on the way to dare to look a little stupid once in a while, even as a CEO.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We have a way of taking the edge off that scary bitch called Change. I sometimes think of us as “corporate shrinks”: we help teams open up about fears, insecurities, and dirty laundry — and after a “good cleanse”, the road to the future is much easier to identify. I see teams graduate tighter, fitter, and faster, with clear views on how to tackle tomorrow, both for themselves and for their company strategy. This ability to build the 21st-century skills of collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, and tech literacy (amongst others) is something we have honed for over 20 years. It’s intrinsic to our organization, our culture, our values, and our people.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

2019 is set to see several exciting projects and tools from Hyper Island, with various things under development internally.

One of these is Retrain to Retain — a brand-new program we are currently piloting. Retrain to Retain will specifically help companies identify the skills-gap in their organization, and subsequently design learning programs for their workforce. The ultimate goal here is to fill a large part of the competence needs with retrained existing employees, which saves organizations both time and money, while creating new opportunities.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I’m not sure my advice would be specific to other female leaders, but on a personal level, what I always strive for is to be more communicative and transparent with my employees and give more insight into my everyday life. As much as I would like to be present for everyone on my team, and always be there, it is difficult. So, making sure I am always available on our shared platforms over text, video, and message is something I want to do more of, and something I believe others would benefit from too.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Same as above! Plus, recruiting fantastic senior people — leaders you would personally like to report to — and appointing them to lead the larger organization together with yourself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Actually, yes. Johan Kleberg (ex-CEO at AdLibris), a friend from business school and an ex-colleague, did in fact recommend me to my current job, and to another job along the way. I definitely owe him one, or two… And then of course all the other people who have supported me and recommended me for new jobs or next steps along the way — friends, colleagues, and my managers, who all believed in me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I want Hyper Island to be a constant force for good and continue to help future-proof individuals and companies around the world. As we grow, I hope we can continue to impact larger volumes of people, particularly in less fortunate parts of the world — whether it be geographically or demographically — with education, opportunities, and lifelong learning skills.

On a more personal note, I try to work with the resources I have in my network to help less well-connected people find work, learn a language, or discover a new culture. I’ve gained very close friends that way. Over the years, I have enjoyed so many valuable lessons and gifts from total strangers all over the world. These people don’t need me to pay them back; I can only pay it forward.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Hire the one that makes you feel threatened.

Possibly the most important lesson of them all, and referring to recruitment. No team is better than the people in it; a strategy is only as good as the people executing it. When I was a management trainee back in my early twenties, it was eventually my job to interview and identify my replacement. I sent a lot of great graduates into my boss’s office, but after a few candidates, he popped his head out and said, “Don’t send in anyone unless they make you feel nervous, or you fear they will do a better job than you. Then we’re talking.” I still use that tactic. If someone makes me feel a bit uneasy, and if I tend to think they might be over-qualified — that’s someone we want.

2. Fight with the soldiers you have.

You will likely have times in your career when you feel you have the wrong setup, not enough people, or no money to hire more resources. But you won’t always be able to make the changes you want or need — sometimes, you just have to take stock of what and who you have available, create a plan, and fight with the soldiers you have. That works too.

3. Set the scene.

With any form of communication, you must remember to give context, and make an effort to tell the full story. There is always someone who is new, someone who wasn’t previously present, or someone who doesn’t live in your brain and hear it every day…!

4. Diversity pays off.

Over the years, I’ve experienced first-hand how much stronger a management team is when it’s built from diverse nationalities and diverse personalities. I know that gender matters. And that age matters. And background, perspectives, abilities. It isn’t easy to get to that perfect balance. It takes energy, determination, and work, but once you’re there, it starts to recreate itself, and diversity generates more diversity. For any global company this is a key criteria for success, if you ask me.

5. No guts, no glory.

Or, as my grandmother would say, “Shit if you give up”. Change, turnaround , growth — you name it, it takes stamina. It takes a never-give-up, everything-is-possible attitude. It takes patience and perseverance. It’s in my DNA, but really, with time and real effort, a huge amount can be achieved by anyone.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

At Hyper Island, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can inspire people around the world to join our movement of lifelong learning. I think it is the key to many of our world’s current challenges and I’m convinced that it is a powerful source of good.

On a more personal note, I want to also instigate change close to home, in my community where I can have a direct impact. What if every family could take in, commit to, and take care of a stranger — just one. Then, integration of culture, language, power, and tolerance would happen in an instant. If I could inspire one family at a time to integrate one person into their life, even if only for once in a while, the world would be a better place.

My family was fortunate enough to meet a young man from Afghanistan a few years back. He lived in a refugee camp and was doing everything in his power to make a decent life for himself, studying hard, but having very little to hold on to. We were able to help him with his studies, with learning the language, with a dinner now and then, but most importantly vouching for him, and through our wonderful network helping him get a job. Getting that job made all the difference. He now leads a stable life, he is a good citizen, he’s getting married. I couldn’t think of a more fulfilling opportunity than to be able to help provide someone with a platform like that.

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