Interview with GSBTB founder Annamaria Olsson for female entrepreneurship and leadership site Ich Selbständig

GSBTB founder Annamaria Olsson was interviewed about being a woman entrepreneur, GSBTB’s growth and plans for the future. This interview first appeared on Ich Selbständig.

Today is a five year anniversary of the Facebook-post that marks the beginning of GSBTB. If you look 5 years back, do you remember what drove you to write this post and did you expect the reaction it had on the people around you?

The project started with a spontaneous Facebook post in 2012. 2008 I had moved from Sweden to Berlin 2008 to study and work as a journalist covering politics and the city development of Berlin. New in Berlin and Gemany I started thinking a lot about integration and how diverse cities and communities did, could and maybe should work. My own and friends migrant experiences, the growing European xenophobia, as well as what felt like few positive and modern and solution-based ways of dealing with different types of migration, drove me to write a Facebook-post addressing some of the issues with the appeal for newcomers to “get involved”.

Our original idea back in 2012 was to create an easy and modern tool to mobilize social engagement, for new Berliners to get involved locally to make neighborhoods and newcomers profit from each other. We wanted to build bridges, foster intercultural dialogue and create meeting points between old and new.

The Facebook post went viral became a snowball of things we couldn’t have imagined and the journey from that post to a full blown project platform was rapid (although it has included tons of hard work and challenges).

I could never imagined that that Facebook post would become so big. I’m writing this text from a Baku in Azerbaijan where I’ve been speaking on a UN conference about our work. Starting with a FB-post 5 year ago that feels rather surreal. I still remember our first kick off-planning meeting 2012 after the post went viral and everyone had been ”soooo excited and vamos let’s do this!!!” . The meeting ended up being a lame gathering with five rather shy and mismatched people (most of them my friends) at the Roma Theather Café… Still – one year later the ready to go GSBTB launched and fast sky rocked so never judge shaky, shy beginnings 🙂

Annamaria, the growth of GSBTB in the past 5 years is immense, your project won numerous prizes (e.g. Intercultural Innovation Award from UNAOC and BMW 2016). Were you prepared for such success and how did you adapt to your new responsibilities?

Not really. I think you never are “prepared” but life is also always full of surprises but if you work hard and is up for maneuver through constant changes it will all turn out in the end. I think you have to be flexible and take the good with the bad. Building things from scratch is always a lot of trial and error but you should also not don’t be foolish enough to try to reinvent the wheel – take time to learn from others.

I am a strong advocate for trusting your “Bauchgefühl” and have patience. Patience is the key to everything I think. If you’re a real innovator you (hopefully) know your theme/what you’re talking about and have a feeling in which directions things are (and should) be going. But not everybody has. It can take a lot of time and patience to establish your idea and convince people about your cause if you’re dealing with complex issues. As a real Changer, you are often a bit “before” the mainstream with your ideas, analysis and solutions for things. It’s really crucial to hang in there, wait and create your moment. If you’re idea is good, it will for sure come! In general think we have to learn patience more in our society. Change and good things take time… Always.

On a personal level it also took a rather long time for me to “accept” that GSBTB sort of became my life. I had my dips and forgot my own boundaries a couple of times but unfortunately I think that’s normal if you are passionate about your cause. But we take our work very serious in our team but we always remember to have fun. We are dealing with serious issues, but that doesn’t have to mean that either we or our target group want to be or are “serious” 24/7. What you are selling in the end is “positive” ideas for a “negative” social problem – but then the “fun” part needs to be there! Be upset about the problem and serious about solving it, but have fun while creating the solutions (and enjoying life in general)!

Annamaria, the story of your exciting career path can be found on your website, but can you tell us if there was a moment in the beginning of your entrepreneur’s journey, when you faced doubts and hesitation? If yes, what helped you to stay motivated and continue your way towards your dream?

Many times I hesitated if it was worth it on a more personal level, never on the bigger societal and political one. I always knew we were doing the right thing but at times of course the prize on a more personal level could feel too high. That was mostly when I was very tired and exhausted. But I always took time to “check out” from it all and every year (except one) since the beginning of GSBTB I’ve been spending at least one month in Brazil or India during the cold months to write and load my batteries. That might mean a bit extra fiddling and planning for the daily project work short term but you need to think long term. Invest and think about your health and motivation long term. For me getting out of the cold Berlin winter and the day to day project work is crucial to get perspective and check in with goals and vision. Getting input, space and time to breath is crucial staying motivated for me. We are many like that in our team and creating space for people’s different working flows, personalities and creativity is a key for our success as a project. We try to implement and build this type of culture also among our volunteers, to practice self care and reflect on your own path and development.

You are the heart behind an amazing NGO with local presence but global thinking, what is your professional most ambitious dream for the next five years?
Do you plan national or maybe international expansion?

I’m trying to stay open and flexible to changes and opportunities and our project and work is evolving with every single person who come into our network and team so I try to not have too much of a grand masterplan to be honest – just bring together great people! That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a very strong idea what we are and how to do things but we have a political situation that in many ways are rather unstable and we need to be able to adapt to the changes there. One goal is to make GBSTB even more sustainable and yeah there is a lot of interest from other cities and countries to both learn and implement our model elsewhere. On a personal level I’m hoping I will finally finish and publish my second book in 2018 and I’m working on a diary projects since 2015.

GSBTB offers platform and is a network facilitator for volunteer work in Berlin. It unites hundreds of volunteers from over 60 countries and today a big part of GSBTB initiatives focuses on integration and support of Refugees. Annamaria, how can people get involved in this initiative and support you on this noble mission?

There are tons of things to dive into on our website! Or follow us on Facebook to find out when we’re having our next Team-Up event to meet, connect and learn more about all our awesome projects! And, as always, we are looking for cool partners and sponsors who get what we do and want to be a part of making the project and work grow.

Our next question is about work-life balance: Being a head of a huge organisation, holding all the responsibilities for the team, projects, image of your NGO etc. how do you manage to separate your work from your private life or is GSBTB always on your mind and in your heart?

To some extent yes but I think that goes for everyone passionate about one’s work. But I try to eat, sleep, swim and all that boring but important stuff to keep me stable. I also go to counselling to work through personal background to understand why I might react on certain things, people, stresses and situations. I also read a lot of books and novels about things completely non-related to do the topics and themes that we are working with to get perspective and not think about work is also important.

Annamaria, what is your advice to women, who want to make a difference but hesitate as they do not trust the strength of their own voice?

You can (and should) do things even though you don’t trust your voice completely! You only learn to trust your voice with doing things so practicing is the key! All smart and successful people doubt themselves. And find yourself a group of supportive, like-minded (or not likeminded to give input) people. Laugh, dance and have fun to gather strength and boost your female/human powers! Or find yourself a good therapist 🙂

Thanks to Ich Selbständig for the lovely interview.