Venturing South by Southwest

When friends and industry colleagues heard I was going to the tech and media conference SXSW in Austin, Texas the response was either 1) what a waste of money, or 2) omg you’re gonna have the time of your life. Suffice to say both responses made me slightly uneasy (what if 1 was true and/or 2 wasnt?!). Venturing to SXSW, particularly from Europe, is not cheap. Not only does it involve a transatlantic flight and a week-long stay in an overpriced AirBnb, the conference ticket in itself costs around £1000. Yeah - not cheap. On the flip side, the city of Austin earns some £350 million(!) in the single week that SXSW is on, locals make a killing from renting out their houses and for the ones that stay around, there’s free food and drink on offer all week.

With more than 90 000 attendants, it’s safe to say SXSW can be slightly overwhelming. You’ve spent all this money going there, so you want to make sure you deliver once you get back to the office (which can be daunting in itself). I was at South by for ten days, and though it felt like a pre-run I learned a thing or two about getting the most out of the festival. Here are my biggest takeaways:

Make a plan, don’t stick to it
This was actually a piece of advice from an industry colleague who’d been to South by several times before, and I think it’s pretty good advice for life in general. The point here is that you'll want to be pretty well researched before you go - chances are there are loads of phenomenal speakers you've never even heard of before, and going through a single day's schedule took me well over half an hour. However, that said, there’s so much going on around South by that the speaking sessions sometimes feel like the least appealing option of everything that's on. Showcases, side events, and parties are on at full speed in and around the convention center, which explains why a lot of people fly in from Silicon Valley and New York without getting a badge - they just want to meet new people, and the speaking sessions aren't always the best place for that. In other words... Make a plan, but don't be scared to change it.

Be excited or go home (aka don’t be a dick)
I found, as I often do, that if you allow yourself to get excited, SXSW is quite possibly one of the most fun (and funniest) places on earth. Speaking sessions aside, there is a lot of interactive stuff going on, and you get to try out new technology before it hits the market - it’s a bit like a brand new and topical science museum for adults, with the experts and engineers behind the tech explaining how to make best use of it. It’s amazing how some know-it-alls just refuse to get excited by, well, anything. If that’s you, it’s likely South by would annoy you. However, if you’re like me, and you like trying out new things and speaking to people who are experts in their fields, regardless of whether that's VR/AR/AI/any other fitting acronym, you’ll have an amazing time - and you’ll learn loads.

Great convos start at the end of your comfort zone
I went to South by on my own, and the fact that 90 000 other people were also going felt almost suffocating. Feeling lonely in a crowd is quite literally my worst nightmare, which is why you’ll often find me hiding out in the loos at events. I'm not sure whether it's South by or whether it's the US - it might be a combination of both - but meeting and talking to new people turned out to be a lot easier than I would've thought. What's more, I didn't experience the speed mingling that I often do in Europe, where people decide within a minute whether you're worth speaking to or not. I had phenomenal conversations with people I may or may not see again, and I feel pretty inspired to adopt a similar mingling style back at home. In other words, if you're wondering who the weirdo who speaks to strangers in the coffee queue might be, it's pretty likely it's me.

So was it worth it? Absolutely. Though strictly speaking I didn’t meet the KPIs I set out before going, I’ve made enough connections during the week to be able to meet those KPIs soon enough. Beyond that, I've also met people that were quite far out in my network that I probably wouldn't have met as quickly had it not been for South by - these meetings in particular will prove important for a lot of the work we'll be doing this year. And I think that might just be the biggest takeaway - you don't go to SXSW for the speaking sessions, or the parties, or the side events. You go to South by to meet and talk to new people - and in the best of worlds, you'll begin conversations that will continue once you get back home.

The three stages of a relapse - as told by a recovering Londoner

I remain unsure about my relationship to London. It's a love/hate relationship of sorts, and it'd be folly to downplay the impact it's had on me. Leaving was surprisingly easy, but when I visited last week I quickly realised that returning wasn't particularly so. It might seem strange to compare London to an addiction, but somehow it feels pretty appropriate - particularly since relapsing is often said to be part of recovery. Here's an account of the three stages of relapse I experienced when visiting for work last week.

