It was in the wake of a terrible skiing accident that Susanne Najafi embarked on her path as a serial entrepreneur.
While racing down the slopes of a Swedish ski resort in 2009, she fell and broke her neck.
“I was trying to get up, but I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t move my arms.’ And that’s when I realised it was a bit more serious.
“The doctor said that I was one millimetre from the nerve getting cut off,” she recalls. “They were like, ‘This was really, really lucky.'”
Despite facing months of recovery wearing a neck brace, the then 28-year-old’s outlook was positive. “I was like, ‘Wow, I got another shot.’ For me, this was a turning point. I realised that life is too short not to follow your path, to do the things that you’re passionate about.”
So the Swede decided to leave a promising marketing career with consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble.
“I quit my job, and I started to write a lot of pitches,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m going to start an e-commerce business, because I know a lot about consumer products and data.'”
Within four years she was running a Swedish beauty products company that had a turnover of 130m Swedish kronor ($13.4m; £10.3m), and today she is the co-owner of successful investment firm Backing Minds.
Born in Sweden, Susanne’s early years were spent in Rinkeby, a mostly-immigrant neighbourhood of Stockholm. Her parents had moved there from Iran, following that country’s 1979 revolution.
She recalls races with her dad as a young child. “He would run like Usain Bolt, even though he was 35 and I was five,” she says. “When I came to the finishing line he would say, ‘You will not get anything for free, you really win when you win for real.'”
Though a little tough, she credits his influence for her drive to succeed in life. “That sparked a very competitive side of me.”
Her first taste of entrepreneurship came during an internship with Swedish cosmetic brand Oriflame, while studying at the Stockholm School of Economics.
Eager to explore her Iranian roots, aged 23, she spent almost a year in Tehran, setting up a subsidiary.
Armed with simply a “to-do list”, Susanne says she realised that starting a company was “not harder or bigger than that”.
After four years at Procter & Gamble, and then the accident, her earliest business ventures included a perfume company and a haircare brand, but soon she had her fingers in many pies.
Selling her apartment to raise funds, her other enterprises included a contact lens company and a 3D-printed jewellery firm.
It was while playing poker that Susanne met her first major investors. She won games at tournaments for investors and tech start-ups, which helped to boost her profile.
One venture capital firm gave her 15m kronor, while further investment came from another.
However, not all her early ventures were successful, such as a pharmacy business. “The timing was wrong,” says Susanne. “Everything that shouldn’t happen, happened.
“During those years, I actually started seven companies. A lot of them failed. Some of them went very well.”
By 2012, her main business was Unity Beauty Group which went on an “aggressive expansion”. It bought beauty chain Parelle, launched a web store and a year later merged it with online beauty platform Eleven.
With a combined turnover of 130m kronor, things then moved fast. A new warehouse opened, and within a couple of years, the number of staff jumped to 30.
Then in 2015 Susanne sold her stake, with the aim of instead becoming an investor in a number of companies. A year later she launched her investment firm, Backing Minds, together with business partner Sara Wimmercranz, a founder of Swedish online shoe retailer Footway.
When the pair met a decade ago, also playing poker, they learned they were among the few women securing investment in the country.
This prompted a closer look at the statistics on who gets funding, and who doesn’t. “That’s when the whole idea for Backing Minds was born,” says Susanne. It invests in start-ups that are often overlooked, such as those led by women, immigrants, or people living outside Stockholm.
As the first female-founded venture capital firm in the Nordic countries, it has been a trailblazer. “In Sweden it’s more common to be called Johan or Hendrik than to be a woman, in venture capital,” says Susanne.
A report last year highlighted the extent of the gender bias problem not just in Sweden, but across the wider Nordic region. It found that out of €2bn ($2.2bn; £1.7bn) of venture capital invested in Nordic countries in 2018, 87.5% went to start-ups with male founders, 10.5% to mixed gender teams, and only 1% to female-run firms. Such statistics are mirrored around the world.
Susanne adds that while three-quarters of Swedish companies lie outside Stockholm, they get “less than 8% of the investment”. Meanwhile, founders with an immigrant background see “a fraction”.
“Instead of seeing this as a problem, we’re like, ‘This is a big business opportunity,'” says Susanne.
Backing Minds has so far backed eight companies. One is money transfer firm Transfer Galaxy, based in Vivalla, a mostly-immigrant community, in western Sweden. The team had pitched to more than 100 investors without success. Now it sends 100m kronor through its platform each month.
Another firm that Susanne and her team has backed is a DNA diagnostic testing business, Dynamic Code. “[The founder] was told that she was too old to start a tech company,” she says. “She was 50.”
Check Warner is the founder of Diversity VC, a UK-based pressure group that aims to promote and encourage more diversity in the investment sector. She says that it is “very encouraging” to see the work of Backing Minds, and other investment funds, which “exist to seek out and provide opportunities to founders that would otherwise struggle to raise money from traditional venture capital firms”.
Susanne says that Backing Minds now plans to expand outside of the Nordics to other parts of Europe.
After more than a decade as an entrepreneur she says: “I am actually proud of both my successes and failures, because they have equally led me to where I am.”
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