Ten years ago while a first-year student at university, IKEA represented freedom, independence and a breadth of new opportunities to me. At that time in America, it had become a near requirement to purchase all of your university furnishings at the gleaming super-store. Each piece of lightweight, streamlined furniture purchased represented one step closer to a new, exciting life!
Today the iconic brand symbolizes much more than just possibilities and potential for a fuller life. It symbolizes a core set of values— egalitarianism, sustainability and protection of the world’s resources, gender equality, social justice, philanthropy, diversity and inclusion, fiscal conservatism, a sense of community— which inform everything from its products’ “democratic design” to its style of informal, consensus-building leadership within the corporation’s management structure.
The short one-hour flight from Stockholm to Växjö, in the province of Småland, transported us to a serene, stony landscape dotted with leafless birch trees and known for its moose, and perhaps most of all, for IKEA and its founder Ingvar Kamprad who grew up there on a farm.
The land was notoriously hard to farm, thus instilling its people with a flinty hard work ethic and an aversion to waste. Kamprad brought the lessons he learned coming-of-age in a challenging setting to his vision for IKEA. A laser focus on efficiency is one of the reasons IKEA is able to provide its products at such low prices, explained CEO Mikael Ohlsson. Ensuring efficiency and strong partnerships with shared values along the entire supply chain is critical to IKEA’s success. The company has a “People & Planet Positive” goal for 2020 to make its stores, products and suppliers as sustainable as possible.
The focus on sustainable forestry is deeply impressive at a time when large timber tracts around the world are under intense pressure. Great emphasis is placed on developing content alternatives other than just straight wood.
During our visit, we were able to see the production centers, scientific testing laboratories, design, the first-ever IKEA store and speak to designers in Älmhult. We even experienced a taste of home when we encountered an American supplier from Toledo, Ohio who was at IKEA headquarters with his wife for training and meet-and-greets, something IKEA does regularly to enhance partnerships and strengthened values transmission. When I asked Steve what he liked best about IKEA, he pointed to the strong focus on relationships.
One of the most personally exciting elements for me was their commitment to gender equality in the workplace. Many of the higher-level managers in the company started on the shop floor, and investing in employees’ productivity and development is paramount.
Today, IKEA has 42% female managers and has a short-term goal of 50%. One way they are attacking this challenge is through an initiative called “Battle of the Numbers” co-founded by Swedish media maven Eva Swartz Grimaldi and Sofia Falk, that has received a one-year commitment from many of Sweden’s top companies (Ericsson, SEB Bank, H & M) to engage its top females in several seminars to discuss problems in gender equality within their corporation and find solutions. The solutions will later be presented to the CEO’s of all the companies to hopefully institute. IKEA’s assistant to the CEO, Fredrika Inger, an amazingly bright woman who helped guide and inform us through the visit, is directly involved in the initiative.
We ended this enlightening day in a very fitting place for Mark and me— the children’s section. Children, their development and their freedom to be and grow in every part of the home is a central value and driver for IKEA. The designers work with renowned children’s research centers to develop products that are first and foremost completely safe, even edible (as their markers are) but also lend to a child’s openness and creativity. Healthy eating and lifestyle are a key part of this message, and to underscore that we scanned reading books discussing gardening and squeezed plush toys shaped like carrots! Giving kids a healthy start is a passion and priority for our First Lady Michelle Obama and her path-breaking “Let’s Move” initiative, and many of IKEA’s values lined up perfectly with those of our President and many Americans.
Thank you Mikael Ohlsson and the IKEA family for an incredible visit! One that opened our eyes not only to IKEA, but allowed us to better understand the Swedish culture and what is important to Swedes. Our visit places our shared values in an even stronger light!