Excruciating anxiety
It was a sunny Monday morning when I landed at Heathrow, six months to the day since I'd left. I felt nothing at all. Not a single thing - almost as though I'd never left. But the night before I was near hyperventilating, scared that I'd feel as though I belonged in London without really have anything to do there (this wasn't helped by the fact that all my meetings were booked at the very last minute). I only had one meeting that day, and once it finished that feeling crept back. I got on the tube during rush hour, and once a notoriously resilient commuter, I now had to control my breathing to fight back an anxiety attack. I was overwhelmed by the crowd and the crowded space, and getting on the wrong tube really didn't help.

An adrenalin junkie's fix
Over the next two days I ticked off six meetings with PR agencies, top tier journos, VCs and influencers. It was bloody great. I love my job, I love talking about why I love it and incidentally, the two are often the same. All very meta, I know. Anyway, it was two stressful days and I was pumped from eating very little food (not purposefully, I might add) and having some fantastic conversations. I battled through crowds on the streets of London as I rushed from one meeting to the next, and again, it was as though I'd never left. I got my fix and actually felt high in a way only an adrenalin junkie and/or a workaholic does. I started questioning my decision to leave London, a place where I learned from and worked alongside world experts in my field. Thankfully I was staying with my mentor - one of said experts - who successfully brought me back down to earth.

Feelings of gratitude
On the third day, my snot was black. It's as gross as it sounds, and Londoners will know what I mean. I went running in the morning and quickly realised why Mayor Khan recently warned Londoners against exercising in the outdoors. It made me think of my new hometown, its beautiful parks and the fact that I cycle everywhere. I cycled everywhere in London too, but out of resilience and high stamina as opposed to it being thoroughly enjoyable, or the city being easy to navigate around. Being on a crowded tube that morning also made me remember how lonely I often felt in London, a city populated by 8.5 million people. Perhaps amazingly, I've made a number of close friends in Malmö in just a few months time. Those are the thoughts that were running through my head after I landed from my high the days before.

To quote Samantha Jones (lol) I love London, but I love myself more. London is wonderful for the young, the wealthy and the hustlers, but to have the best experience I think you have to be two out of three. At one point I was both young and a hustler, but London aged me prematurely. Consequently I'm not as young and naive as I once was, and although I did give adult life in London a real working chance, I'm happy I got out when I did. And I'm even happier that I get to return every now and again for work and some quick fixes of adrenalin.

Six months in: returning back home after eight years abroad

Last week marked six months since I left London to move to Malmö, a Swedish city the size of Hackney. It wasn’t the first time I left London - I’d previously left to move to Wales, Berlin, South Africa and Uganda, but this was the first time I left with all my stuff without an intention to return to London, my home and base for the past eight years. Moving to new countries hasn't always been easy, but moving back to the motherland is not even comparable. Here are my few cents on moving back to the motherland after spending all your adult life abroad.

Friendly Swedes

Culture clashes o'clock
My worst culture clashes before moving to Malmö didn’t take place in Uganda or South Africa but rather Aberystwyth, Wales, the place where a pint of beer was cheaper than doing laundry in student halls and where students made fun of other students for taking their studies seriously (I left two terms in). Moving to Malmö has opened a new set of cultural challenges, albeit mostly in the best of ways. As an example, I’ve been pretty taken aback by how open and generous people are in Malmö, and I’ve already made a number of fairly close friends in a way that took me years to achieve in London. That said, since I come with a London mindset I initially met this openness and generosity with slight suspicion, which obviously was a bit strange to people who are now my friends. As for me, I seriously didn’t get why people were so friendly. The things London do to you...

Me having successfully escaped another informal post-meeting mingle...

People won’t know you’re different, so they’ll think you’re strange
Since you look and sound like everyone else - that wasn't the case in Uganda or South Africa - it’s likely people you meet will assume that you come from the same-ish context as them. That would probably have been fine had the place you left been similar to the one you moved to, but London and Malmö are surprisingly different - perhaps particularly in the workplace. For instance, I’m usually the last person to join a meeting (bang on time when the thing starts) and the first one to leave (right when it finishes) because I. Have. Work. To. Do. People in London aren’t exactly known to linger at work meetings, and that’s how I was raised so that’s what I’ll do (not linger, that is). That’s not how things work in Malmö. You chat, you laugh, you get to know each other and right then and there is where you build your network. I still haven’t mastered the art of small talk and as someone who suffers from social anxiety, it’s a pretty significant challenge… But more on that in another post.

