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  • Inclusive environments for kids: lessons from a social entrepreneur

    The close environment has a big impact on how children interpret social structures, and how they interact with each other. It’s up to us adults to create an environment that reflect that we’re all equally important. Our Change Leader Johanna Abdo, founder of the Swedish educational brand Elsa och Sam has dedicated herself to creating more inclusive environments for kids. We talked with her about her entrepreneurial journey and the products and impact she’s creating.

    Check out a video interview with Johanna on our Youtube channel

    How did you decide to create Elsa och Sam?

    I was born and raised in Stockholm and I've always been the only black person in every room I've been in. So when I had my children - Elsa and Sam - it was important for me to find the books, toys, and movies that my kids could relate to and identify with. And it always took a lot of time and effort to find them. It was at the end of 2018 when I was looking for Christmas gifts, and I wanted to find a T-shirt with a black superhero. And that was impossible, even though I'm very good at online shopping! So that was a tipping point for me.

    About two months after I had this idea, I registered a limited company and decided to create two superhero T-shirts. I started looking for a good illustrator and googled information on how to print your own T-shirt. And then about six months later, I launched my store.

    What was it like in the beginning?

    I did not have any grand visions of building a company. I didn't see myself as a business owner -  that was not something that I had planned for! So, in the beginning I was doing it like a hobby project, on the side with my regular work as a business controller. It took me about a year to realize: “Okay, I'm running a business!” And it was a bit of chaos, to be honest! I was just running on every lead, testing different directions.

    But after the first year, I couldn’t balance work, a business, and kids anymore. I got to a point where I knew I'm really onto something.

    It was like Catch 22 - because I needed to put more time into the business to give it an actual sense, but I also needed to save money through my job to do it.

    Johanna Abdo, Founder of Elsa och Sam

    When I got to a point where I had to decide to drop the idea or to go fully with it, I realized that I wasn't really ready to drop it. So I took the leap and quit my job in order to develop Elsa och Sam. It was a very exciting time, and really scary, because it's very unlike me to take that kind of risk!


    How has Elsa och Sam developed since then? What’s your focus now?

    Now that I’m going into my second year, I have a more clear vision of what kind of impact I want to reach and who I need to be working with to do it. I’ve created more products of my own, and I’m also selling books and toys from other brands that I think are good.

    I decided to shift my business and impact model from working solely with parents, to working more with institutions. If my mission is to create more inclusive environments, then schools and preschool have a really important role. There are also so many businesses that have children visiting them - in playrooms or waiting rooms - which are usually a forgotten area. And our third customer segment is retailers that could sell our products. I’m happy that just recently we launched a partnership with Nordic Choice - they’re using our products in their playrooms, but also sell them in their hotel shops.

    Can you give us an example of the products you're creating?

    With all our products, we have different ethnicities included, functional diversity, and we also like to challenge gender norms. Our products are suitable for various ages - from newborns, to kids that are 11-12 years old.

    What we do is, we like to take classical things and put a twist on them. For example, we have a memo game for different professions. And usually, those types of cards have mostly male-dominated professions. So, we try to change that as well. We also include both high and low status professions. And in our playing cards we have switched the jokers to math signs, which allow families to create new fun math games together. We’ve also substituted the jack, king and queen with numbers - 11, 12, 13, giving the queen the highest value.


    What’s the impact of your products on children?

    When we started, we immediately got a lot of supportive feedback. I’ve had many parents reach out to me saying: “It's so difficult to find books where my children are represented”.

    I’ve heard many stories about kids coming home from school, crying, because they needed to do a self-portrait, but there wasn’t a pen to match their skin color.

    Johanna Abdo, Founder of Elsa och Sam


    I've held a few superhero workshops for kids. After them several parents have come to me saying that their children have felt empowered. They’ve never seen a brown superhero before, so just planting the idea that superheroes can look in different ways is powerful.

    I’ve also heard back from parents that said they haven't thought about this perspective before. And I think that’s very important, because when we talk about diversity, it’s usually only for minorities. And that is of course crucial - to feel included. But it’s fundamental for all kids to see that we’re different. Because it doesn’t matter if only the minorities understand their importance, if no one else does.

    What would you advise parents who want to create more inclusive environments?

    I always recommend to parents to look at their environment at home. Look at their bookshelf - how do the main characters look? What kind of toys do you have at home, what kind of movies do you watch? How do you talk about other people?

    Kids are smart, they pick up on all details. Everything we tell them, becomes their reality. The areas they go to, books and movies - that's their whole world. It's important that the environment reflects what we want to teach them.

    Johanna Abdo, Founder of Elsa och Sam

    And when it comes to schools and different businesses that have children's centers? What would you advise them?

    I'm surprised that when it comes to creating inclusive environments in schools and preschools, a lot depends on the headmaster or a teacher. According to Swedish law, they need to do it. But it takes so much time and effort for each individual school to find the right products. This process and the regulation needs to be more centrally structured and more specific.

    When it comes to companies - again, it really depends on who you're talking to. We are all so used to the norm, so we don't even think about how the environment looks. So, a big part of my work is to raise awareness. If more companies would go to their playrooms and look at the books they have, their dolls, many would be surprised by how they look. And I think also many of them would realize that that's not in line with the values they’re practicing and communicating otherwise.  

    If you come back to your entrepreneurial journey, what was your lowest point, and what kept you going further?

    If you've never run a business before, there are so many things that you need to learn and do. And so, I would say my lowest points are when I'm super overwhelmed. But I think that is also my strength - the fact that this is not just a business for me, it’s a mission close to my heart. It can be very rough to talk about these topics sometimes. It's like reliving my trauma. So often I wonder: “Why am I doing this to myself?”. It’s super hard, but, at the same time I can’t stop, because I also love what I’m doing.


    What would you advise someone who's just starting their social enterprise?

    Just try. For me that was a really important lesson. I'm a perfectionist, but soon I realized that if I'm going to do this, it won't be perfect because I have no time. I vividly remember the first time I took a picture for my Instagram. I hardly had social media before, and I took this picture, and it was bad. But I literally had 3 minutes to do it, until my kids came home. I had to either put this up, or nothing. And I was like “OK, then I’ll put this up.” So, for me it was like therapy - working on good enough. I think that this is an important life lesson too.

    If you want to create a product, try to do it in a small scale. Everything doesn't have to be in place. Everything doesn't have to be perfect. And ask for help from the people around you.

    Johanna Abdo, Founder of Elsa och Sam