Relocating and restarting your career in a new country has its struggles - so these three women made helping other expats their professional mission.
Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas - www.fjordfoto.dk
Text: Michaela Medveďová
Everyone who ever moves to a different country to start a new chapter of their life considers success to be a slightly different thing.
Leslea Petersen, Anna Coen, and Diana Medrea-Mogensen are redefining this.
With their respective companies, they not only established themselves - but are also setting other internationals off on the same path.
The Britain of before
Leslea looks back fondly on her time growing up in the United Kingdom. "I wouldn't go back now because of Brexit. But growing up, it felt like Denmark now, very safe. My childhood was very family-oriented. You knew all the neighbours - you called everyone auntie even though they weren't really your aunties," she laughs.
After she spent the first part of her adult life working all over the UK, she decided to spend the next chapter in Denmark after she met her now-husband, a Dane, at a fundraising conference in Cairo. He already had a seven-year-old son, so the pair decided to settle in Denmark.
And she fell in love with Copenhagen very, very easily. "It's a beaut. I love that it's so small I can walk everywhere. Everything's on time, and it's clean. I'm used to the London Underground - it's complex, hundreds of years old, and smells really bad in the summer." She also had a brilliant Danish family who loved and welcomed her and tried to help her integrate.
But even after 16 years in Denmark, she still misses some aspects of her UK life - good fish and chips, family and friends, or the friendliness of the British. "Danes don't want to pry into your life. They wouldn't dream of welcoming a new neighbour by knocking on their door. In the UK, everyone talks to you - at the bus stop, in a shop. I've missed that."
From one megalopolis to another
Anna was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine - a city, unfortunately, put firmly on everyone's map after the war. But Anna knows it more as the city of students and universities. During her studies, she'd participated in many exchange programmes. Already in high school, which specialised in English, she went to California, US. As a summer volunteer,
she later went to the United Kingdom - and fell in love with the country.
"When I graduated and moved to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, there weren't many opportunities. All the large companies that are there now weren't there yet. So, the options were either to go into an academic career or work for a small family business. But I really wanted something more." So Anna set up a goal to move to London, and even though it required rounds of applications, in 2006, she ended up in London and started working in the City of London as a financial analyst.
After getting married in London to her husband, from Ireland, the pair decided to give Asia a shot. They spent six months in Hong Kong and then went to live in Singapore for four years. "Singapore is an international city and an easy transition from working and living in Europe. However, you can get bored after years on one island of 4 million people." Anna's also met a lot of Ukrainians in Singapore. In fact, after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, she became the organiser of the first Ukrainian Club in Singapore. So even though Anna and her husband left Singapore after their contract ended, the centre is still up and running.
Initially, the pair was supposed to return to London, but Anna's husband got a job offer in Copenhagen. None of them had any connection to the country. But London after Brexit wasn't the same place anymore, so they decided to give Copenhagen a shot. "Honestly, I found it a bit small, and not the kind of megalopolis I was used to. I missed the big city vibe. But then my son was born shortly after we relocated, which changed my view. It's one of the best places to raise children. It's not just safe. People are relaxed here and they trust each other. I'm sure it didn't happen overnight; it is a big achievement for Danish society. I haven't seen this in any other country."
Triple international experience
Diana's life has been similarly international. While originally from Romania, when she was 16, she moved to Spain to follow her parents, who relocated there for work. After moving to Spain, she attended high school and university there. Before coming there, she knew some of the language, but using Spanish to learn was a bit of a shock. "And because I lived in Palma de Mallorca, part of the classes was Spanish and part Catalan. The language added an obstacle, but everyone was nice and welcomed me. Back then, everyone was used to Romanian kids in school as many Romanian parents brought their children with them."
When she turned 21, she became a flight attendant and worked in a Swedish company. What was just supposed to be a summer job turned into a year and a half. "When I was living in Sweden, I met my now-husband, who was Danish. The company went bankrupt in the previous economic crisis, so we had to decide if we wanted to stay together or go our separate ways. We decided to stay together. Spain was going through a rough time, my husband didn't speak Spanish, so we thought Denmark would be the best next step for us."
So in 2011, the pair found their new home in Jutland. "We were there for five months, he was very busy at his new job, and I was often alone. I was just waiting to start some courses and looking for a job. I've had several incidents with culture shocks - like my bubbly personality being confused with flirting." After those initial months, however, they moved to Køge, and the bigger proximity to Copenhagen made things easier. "At that point, I wasn't so foreign to Denmark anymore. I started Danish classes. But it was all a huge change for us, and coming from Sweden, I didn't think it would be such a big change. I thought I would already know the little things that make you comfortable: products in the supermarket, the language, or some of the cultural elements." But Denmark turned out to be a different country - and a much more closed-off one than it is today. "Internationals weren't as welcome and embraced as they are now. Luckily, that has changed."
But while Diana eventually warmed up to Denmark, the job market did not extend her the same courtesy. "It's not that I couldn't get a job; I couldn't get a job I wanted." That led her to focus on something else. Out of interest - and because she was watching many TV baking shows, she started baking at home. "Anywhere I would go, I'd take cakes. People started asking me to make them, but I wasn't sure about the regulations in Denmark." So she started looking into it, taking courses, growing her network, and eventually met the person who helped her land her first authorised kitchen. "Before I knew it, I had a business going. We grew it organically, and then we sold it." By then, Diana was pregnant with her first child and wanted to take a break - and learn more about business. So she decided to pursue another degree.
Leslea had a similar experience. She immediately fell in love with Copenhagen - but as she already had an established career in the UK, she went into her Danish life with a certain set of expectations. "I thought that because I was in communications, I was a native English speaker, and there were loads of international organisations, I thought it'd be easy to get a job. I'd succeeded in my career, so I assumed it would transfer. But the market here was very different than in the UK. I hated the first years here. I just couldn't get a job or find my place."
