Lasse Frimand Jensen creates a better gateway for internationals into North Denmark by mixing his love for globalisation and diversity and his region.
Photographs: Alex Flutur - www.instagram.com/creative.flutur/
Text: Michaela Medveďová
When he's explaining the importance of a smart personal headline during LinkedIn workshops for international job seekers, he can easily use his own as an example.
"A local patriot with a global mindset" certainly rings true about Lasse Frimand Jensen, the Aalborg-based project manager at International House North Denmark and a city council member. But, first and foremost, he sees himself as an international citizen - something not decided by your passport but by your global and diversity-oriented mindset.
Home in the North
Lasse's always been attracted to world topics, meeting other nationalities, and travelling - but always loved returning home to North Denmark. "One of the proudest things for me is meeting internationals who have chosen to come here, to Denmark and Aalborg and our region. Of course, they could have picked the entire world as their new hometown. But, instead, them choosing Aalborg always makes me enormously proud."
Despite his dream of working for the United Nations in New York at one point, Lasse prefers to work with globalisation in a local setting because it brings personal connections. "Just now, I ran into a lady I met many times before at International House. We greeted and asked each other about our families and our kids. You wouldn't get this closeness at the United Nations."
At International House North Denmark, with a multi-national team, they are helping internationals or companies with international employees with job seeking, entrepreneurship, and free-time activities. They've come a long way since their beginnings as a small office in the municipality. "I dreamed that we would find a physical house where we could host a good welcome for internationals." So they did, and the House - a gateway for internationals to North Denmark - grew and developed in a more company-oriented way to get more international workers into the region. "The bigger cities around Denmark have a lot of internationals that the smaller cities don't. So one of our main targets is to make the whole region attractive to internationals and appeal to move to the north of Denmark." The House is also a home for the International Citizen Service, NGOs, or organisations helping startups and entrepreneurs.
They focused on two target groups to match them with local companies: international graduates and accompanying spouses. As a result, their Career Programme can now boast successful numbers - 92% of the graduates have found a job, and so did a significant portion of the spouses.
As someone born and raised in Denmark, though, it could be difficult for Lasse to empathise with the experiences of internationals. But he's been an expat himself.
Friends for life
Lasse and his wife lived in Uganda in a local village. He was teaching politics and forestry administration - she was teaching psychology. They also set up a children's library and helped researchers from Edinburgh University with a chimpanzee-focused project. Straightaway, Lasse fell in love with the people of Uganda - the main reason they call the country the Pearl of Africa. "The first day in the village, we met a man who greeted us, invited us for a cup of tea, and walked with us. He told us he was on his way to his nephew's funeral. Despite that, he was still so welcoming, and there were many amazing experiences like that afterwards. The way they approached newcomers was really inspiring."
But he understands that a particular divide between the local and international communities can be found in most countries, Denmark included. "Maybe an international community is something expats feel comfortable in when they come to Denmark. I think some of it is due to our not-finding-a-friend-easily mentality." Lasse - and the International House - realise how important it is to help make bridges between expats and Danes. When they did a survey about Denmark with internationals, the country scored number one in the quality of schools or hospitals. "Denmark ranked last when it came to finding a friend. So we made our Expat Host Programme where we hope expats find local friends."
Lasse himself loves bringing internationals into a predominantly Danish setting. With younger groups, there are no issues. Unfortunately, the older generation sometimes thinks they aren't so good at speaking English, even though the opposite is true. But that's the only restraint he sees. "Once you get a Danish friend, they are a friend for life. They will go through fire for you."
A great way to find new local friends as an expat is through sports - and one thing that can help you break the barrier is even the smallest amount of Danish. When Lasse's international friend wanted to join a handball club but only spoke English to them, he spent the whole training playing on his own. "Next time, he tried a different club, brought a six-pack of beer, and said the first sentence 'Hello mates, I'm here to play' in Danish. They started talking to him in Danish, and he maybe wouldn't understand all of it, but they were playing. And now, he's a very active member of the club."
Having the ability to use a little small talk proved helpful to Lasse when he was in Uganda and spoke the local language for the essential things he needed for music and sports - for example, pass the ball, I'm free. "Music is a global language, and sports is as well. You don't need to be able to communicate directly with language to do these activities together. But if you know some words in Danish as an international, it will get you so much respect and acceptance. You don't have to speak fluent Danish - but you've tried."
