The inner changemaker – a personal story

By Elise Landsem, former student at School of Entrepreneurship at NTNU and currently the CMO of the startup Folkeinvest and board member and web responsible at the NGO Amigitos.

Through my studies at NTNU School of Entrepreneurship, my inner changemaker got “smashed under a bulldozer” and then empowered into a core of who I am.

The Bosnia war was at its worst when I was a small kid. Through the news, sharing horrible and heartbreaking stories, that war had a severe impact on me. I am sure of it because I so clearly remember one dream I had. I was six years old and nervously entering a gigantic podium, cameras everywhere producing TV for the whole world. Although I don’t think I knew about the speech “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. at that point, the scene was surprisingly similar. In a naive tone that only a child would dear to use, I used every word that I knew to convince the world that it doesn’t make any sense to keep wars going. “Imagine how great we can all be together”.

Passion seeking mission

Throughout my teenage years I never really found a place to use this passion for change and improvement. It drowned in sports, homework, friends, boys and all the other things that occupies your brain at that age. In 2010 I began my journey at NTNU. I studied for a master’s in chemistry, lived with my boyfriend, played volleyball and life was in general very stable.

Nudge by nudge, the student environment filled with energy, motivation and engagement changed me. Coincidences led me to student politics, and to a year as a board member at the university. I was not even a little bit prepared for the challenges I met that year or all the huge jumps I had to take far out of my comfort zone. If earth was my original comfort zone, I went to another galaxy at least once each week. That’s an immensely scary place to be, but it is also where you really get to know yourself for better and for worse.

A school for changemakers

I almost didn’t apply for NTNU School of Entrepreneurship (NSE). It was the only thing I wanted, but I was scared I wasn’t good enough. Having friends pushing me out of my comfort zone yet again is the reason I eventually got to study at “the school for changemakers”.

Through my years at NSE I was challenged on every aspect of myself. It was hard to maintain a level of self-confidence, coming from quantum chemistry and being completely new to the field of entrepreneurship and innovation. Me and my fellow students were thrown out on deep water from the very beginning, with the task of evaluating business ideas in less than a week. Stress levels were high, the deadlines absolute and the groups were an interesting mix of strong personalities. It didn’t take long for these “experiments” to reveal the individual strong and weak characteristics, both in skillset and personality.

During the first semester I was more daring than I thought I ever would, I stood upright in moments filled with insecurity, I sometimes pushed myself too far, I cried of laughter, stress and exhaustion. I think everyone else did too, and for every experience our comfort zone grew by some inches.

Elise Landsem and the kids
Elise Landsem and the kids

Learning by doing, reading and socializing

What makes NSE such a special study is the way you develop both knowledge, skills and understanding of yourself all at once. You study academic topics while you start your own (often first) business being surrounded by inspiring people. Coffee breaks are used to discuss technological trends, global issues, personal challenges and how to learn and develop specific skills. The startups are bootstrapped, forcing you to take on tasks without necessarily having a clue where to start. Going through the different topics you build up an overall understanding of building a business, and a sort of confidence to dive into unknown territory.

During a summer program at Boston University we were challenged by one professor, Peter Marton. “What is your deepest, honest reason for wanting to be an entrepreneur?”. He underlined the importance of being honest with oneself, and of knowing your own why. The answers ranged from Freedom and Helping others, to Money and Fame. I thought about this question every single day for a long time. Immediately my response was “improving the lives of others”, but how could I know for sure?

It took a while…

The following one and a half year I started navigating my life with an aim of answering this exact question. It had a rough start, where I first quit my job as a CMO in Technium as I “didn’t feel it” and then had a complete crash with a back aching 24/7. I choose to work for Framtiden i våre hender (a Norwegian NGO) one summer and to travel to the Dominican Republic volunteering for Amigitos (a Norwegian NGO) the following fall. I worked one year in the research institute SINTEF, and took part of Telenor Youth Forum as a Norwegian delegate.

My LinkedIn profile doesn’t make sense for everyone, but for myself I can see the basis being my search for the answer to Peters question. It is my core to fight for what I believe in and to work in a place and role that allows me to take part of impatient, positive change. And through all the experiences I now told you about, I’ve gone from a girl always having 10-year-plans in place to a woman seeking freedom, adventure and possibilities.

Elise Landsem at departure
Elise Landsem at departure

Embrace challenges and the unknown

Without the experiences at NSE I would probably be drawn back into a stable, organized and predictable life. I wouldn’t have followed my dream of experiencing a life completely different from my own, and I would definitely not have dared to work full-time in a startup where it seems like everything changes on a daily basis. Today, I am an active board member and volunteer at Amigitos, a Norwegian NGO working to improve the lives of Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. It fills my life with more joy and meaning than I could ever hope for. I am also incredibly lucky to be the marketing manager in Folkeinvest, a startup with an altruistic approach to solving the challenge of getting risk capital for young companies and involving a broader spectrum of the population. These companies and the changemakers in them are all trying to change the world, one step at the time, and we cheer them on!

Some non-quality-assured advice

If you are on the stepping stone of entering the “changemaker path” to new galaxies of instability, insecurity, challenges and adventures, I thought I could wrap this up by telling you what I would have said to my 5 years younger self.

First things first – you will get a million tons of advice on your journey, in the end you have to trust yourself on which ones you follow and which ones you don’t. That being said, my advice is to dare to dream big and dare to pursue the dreams that are right for you. It’s a rollercoaster ride with highs and lows, but it’s what makes life the adventure it deserves to be. In all the madness you encounter, remember to be your absolute best friend.

Now, find that inner changemaker in you and “be the change you want to see in the world”.

But remember, you can’t change it all in one day, and you can’t do it alone.