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Meetings, a prerequisite for change

How do we get people from different cultures, industries and worlds to sit down and talk to each other? First, they need to be brought together, and this alone requires the right person for the job.
Meet Paola Hjelt, member of Lund University Diabetes Centre’s Innovation Board, who talks about on how to accomplish a change of mindset.

She grew up in Brussels, Belgium, has one degree from the Stockholm School of Economics and one from Colombia University, New York, where she studied international affairs and journalism. From an early age, she wanted to work internationally; but with what exactly, she didn’t know.
When Sweden joined the EU in the mid-90s, a 24-year-old Paola did an internship at the European Commission.
- The commission was full of great people, but it was also very bureaucratic. As soon as something was to be done, it required umpteen signatures, and everything was to be translated into ten languages…
Instead, she moved to Brazil and ended up doing some projects for SEB there.
- I mainly did a study of the Mercosur, the at the time new free-trade agreement that was being implemented in the area, to see how it would affect Scandinavian companies in the region…

Against all odds

After a while she left for New York.
- I had had journalism at the back of my mind for a long time.”
After studying a double Master’s Degree in journalism and international affairs, she managed to get a foot in the door of Bloomberg News, the news agency.
- Everything moved so quickly there. It was fun and for sure I got some adrenaline kicks, but I also realized I was more interested in working for a magazine or a weekly paper and write more in-depths stories. Getting a job in a newspaper or magazine in New York is quite a challenge when you are a foreigner and don’t have English as your mother tongue or haven’t already built a reputation as a reporter somewhere else.
Against all odds, Paola Hjelt ended up being the only non-native English speaker working for Fortune Magazine, the business paper, well known for its FORTUNE 500 list, which ranks the largest companies in America.
- It helped that I had some time at Bloomberg News and that I had somewhat of a business background.”

Cooperation for change

After almost eight years in the USA she was ready to try something else.
- For a long time I had wanted to work with one foot in the private sector and the other in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). I believe that these worlds must work together in order to really change things…”

    My role was to invite people with new ideas and ways of thinking.

Paola Hjelt ended up at the World Economic Forum, a Swiss-based independent organisation that endeavours to unite the different worlds. Every year, the organisation arranges the Davos annual meeting, which brings together 2500 business leaders, intellectuals and journalists as well as senior politicians and statesmen from all over the world and representatives of NGOs. Together, they develop different agendas that will contribute towards improvements.
- My role was to invite people with new ideas and ways of thinking. It’s an interesting place where you can run into almost anybody from anywhere in the world.

Advisors on innovation matters

With this experience under her belt, and after some hesitation, she accepted Claes Wollheim’s offer to become part of Lund University Diabetes Centre’s Innovation Board; a board that aims to identify possible innovation projects and act as advisor on innovation matters.
- I was honoured to be asked, but I said that I didn’t want to waste their time in case they believed that I could contribute in ways that I actually couldn’t. I don’t exactly have a background in the medical world, apart from being a member of a family board that donates to research within spina bifida. LUDC’s Innovation Board is fun; it’s different, it has impressive people on board, and their knowledge is amazing.
She commends Sylvie Bove, former innovation officer at LUDC.
- She was incredibly driven! To get so much done in such a short time, and in a world where the issues are not highly prioritised by the academics, is in itself a great accomplishment.

“People need to meet”

During her first year in the post, Paola Hjelt had an important role as a sounding board to the innovations office in order to get matters of innovation included on the agenda.
- How is this communicated internally and externally? A lot of it involves getting people to meet.

    If we work together in Europe we should be better able to gather our assets.

In the autumn of 2013, LUDC hosted the Innovation in Diabetes: European Action (IDEA) Summit, which brought together industry and academia parties from all over Europe. The big question on the agenda was how to accelerate cooperation that would lead to new breakthroughs. Paola Hjelt acted as a sounding board, mainly to Thomas Gunnarsson, who organised the event, on issues ranging from how to get the key persons to attend to the choice of moderator.
- The summit was the first step towards improving links between academia and industry in Europe. If we work together in Europe we should be better able to gather our assets. I’m not entirely surprised that we didn’t cooperate more before. It requires a change of mindset. And how do we create this?

Great challenges

According to Paola, there is much to do. She emphasises the importance of unofficial meetings (on top of the official ones), which help us to see each other.
- It’s a good thing if one person goes home from a meeting and thinks ‘I really should work a little more with academia’. And if five people travel home and change how they usually work, or if a boss gets a new perspective… And imagine if two or three companies change their attitudes towards an issue…! But it is a long process. If you don’t have the support of the management, it’s almost impossible, and if the administrative leaders don’t believe in it, it’s really difficult. And how do you make this happen in a place where everybody already works too much and loves what they do?
The challenges are many and great.

What advice does she have for the researchers at LUDC?
- Do you even know what all the people in your building do? Be curious and exchange experiences. Take the opportunity to meet as many different people as you can, from different worlds, other universities, from the industry and set your own values aside. Attend something you wouldn’t normally attend… Get out there!

Text and photo: Sara Liedholm

Translation from Swedish: Mark Fennelly

Facts about Paola Hjelt

Paula Hjelt member of LUDC Innovation board
Paula Hjelt

After having worked for the World Economic Forum, Paola Hjelt became the Director of “Global Changemakers”, an initiative born out of the World Economic Forum’s Davos conference and financed by the British Council. The organisation built a network of young people around the world with the aim of contributing to social change. The network comprises over 1,000 young people from around the world who work as social entrepreneurs, community workers and volunteers.