Prepare for a pretty major identity crisis
Beyond people thinking you're a bit odd, and beyond probably being a bit odd, you'll also feel pretty odd. I still talk of Britain and London as though I’m British myself, and I have a hard time feeling Swedish, whatever that means. I suppose I feel like an immensely privileged immigrant in Sweden, with the passport, the SSN, and the language all in place, but without the Swedish cultural capital. I just don't feel very Swedish in the way that I still identify as a Londoner, though of course a majority of Brits (as was seen in the EU referendum) would see me as an alien in Britain. That's the tricky bit about being a global citizen - suddenly it's as though you belong anywhere and nowhere.

Malmö <3

They have changed - and so have you
I left Sweden for London when I was 18, and at the time I was immensely disappointed with Sweden at large. Growing up, I’d met few adults I could turn to for advice, inspiration or just a helping hand. I moved from home aged 15, learned to trust no one and ultimately became a pretty angry person. That changed as and when I went to university and pursued a career in London, a place where I all of a sudden had several role models and people that were more than happy to help me out. But my resentment for Sweden was still very much in place, and that didn't really change on a fundamental level until I moved to Malmö six months ago. I have a wholly different experience of my motherland now than I did growing up - a surprise to no one perhaps, but working to let go of previous prejudice and entrenched anger has allowed me to become a softer and kinder version of myself, both in spite and because of my motherland.

In many ways, returning back home after that long is like a gift that keeps on giving, while at the same time being a pretty significant challenge - a paradox of sorts. In my experience, many people seem to think that it would be easier to move back to the motherland than somewhere across the globe, but that's a fallacy. That said, rediscovering your country of birth is wonderful, and I wish everyone had the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, it takes some eight years of being away...

Taking my £35k degree and doing something... else?

I attended four(!) different universities in getting my BA in Politics and Development Studies, and I loved (almost) every second of it. There are plenty of highlights, most which I outlined after sitting my last ever exam in this Instagram post. I think one of the main reasons why I had such a phenomenal time at uni is that I worked almost throughout, incidentally in startup PR. It meant I was seldom skint, I got to be in an office environment (which I thought was really exciting) and I also developed skills you don't necessarily do at uni.

Baby me at my first ever PR internship in 2013

A question that often comes up from colleagues, friends and family members alike is why I decided to go into PR after spending all that time (four years at uni, one year working in Uganda) and money (currently have £35k~ in student debt and on a 25 year payment plan that requires me to pay £120/month) wrapping my head around different development theories and discourses to go into... startup PR?

Initially I think it was more a case of startup PR choosing me than the other way around. And you know the notion "don't choose a job, choose a boss" ? I had an ally in my first ever PR manager, and she in me - it allowed me to learn loads and develop a skill set much more practical than the one I acquired at uni. Uni taught me how to think and my first manager taught me how to work. Doing a degree in PR and comms seems like a slight waste of time IMHO, as you'll learn so much on the job anyway. Doing a degree in politics, on the other hand, unwraps theories about how the world works in a way you can't get in the workplace. My degree has helped me see structures and understand power balances in a way I probably otherwise wouldn't, and that has been of great help when pursuing a career in PR.

At Web Summit in 2015 with my first manager (who then also became my second manager in a different job)

So why PR and why startups? Doing PR in the corporate world sounds pretty dull to me, but working with companies and people that are actually attempting to change the current world order is beyond fun, and pretty important too - particularly in how it's communicated, both internally as a vision but also (obviously) externally in changing public opinion and consumer behaviour. There's a lot of BS in the industry, as is the case with the international aid industry, but thankfully you'll learn to see through it pretty quickly.

I haven't signed off the third sector or the international aid industry for good. In fact, I think many of the tools enabling positive change in the global south will come from the global startup community - in many ways, they already do. Whether it's WorldRemit for remittances or Ari.Farm making the Somali goat market global, tech startups are already playing a huge role in lifting large numbers of people out of poverty. And truth to be told... Everybody needs a good PR.

My humanitarian self at a field trip to Karamoja, northern Uganda in 2014

Vecka 1.

"Dessutom har jag tänkt ganska mycket på att många av de egenskaper jag saknar med honom är också dom egenskaper som var en del av det som var oss. Som spontaniteten att gå ut och göra något roligt av en tråkig tisdagskväll, eller att låta alla måltider vara goda, eller obsessandet av hundar. Så var han inte när vi först lärde känna varandra."

Sandra Beijer, Vecka 6.