Moving towards innovation
And in a global world, connecting with people is essential. "The ability to connect with people is much higher when you know the country's language and culture, of the people you want to connect with. We need people with cultural knowledge who speak the language. When we have internationals in Denmark, we have a much bigger potential to grow." For Lasse, working with different nationalities brings so much creativity because they come with different backgrounds and mindsets and will challenge the status-quo ideas. The more challenges, the more development follows - and the better the idea becomes. "That's why I believe that diversity brings creativity, innovation, and growth."
Settling in Denmark does not mean leaving your traditions at the door. "I know many great stories of people celebrating their own culture, proud of their roots. They still respect the fundamental ideas behind Danish society - for me, that's trust and humbleness - and they bring all the good values they have into our society." Lasse can marry people as a city council member and has witnessed first-hand the variety of traditions internationals bring into Denmark. "I married many other internationals, and that's the part I love. A wedding is the most cultural day you can have because there are so many different customs - it's crazy," laughs Lasse.
Not everyone in Denmark sees the presence of internationals as a benefit to the country, though. But according to Lasse, whenever a change happens, or there is a global trend on the rise, there's always a countermovement. "We've seen that with so many things in the history of the world. That's why we see people being sceptical about globalisation and internationals worldwide. But, unfortunately, it's much easier to connect with people's fear than with their rational thinking."
"I made a first-ever international campaign in English and other languages, and I found an English-speaking international campaign team. We tried to make it a bilingual election with debates, videos, or websites in English because internationals can vote too."
A foot soldier turned politician
That didn't stop Lasse from trying to make Aalborg a more internationally-oriented city - both with his work at the International House and his work as a city council member. He first ran in 2013. "I made a first-ever international campaign in English and other languages, and I found an English-speaking international campaign team. We tried to make it a bilingual election with debates, videos, or websites in English because internationals can vote too."
Coming from a very political family, with his father and grandfather being politicians for many years, didn't give him the push to run for office. "I never thought about being a politician myself. But I was active. I was doing all the background work as a foot soldier - being a campaign manager and the local party's chairman." But with his family, Lasse always talked about Nelson Mandela, one of his biggest role models. Perhaps that inspired his interest in Africa, where he always wanted to visit and work.
His stay in Uganda shaped him, and when he came back home and the mayor approached him with a suggestion of running for city council, he decided to do it. "But it's never been a career for me. I'll always want to have a professional career and not be dependent on politics. We are custodians. We are not politicians for life; we are here for the time that the public thinks you're doing a good job. When the public doesn't think I am, and I am not contributing to my ideas and strategies, I wouldn't be there just for power."
When Lasse was growing up in Aalborg, he wouldn't meet an English-speaking person on the street. Now, you can't walk down the street without hearing English. The number of international workers in North Denmark has almost doubled in about ten years. It's the most significant growth in the country.
Lasse is happy to see the legacy of many other politicians and parties focusing on making the elections more international. Finding the right people to carry the torch is also his most significant accomplishment as a manager of the International House.
Lasse shares his love of music with his children. When they play together, he saves the drummer seat for his son.
A passion for life
It's good that Lasse, with his busy schedule as a councilman on top of a full-time job, has his dream team. Managing a busy schedule doesn't bother him yet, though. "Maybe it's because I'm still young - maybe it will change over time. I look forward to going to work every day, and I look forward to political meetings. But, of course, some days are better than others - victory days are better than defeat days." But as long as he thinks he can contribute and the ideas he has brought value, he'll continue. He's not an International House team leader only during business hours. It's not work for him - it's more like his passion.
But Lasse couldn't speak about his passions without talking about music and playing in a band. Or, in his case, playing in three bands.
Besides being a drummer for his friend at concerts and having a band he plays at political events, he's also in a wedding band. He laughs at the suggestion of being both the officiant and wedding band. He's never done that before. "Actually, I played at my best friend's wedding and married them, but I wouldn't say I was the wedding band," smiles Lasse.
He shares his love of music with his children. When they play together, he saves the drummer seat for his son.
It's not just music that gives Lasse the much-needed reset. "I've only run one marathon, so I'm not that experienced," he laughs when asked about running marathons. "But 5k runs with my children are life-saving for me. My two oldest cycle and I run next to them - it gives me so much energy."
Being active is something he tries to imprint on his kids as well - in the summer, they often go camping. Summers in the UK, Germany, or Italy also ensure the kids have international friends. He would encourage them to try and live abroad but fear them not returning. "It would be difficult, being too far away from my kids. But it's their life. I want them to be tolerant and good to others, no matter who they are. Equality is fundamental to me."