Sub-zero experiences, breakfast in an original Viking voyage ship, and shark tasting were all engaging activities in Iceland.
Here, I learned about leadership, gender nuances, and technology. While COVID-19 is not completely eradicated, The Lauder Institute has resumed academic-related travel. Coming to Iceland to participate in this multicultural exchange, known as the Living Intercultural Venture (LIVs) was an incredible experience. In general, LIVs are structured to have cultural, educational, and professional components; these excursions can complement students’ research, recruiting pursuits, or intellectual curiosity. Students in the Lauder program must complete two LIVs as a graduation requirement. Because these intercultural learning ventures are a graduation requirement, there are excursions offered to Alaska, Poland, Ukraine, Israel, Senegal, and India. While there are various trip destinations offered, I chose to participate in the trip to Iceland.
A NATION TACKLING EQUITY
For seven consecutive years, Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s survey for gender equality. In fact, this island country is ranked high for closing the gender gap in their survey. The Islandic democratic processes have centered women, technology, and internet system development into its legislative changes. This has spurred innovation within organizations, talent management, and improved other socio-ethological dynamics.
While a majority of the learning took place in Reykjavik, which translates as Smoky Bay, 45 dual degree MBA/MA candidates at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute began the learning experience through Zoom to meet our local Islandic professors, Nora Madison, and Mathias Klang. This married and quirky couple provided foundational context and knowledge across gender equality, organizational change, and the historical background of the Nordics, Scandinavian countries, and linguistics. It’s incredible that the Islandic language remains unchanged from ancient Norse, so a 1,000+ year old text can still be easily comprehendible.
Further, the national legislation includes 35 articles addressing inequality, the gender pay gap, and board membership. In 2003, Iceland mandated that all business must have 40% of women on the board of directors and companies not in compliance are fined. Nora and Mathias actively reinforced the day-to-day implications of this legislation during the multi-cultural exchange. This experiential learning complimented both the academic deliverables during the trip and final leadership essay. Effectively, LIVs are not a vacation for Lauder students. Students were organized into pods of 6-8 persons and expected to complete reflections and leadership compositions, read complimentary literature, and create a final PowerPoint presentation.
SHARK MEAT GOOD…WHALE, NOT SO MUCH
Iceland in October felt like January in the Northeast and we were deeply encouraged to bring layers of clothing, rain-resistant attire, and extra socks. The weather did not stop any outdoor activity that was on the agenda, however. It was amazing to visit glaciers, geysers, the black-pebbled beach, and the tectonic plates that separated Eurasia and North America. My personal favorite was the Shark Museum. Fermented shark meat is a regional specialty. During the visit to the museum, we explored the history of shark fishing and tasted the shark meat! It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime moment and I did not hate it. I also tasted Minke Whale and was NOT a fan.
Another trip highlight was visiting the traditional hut of the first settlers in Iceland and learning about Egill Skallagrímsson, an Icelandic farmer and poet. We explored this way of life including their dietary regimen, wool spinning, and color dying. We even saw their hunting tools. During this excursion, we tasted lamb liver sausage, sheep’s brain, and a yogurt dish. I did not taste the sausage or the brain but others in the group claimed to enjoy the food. I had to draw the line somewhere. My takeaway here is to build cultural sensitivity around traditional Icelandic norms. It was also eye-opening to understand survival mechanisms during extreme climate and isolation.
Storytelling is extremely important within Icelandic culture and served as a form of entertainment for early settlers. Our tour guide, Júliús Theodórsson, shared many anecdotes about how he and his grandfather bonded over football, stories, and eating fermented shark as a young child. Iceland is an island country of roughly 360,000 people and family is incredibly important. It encouraged other students in the program to also open up about their own backgrounds and family life to facilitate bonding. These moments are quintessential within the MBA community and traveling together brought us closer as an intercultural community.
SUPPORTING WOMEN WITH BOARD MEMBERSHIP AND INVESTMENT
A core theme for the LIV was gender equality in business. Five women from the FKA – Association of Women Business Leaders in Iceland – spoke to us about leadership in the workplace and their professional journeys. While the Icelandic legislation supports women in business and designates that women must have representation in the boardroom, it does not directly translate into gender parity in the enterprise. There might be one woman on the team, but her voice may not be valued in the room. Greta, a member of the FKA, shared an anecdote around men’s perception of women to be “nagging” when women discuss how to improve the workplace dynamics.
This negative connotation and association to using the female voice is discouraging and this reveals that while women have a seat at the table, their voices may fall on deaf ears when contributing to the business strategy. Therefore, the FKA is pushing for two women on the team to build allyship and have a counterpart to discuss their professional challenges. Further, women do not have access to venture capital within entrepreneurship. This is a global phenomenon and our group heard from two companies, WomenTech Iceland and Crowberry Capital, to discuss how to spur innovation and new venture deal flow.
Crowberry Capital is female-led and the largest venture capital fund operating out of Iceland. Founder Helga Valfellas spoke to our group about her challenges raising the fund and her commitment to investing in more women entrepreneurs. Helga shared that women have to work harder to prove themselves to be worthy investors compared to men. For example, other venture capital firms have not invested in ANY female-led companies and they are rarely criticized. To alleviate this problematic trend, Helga and her executive team have an onus to meet with every entrepreneur who reaches out. If the company is not desirable to Crowberry at that time, Helga’s team has a network of resources dedicated to improving the enterprise model.
A WHARTON HIGHLIGHT
Crowberry Capital is actively curating an enterprise pipeline to have a constant and diverse deal flow for investments. In this case, while there is a lack of gender parity and access to capital for women, this firm has a multi-step plan to ensure women have development and funding opportunities. Currently, the portfolio is comprised of 30% female-led companies. Helga generously offered her company as a resource to students interested in VC, which could lead to internships and other professional connections across the Nordic countries.
Iceland has been on my bucket list for about five years and visiting this country with my classmates, courtesy of The Lauder Institute, will forever be an MBA highlight. I learned about traditional Icelandic culture, made professional and personal connections, and was better educated on gender parity within the business ecosystem. I am by no means an expert, but I feel more confident to pose equitable solutions in the workplace after the LIV in Iceland.
My MBA experience is becoming more normal post-COVID and I appreciate the quality of this academic trip to bond with my Lauder classmates. Having small group dinners every night, sharing funny travel stories, and building a stronger sisterhood with my trip roommate were very special memories from Iceland. This LIV facilitated hands-on learning and multicultural engagement that I will carry throughout my career, as a mentor, advocate, and champion for women in leadership. This was the first of many outside the Zoom classroom experiences and I’m looking forward to more fruitful and diverse learning environments. I hope to see you “Living on Locust” with soul, purpose, and a spirit of collaboration!
Azline is from Waterloo, IA, and became a National Gates Millennium Scholar in 2009. She studied International Studies and French at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and graduated Cum Laude in 2013. During her undergraduate tenure, she studied abroad in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and Geneva, Switzerland, and also interned at Black Entertainment Network and Google, Inc. Azline worked for Delta Air Lines for seven years before starting a dual-degree MBA/MA program at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute.