Norway is known for many things, but diversity is not one of them. That may be about to change. In the last five years, as immigration has accounted for most of the country’ growth, the big Scandinavian country with a tiny population of only about 5 million has become home to persons with a background from nearly 250 countries and autonomous regions. According to recent estimates from Norway’s Central Bureau of Statistics, roughly a quarter of the population now has some element of a foreign background.
Sundeep Singh is one of them. A corporate lawyer, social entrepreneur, and Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum, Singh is one of approximately 3,500 Sikhs living in Norway, an experience that has profoundly shaped his thinking and career, as well as his candidacy for an MBA at Oxford University’s Said Business School. Now Singh’s commitment to social impact has been recognized — by no less than Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, who has invited him to attend SIKT, a leadership conference organized by the Norwegian Royal Palace, on October 22-23.
“It’s a great honor to attend the SIKT conference alongside other young leaders,” says Singh, who will make the short trip back to his home country at the request of the Crown Prince despite immersing himself in the Oxford MBA. “I am very excited to learn from them.”
CHALLENGING MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT SIKHS & CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
The cost of having a unique background in a society known until recently for its homogeneity can be high. In the aftermath of 9/11, Norwegian Sikhs found themselves the target of rising levels of racism. Singh says that when many Norwegians saw TV coverage of the Taliban wearing turbans and issuing threats against the West, it impacted the way they perceived the Sikh community, who wear turbans as part of their religious beliefs. The problem was not unique to Norway: In the United States in the first month after the September 11 attacks, more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination occurred against Sikhs in America, among the the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona.
Sundeep Singh’s experience in Norway motivated him to co-found his first social enterprise in high school in 2006: Along with four other young students, he set about tackling the problem of racism by creating a network for young Sikhs called Unge Sikher. “We needed a medium through which we could fight xenophobia while also acting as a progressive force in our community,” Singh says. “We started education programs, and worked with the police, universities, and educational institutions.”
Despite some successes, problems continued. So the Unge Sikher network launched a new initiative that has grown in scale ever since: Norwegian Turban Day. Now in its ninth year and attended annually by up to 20,000 people, Turban Day encourages Norwegians of all backgrounds to gather together, enjoy Sikh culture, and don a turban. “When people see the turban being worn not by some militant in a cave, but by everyday people in a context that is fun and celebratory, it changes their perspective on the turban as a symbol,” Singh says.
AN MBA TO BETTER TACKLE THE BIG PROBLEMS
Sundeep’s second social enterprise grew from his education in law at the University of Oslo. “I met a student from a minority background there who was very impressive – he had been the top student at his high school before coming to university. However, at university he did poorly on his exams. I couldn’t understand it — he was a sharp guy. Then I realized that this was only a small part of a larger problem: He was a first-generation university student, and had no guidance on the very different approach to learning that higher education requires.”
In response, Singh co-founded an organization called “Minor.Jur” to address the issues faced by first-gen minority law students. Minor.Jur has since scaled up to the two largest law faculties in Norway while collaborating with some of the largest employers in the country’s law sector.
With such accomplishments already on his CV, why does Singh need an MBA? Because, he says, he’s not yet satisfied with his ability to tackle world-scale problems. “‘Lawyers take large problems and break them down into their constituent parts,” he says. “I’ve advised the largest PE funds in the Nordics and the Norwegian Government’s investing arm, but as a lawyer my advice is always given towards the end of their processes, at which stage my influence limited.” The Oxford MBA will help broaden his skill set, particularly through his role as deputy managing director of the Oxford Seed Fund, an international team of 11 Oxford MBA candidates with experience in venture capital, investment strategy, management consultancy, financial services, and entrepreneurship. The Seed Fund invests in promising Oxford-affiliated startups and provides them the network and support they need to scale.
Singh can focus more acutely on that role because he’s already accepted a job in management consulting at McKinsey & Company after he graduates. “I’ve got the job hunt out the way, so I can really explore my interests here at Oxford,” he says.