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Turning attention toward the East

As project manager for the Explore China programme, Josefine Gillver aims to challenge the views of young Swedish talents and raise awareness of the Chinese market.

TEXT: Errol Sellgren, Swedish Young Professionals, Beijing
28 MARCH, 2019

What do you know about China? Josefine Gillver and her team from Explore China discovered something they had suspected all along: the prevalence of old prejudices, stereotypes and a general unawareness of China’s dominant place on the global market among young students and even executives.

Gilliver, a graduate from Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm, started her journey in China back in 2015 through the school’s internship program at IKEA in Shenzhen. There she first came into contact with China’s efficient and fast-paced work environment.

“In China, things happen fast! There is no time to discuss things over and over again in different meetings. If you don’t act fast, someone else will. That’s what we call ’China speed’ and that’s one thing Sweden needs to know about to stay competitive,” she says.

During her time in Shenzhen, she was offered a position at the IKEA office in Shanghai as a communications specialist while remaining in charge of the Shenzhen office. This enabled her to observe the rapid development of the two metropolises first-hand. She mentions that Shenzhen today is fundamentally different from the first time she visited the city in 2012.

“If you don’t act fast [in China], someone else will,” says Josefine Gillver

Over the years, Gillver came in contact with Carl Pei, the Swedish-Chinese co-founder of the Shenzhen-based smartphone manufacturer OnePlus, and they began exchanging ideas. One year ago, she received a call from him. He wanted to discuss a rather drastic proposal.

“He asked me if I could resign from my job at IKEA Shanghai, move back to Stockholm and start up something that would allow us to spread information about the Chinese market to Sweden. He insisted that we had to do something now because Sweden would otherwise not stand a chance of staying competitive on the global market,” Gillver says.

She explains how this idea originated from the frustration that she and Pei shared about the general Swedish attitude toward China, which is often completely overlooked and not even considered as being important. Pei had previously studied at the Stockholm School of Economics and the unwillingness of students and professors to acknowledge the importance of the growing Chinese market was what ultimately led him to drop out of the school and leave for China. The rest is history, and now he’s running a billion-dollar company.


The number of Swedish students that applied in less than four weeks for 16 spots in the first Explore China programme.

After Gillver had accepted Pei’s proposal and moved back to Stockholm as a project manager for Explore China, she was surprised to find herself feeling as if she had travelled back in time. It made her question Sweden’s conviction that is always is on the edge of innovation and technology.

“My favourite trivial fact is that the very first email sent between two sovereign states was from the Swedish government to the White House. There are so many ground-breaking technological innovations that come from our small country. And Swedish people love to talk about being global, even though the majority have zero knowledge of the Asian and Chinese markets, which today already make up a significant portion of the global market and will continue to grow even more in the future,” Gillver says.

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei (fourth from right) initiated the Explore China programme.

Explore China is a non-profit programme with the aim of challenging the views of young talents and raising awareness of the Chinese market. The initial programme in 2018 had 16 seats reserved for top university students with different academic backgrounds and experiences from all over Sweden and 777 students applied for those spots in less than four weeks.

The participants of the initial programme were invited on a two-week trip in China, where they met experts and entrepreneurs from market-leading companies such as Baidu, Tencent, OnePlus, Daniel Wellington and Mobike. After the trip, the students were eager to share their new knowledge with fellow students, organisations and companies in Sweden.

Gillver had the privilege to travel together with top Swedish business leaders such as Jacob Wallenberg and Carl-Henric Svanberg, which led to an astonishing insight.

“These are people who have long and extensive experience of the world and running large companies, but their reflections and thoughts were on the exact same level as the students’ in our programme. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just graduated or have worked in the business world for years; the understanding of the inner mechanisms of the Chinese market needs to be raised,” she says.

Swedish people love to talk about being global, even though the majority have zero knowledge of the Asian and Chinese markets.”

Since its foundation, the programme has rapidly increased in popularity. The opening weeks of 2019 resulted in over 1,000 applications. To further expand awareness, Explore China has initiated an executive programme, with an equal number of seats. The idea is to launch a mentorship programme that will pair high executives who have a keen interest to learn about the Chinese market with top talents. This will allow them to strengthen their knowledge and relations with a selection of top-credited future talents, some of the most successful companies in China and an all-more important market.

The programme has also received a lot of media coverage in Sweden, attracting interest from influential organisations and institutions. Gillver describes how the programme has even received invitations from official institutions such as the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation and the Chinese embassy, all of which wish to participate in the programme and gain valuable insights from their students.

To further diversify and ensure the long-term future of the programme, Explore China seeks financial support from companies other than the previous sponsor, OnePlus. The goal is to involve, market, connect and create opportunities for individuals and companies that decide to aid in the programme’s mission.