For Anna, the starting point was different. She didn't experience difficulty finding a job immediately because when she relocated to Denmark, she had a remote job and went on maternity leave afterwards. Instead, she started actively applying for a job in Denmark after her son started nursery. "I started to have interviews, but it was mostly startups. Even though I worked for some big names in London, I never got to the first interview for a big company in Denmark. I found it strange; I have a good profile but never got to interview for a big company." Then, a year ago, her life - and the lives of millions of others - were disrupted by horrible news. The war in Ukraine began. "I had an interview the same morning - I cancelled it. The shock was too much - it was like a blackout."
Finding their footing
Before the war, Anna was already a member of a Ukrainian organisation in Denmark. The Association of Ukrainians in Denmark was an umbrella organisation housing all others, and they decided to put them under one roof. "Before, we mostly did cultural things. After, we established a plan and designed which team was responsible for which area. I was responsible for all the demonstrations and PR." Then, she started to think that the best way for her to help would be where her experience lies - startups, recruitment, and connections. From there, DKTech4Ukraine was born. "I was introduced to our Danish co-founder, who had a similar idea. We decided to help displaced Ukrainians arriving in Demark to look for a job. We decided to focus only on startups given our significant connections in that space".
"I thought that because I was in communications, I was a native English speaker, and there were loads of international organisations, I thought it'd be easy to get a job. I'd succeeded in my career, so I assumed it would transfer." - Leslea Petersen
They started to approach every startup in Denmark with this proposal: their organisation would have Ukrainian professionals submit their resumes, and every week, each startup HR department would receive them. "We couldn't guarantee they would get hired, but we ensured the HR departments would see the CVs." However, as LinkedIn wasn't as established in Ukraine, many applicants did not have a profile - a crucial thing in the Danish market. As the applications were not optimal Anna started giving free consultations online but was quickly overwhelmed by the demand. Therefore they decided to organise an event to provide career and job search advice. Reactions were positive, so they decided to scale up and arranged the first Danish-Ukrainian Tech Summit in Copenhagen in January. "It was a big success. Now I see people need more of these events, not just a newsletter or similar. We now have requests from other countries as well."
When Leslea found herself out of a job a few years ago, she also looked towards establishing her own business. Then she saw someone on Facebook offering CV and cover letter help, and that's how she met her then-business partner.
English Job Denmark now helps secure international employment. Leslea has a personal connection to each of her clients because she knows how difficult it is when you're qualified, and you know you could easily get a job back in your home country. "And there's nothing better than hearing: Leslea, it'sthere's been three years without callbacks, and now I've got interview after interview."
A frustrating job search was also Diana's experience. "I thought I couldn't get a job because my education wasn't from Denmark. Now, I had one. I'd been living here for a few years, my husband was Danish, I spoke Danish, and I had extra courses and certifications. So I thought job searching won't be difficult this time around." It was. At that point, free internships were the way, and with her family responsibilities, Diana couldn't take that path. "I had ideas, and it took me some soul-searching - and then I decided to start a coaching program. Then, the pandemic hit, and I couldn't go out there and meet people. But sometimes, things don't happen for a reason. I got invited into integrating educational programmes for adults, and that's what We Are Entrepreneurs was born from."
The organisation now develops educational programs for adults and helps them with job market integration. They help people consider the idea of entrepreneurship by organising courses and workshops. "It's not exclusively for entrepreneurs. The skills people gain will also be useful if they get a job." While it's not exclusive - the goal is to accommodate more and more groups - generally, they focus on expats, who they feel need help or support.
"It's especially women - our experience is that they are here because they're following their partners or are taking a break from their career to raise children. So they might be more interested in exploring other opportunities," says Diana. Leslea echoes this. While believing that the glass ceiling is still here and we've got a long way to go, she thinks that with the startup generation, more and more women are starting businesses. Anna believes that while the footing is not equal anywhere, Denmark offers a better deal, for example, the relatively long maternity leave. "And you're certainly not going to be fired. That's a massive support for a woman that decides to start a family. Denmark is one of the few places where you can have a baby and a career. The thing is - you need to get that job first."
"We decided to help displaced Ukrainians arriving in Demark to look for a job. We decided to focus only on startups given our significant connections in that space." - Anna Coen
Great obstacles - and plentiful opportunities
Based on their professional and personal experience, all three women agree that for internationals, it's simply a struggle to establish themselves professionally in Denmark. Leslea sees a difference in CV requirements, for example. "In Denmark, it's not about you - it's the team. So when applying for a job, you must use this vibe." Anna believes that since Denmark is not a generalist market, the best path toward success is to have a niche and a tailored CV for that particular job.
Besides applying the "Danish" way, there's no doubt in their minds that networking is a crucial piece of job search in Denmark. "Nearly 60% of jobs are filled through networking. If you don't have a network here, you must start from scratch," says Leslea. Doing it correctly is also about building your presence and visibility- having a target list of all organisations that would be a good fit for you and connecting with people who do a similar job. "When you see them moving from one organisation to the next, you can write: 'Congratulations! I've just been on your website and can't see your job advertised yet. Has it been filled internally?' And you've got a personal dialogue going on."
But despite all the struggles, Diana concludes she's had many opportunities - thanks to Denmark.
"Having my company, going to school, having my first child here, I could say this wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. So, from my perspective, even though there are obstacles as a woman, foreigner and entrepreneur, I feel like those obstacles would have been so much greater elsewhere," she concludes.
"Having my company, going to school, having my first child here, I could really say: this wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. So, from my perspective, even though there are obstacles as a woman, foreigner and entrepreneur, I feel like those obstacles would have been so much greater elsewhere." - Diana Medrea-Mogensen