“When I started my business career, I longed for a person to take my hand and say, ‘this is how you get ahead in Danish culture and move forward in your career,’’’ said Sanila Rana, a sales leader in IBM Denmark. Born in Denmark, but with a Pakistani background, Sanila knew first-hand how challenging it could be to navigate the culture of the Danish business community, especially for multicultural women.
In May 2011, Sanila founded the not-for-profit association Multikulturelle Erhverskvinder (MEK) for multicultural businesswomen with two goals:
As Sanila explained, “All cultures have their own strengths, competences and motivational factors, and if business leaders want to increase the productivity of their companies they need to be well informed to know how to lead and cooperate with the different cultures.”
In one year, the membership of MEK grew dramatically, women from 25 countries were represented, and the first 3-level mentoring program was kicked off. With her background in project management and marketing, Sanila created a project charter and project plans, established meetings to build up the organization and invited women from seven different companies to serve on the Board.
Özlem Josefen, consulting manager at Cognizant and vice chairman of the board at MEK, stated, “I have been involved in MEK since Sanila, an ex-colleague from IBM, first contacted me with this fantastic idea of establishing an organization for professional women with cultural backgrounds other than Danish, who want to advance their careers in Denmark. It takes many things - from learning the cultural nuances on how to conduct business in Denmark, to the importance of networking inside and outside the organization, to the power of speaking the local language. I thought it would help other professional women who are new to this market and speed up their adaptation to Danish business world. So I decided to join both to learn more and to help others. MEK also offers the opportunity for women to have a mentor and for both men and women to become mentors, to receive and provide recommendations on career related topics.”
Today, Sanila continues to use her professional marketing and relationship management skills to promote MEK to many companies in Denmark (such as Accenture, KPMG, Bech Bruun etc.) and regularly speaks to different student associations at the Copenhagen Business School about the importance of establishing a professional network. She is also working with IBM’s University Relations department to promote the work of MEK through social media.
In November 2012, MEK participated in a Personal Leadership conference, supported by IBM executives that attracted 75 attendees. In February 2013, at an event called Power of MEK, 10 multicultural business women shared their personal experiences with diversity and cultural challenges in the Danish business society with close to 100 attendees. This event was especially targeted to companies working with diversity, with the goal of strengthening career development for multicultural businesswomen in Denmark.
As Rikke Thygesen, a networking executive at the Confederation for Danish Industry, said, “MEK is a fantastic project that brings so much value to the Danish business industry. I have learned a lot from MEK about how diversity goes hand in hand with growth in business.”
Based on the volunteer hours Sanila has devoted to MEK, she was able to secure an IBM Community Grant in 2012 that was used to create a website and develop logo and presentation templates for future marketing efforts.
Sanila hopes to take the concepts and lessons learned from MEK and expand into other countries. MEK is ready to train others to run similar programs to help diverse groups of women develop their career potential through networking and mentoring, and to balance family life with a career.
The basic philosophy of MEK is that every human being has a unique capability. As Sanila explained, “If you help one person find that capability, you have done a good deed in life. But if that one person does the same for others, then you have started a wave that can reach out across country borders and around the world. If I know I have inspired women to help each other, I will die with a smile on my face.”