‘Wear whatever you want, a pink dress or a leopard skirt. There is no one way to do it. And never feel like you have to hide the fact that you’re a woman.’
Elin Kristensson is CEO of Northern Energy and Supply, a shipping business based in Gothenburg. We had the chance to sit down and talk to her about defying expectations and how she wants to make the workplace better suited to women.
Last spring Elin Kristensson was thinking about doing something different with her life. She was on maternity leave from Northern Energy and Supply, a family business, where she was head of sales. It was a job she loved, but after having three kids and struggling to balance family with career she felt her efforts could be of better use elsewhere. She wanted to work towards bettering women’s lives.
– The dream is that we would get rid of the terrible expectations we place on ourselves. The feeling that we should be at work when we’re at home and at home with our kids when we’re at work. Whichever you choose should be okay, but I think it’s possible to combine the two. The workplace just has to change, catch up with the times. The standard worker is no longer a man being supported by his family.
Growing up the daughter of a fisherman on the west coast of Gothenburg, Sweden, Elin had a good, stable childhood. She was surrounded by strong women and her mother took care of the family while her father was out at sea. She looked up to her father, the owner of a big fishing vessel, and early on she decided that she too could be a part of of that male-dominated world.
– I had to fight for it, which in hindsight is something I’m really glad about. The statement “girls can” goes deep for me. It’s something I’ve always been passionate about and wanted to prove. I’m so happy to be able to be part of the change.
Elin studied business engineering and mechanical engineering and worked in sales for a while. The dream was to move to New York, wear a suit and be the one who closed deals. Around this time she met her husband David, a man from the picturesque island Donsö in Gothenburg archipelago, which is where they also live today. Donsö has a population of about 1400 people and is known for its many shipping companies and overall spirit of innovation.
– David’s family has been in the shipping industry since 1904 and his dream was to start his own shipping company. During my studies I worked at his father’s marine refueling station and bunker fuel depot.
In 2008 David, along with his siblings and some friends, started a new shipping company called Northern Offshore Services. Things went well for the company. At the same time Elin was asked to work at sales in his old family company, the one that eventually became Northern Energy and Supply.
– I thought, sure, I can try it. And it turned out I loved it. It had grown on me. Soon I became head of sales and was able to have more of a say in things.
Northern Energy and Supply provides lubricant and fuel to the marine industry, takes care of disposal from vessels along the Swedish and Danish coastline and offers fender handling for ship-to-ship operations as well as other services and special offshore operations. It works with sustainability in different ways, from providing environmentally accepted lubricants to effectively planning and combining its service runs out to the ships.
– Today there is a demand for more sustainable alternatives, and we can meet those demands because we have always worked towards becoming more focused on the environment.
When Elin was home on maternity leave last spring, she started her own company because she wanted to contribute to making the workplace better suited to women. A few months later she got a call where she was asked to step in as CEO of Northern Energy and Supply. At first she thought that this would mean moving away from her ambition of working for women but then she realized she now had the perfect opportunity to influence the shipping industry from within.
– Having the CEO title in this male-dominated industry really gave me more respect than I thought it would. Being a woman in the industry has its pros and cons. I do get the occasional email where someone thought I was flirting at a trade fair, since I certainly couldn’t be interested in shipping. But I also feel as if I get the extra twenty seconds because people are curious as to what I have to say. And people remember you, you stand out! If you’re just honest when you don’t know and you’re not afraid to ask questions, you’ll be fine.
Elin is a member of WISTA (Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association), an organization which in Sweden has around a hundred members and more are on the way.
– I think if you’re a girl who likes technology and flexibility and wants the opportunity to be a part of change just by being there, the shipping industry would be a great choice. So much is happening right now.
Last spring Elin got her diving license, and this fall she fulfilled a dream and went diving with sharks. This led her to create the hashtag womensharks on her Instagram as a word play on the Swedish “finanshaj”. Under the hashtag she features inspiring women.
– I want my daughter to grow up feeling like it’s natural for her to take up space. Things are changing, but the question is: to what? I’ve noticed there is lot of pressure on young women today, even before they have a family, to succeed in different aspects of their lives. At the same time men younger than I seem to have less of a problem with me being a leader in this industry, so things are getting better. As women we have to support and help each other out in this industry.
The dream of wearing a suit at work has disappeared. Elin has realized she’d rather have more clothing choices.
– At a trade fair my sister-in-law made me wear a classy leopard skirt and we really stood out from all the black and blue. It was a great marketing trick! Wear whatever you want, a pink dress or a leopard skirt. There is no one way to do it. And never feel like you have to hide the fact that you’re a woman.
When Elin was on maternity leave last spring, she thought about what she would do next. Today she combines her ambition of working for women with the fact that being a female CEO in the shipping industry is change in and of itself.