Natalia Brzezinski is a woman who wears many hats. As wife of the U.S Ambassador to Sweden, Mark Brzezinski, Natalia has been extremely active in representing her country at all official events. She is also a mother to a young child, a journalist, a public speaker and communicator with an unwavering energy to speak out on issues of women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship and issues concerning immigrants. After four years in Sweden the Brzezinskis head back to the U.S and we bid them a sad farewell and wish them all the best for the next stage of their lives. Sweden will always welcome them back with open arms.
Arriving here 4 years ago, what were your first impressions and initial challenges settling into Stockholm?
Looking back, I feel like I was a baby then! I was a new mother, newly married and a young woman looking for her voice professionally and in the larger sense. I think that personal evolution was the biggest challenge and opportunity. Settling into a more “public” lifestyle, one where there was much less privacy and much more quiet scrutiny was a challenge for me because I am a very open and communicative person and had to learn to censor myself a bit in certain situations. But every challenge has taught me so much, and I feel so strong and empowered today because of this journey.
I thought Stockholm was stunning from day one, and day one was a dark, cold November day! I remember waking up in the early mornings, very jet-lagged, and seeing the darling children in dagis (daycare), dressed in green light-reflecting vests playing in the snow. Early on, I learned there is “no bad weather, only bad clothes” in Sweden, and I embraced this mantra to fully maximize both the warm but also cold, snowy or wet seasons. I have become a true environmentalist and lover of the outdoors solely because of Sweden.
On the personal side, I had been told many times that Swedes were very “reserved” and I may feel lonely or not make friends easily. But I found quite the opposite. I have always felt that you get what you give. So I tried to be open, accessible, generous, welcoming, transparent and warm with new people I met, and I received the same in return. I have made the friends of a lifetime here!
You often refer to your family’s immigrant history, how has this shaped you as a person?
I grew up with very humble beginnings and witnessed a great deal of struggle. It was a difficult childhood in many ways, but now I am so appreciative for every struggle, failure and tear I cried because it has shaped me into a woman that never gives up, never shies away from an obstacle and doesn’t cower in a crisis.
My parents always said: If you don’t like the house you live in, build your own. It was important for them to convey to me that you don’t have to be born with money, connections or the best network, but you can work hard and be the most creative, the most ethical and the most determined. If five doors closed in your face, they taught me to find a back door or dig a tunnel under the house to get in.
They were also very entrepreneurial and passed on the passion for innovation and entrepreneurship to me. This is one of the reasons why I have been so active in tech and entrepreneurship in Sweden. I see it as the ultimate tool for empowerment of all people— women, youth, new immigrants— and the way we will solve the social and global challenges of our time. Great ideas take great diversity.
You fervently support issues of women’s empowerment, how did this voice develop?
My mother was the sole breadwinner in our home for many years of my life, and has had a successful career. But I have also watched her struggle profoundly with balancing home life and career, and with some gender bias in the workplace.
I had no babysitters or nannies growing up. My mother often brought me to work with her at a very young age. I would sit next to her desk all day at age 4 or 5, draw, write stories and listen to her negotiate, argue her points to managers and strategize. This exposed me to the difficulties women can have using their voice and being truly heard in the workplace.
Personally, I had my own “feminist” moment after having my first child at age 25. Until that point, I had no idea how hard it was balancing a career and being a mother. And I didn’t realize what little resources American women have when it comes to maternity leave, daycare, and job security. Family life is not supported in the way it should be in some American workplaces. The way Sweden empowers both mothers and fathers has been incredibly inspirational for me. I will bring home the lessons I’ve learned here in equality, consensus-building and leadership to try to make a difference in my country and in the private sector writ large.
What are your thoughts on women and equality in Sweden?
The debates in the two countries vary with the U.S more focused on issues of work-life balance while Sweden focused a great deal on female representation on boards and in top ranks in business. This speaks to the different yet equally effective ways our two countries have tried to work on the issue. Many Swedish women tell me they admire the way American women can be assertive, bold and vocal in meetings and in their leadership style. I believe this stems from our schools and private sector initiatives, which revolve around leadership training, media and speech training, and confidence-building. In the end, I think less “Jante” in Sweden and more “Pappaledig” in America would do wonders!
There is a reason there are so many American “love refugees” (Americans that marry Swedes and live in Sweden). The marriage between Swedish and American values is pure magic! This also holds true between Swedish and American businesses, especially Silicon Valley and Stockholm. Swedish substance and quality combined with American communications and marketing, or Swedish focus on sustainability or digitalization combined with American knowledge of building a narrative around a brand and bringing things to scale is unbeatable. When our ways of behaviour and social norms can be combined and meet in the middle, I think the sky is the limit!
You seem to take an interest in Art, how would you describe Stockholm’s Art scene?
Art is the soul of a culture. It reflects the history, secret yearnings and voice of the people. I delved into the Swedish art scene in order to delve into Sweden’s soul. And I have completely fallen in love! Not only does Stockholm have some amazing contemporary artists rising now, but they have a forward-looking and very prescient legacy in finding and exhibiting artists just before they are about to hit it big. I believe one of Andy Warhol’s earliest international exhibits was at Moderna Museet in the 1970s, for example.
Some of my favourites today are Karin Mamma Andersson, sculptor Anders Krisar, Klara Liden, Natalie Djurberg, Eva Hild and Front when it comes to design. An exciting trend is that most of Sweden’s best artists now are women. Swedes have a great eye for art and design, but not many people know this because the Swedish art scene remains quiet, low-key and humble. This is a very trend-aware, futuristic culture and people with some of the best style in the world. Stockholm is on fire now! Tech, music, art, fashion, all of these sectors are exploding. My prediction is soon the trend-bearers of the world will be coming to explore Stockholm to see the future.
If you were to name Sweden’s top three qualities, what would they be?
1) The incredibly dynamic and creative tech scene.
2) The fantastic music scene which ranges from the storied Polar Prize to Spotify, Avicii and a majority of the production and lyrics behind most of America’s top pop stars
3) “Lagom” outlook on almost everything (balance in business, work, family, friends, the way you eat and take care of your body), which enriches the first two I listed.
Stockholm is a city where you can travel ahead in time and see what the future looks like in family, economy, sustainability and technology.
What would you miss most about Sweden now that the time has come for you to leave?
My friends, the beautiful city and the ease of getting around it, the openness around family life and the amount I learn each day when it comes to innovation.
What is the next chapter for the Brzezinski family?
The next chapter is being written as we speak. But I can say with certainty that if it comes together as I hope it will for me, it will include Sweden, the wonderful Swedish people and the values and passions I have found in music, tech, fashion, sustainability and creative innovation sectors here. I have spent 4 years as a communicator and storyteller around these concepts, and I hope to continue to tell the story of Sweden and America— their shared values, their commercial and business symbiosis— in a new and dynamic way.