Exclusive interview with Karin Markides

Karin Markides exclusive interview

Swedish Professor in Analytical Chemistry Karin Markides recently left her post of nine years as President and CEO for Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. She is now Senior Advisor to the new President and CEO, and also Chairman of the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development. Swedish Press sat down with the Professor to discuss leadership, education and civil courage.

Interviewed by Sofie Kinnefors.


Please tell us a little bit about your background.

I was born and raised southwest of Stockholm, where higher education was the norm only for the many families from Stockholm city that had summerhouses in the area. Changing environment has since then become a valuable part of my life. With a PhD in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Stockholm, I got tenure track from the entrepreneurial environment at Brigham Young University in Utah. I then built my own research group as professor and Dean at Uppsala University, while enjoying close collaboration with research groups in the open environment of Stanford University. The production reached over 250 scientific articles in highly ranked journals and supervision of over thirty PhDs. I became increasingly interested in what role universities and education would need to take in the future and was able to learn more about this as deputy director general of Vinnova, the Swedish agency for innovation. When scientists approached me from Chalmers University of Technology to become their next leader, I felt that I was prepared for the challenge. 

You recently left your post as President and CEO for Chalmers University of Technology, what have you enjoyed the most about your time there? What will you be focusing on now?

I am proud that Chalmers is in a very good condition and can play an important role in the different geographies that it operates. My most important contribution to Chalmers has probably been as a systemic leader; enhancing diversity and catalyzing and guiding development at the complexity level of the actual challenges. By this approach I have initiated a higher standard of excellence through cross-disciplinary and cross-stakeholder incentives, attracting top-scientists and students with agile talents. This approach also enabled fundraising from the engaging stakeholders to sustain the new developments. I get the most joy out of seeing people of all ages engage and perform on a level higher than they thought possible.

I am now Senior Advisor to the new President and CEO, as well as Chairman of the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development and Chairman of a Science Park with a novel concept. I thus have a strong background in leadership and value building, as well as forefront research and education at both private and public universities in Sweden and in the US. I also have broad experience in state-of-the-art practice for higher education, research and utilization with true impact in business and society. 

In which areas do you feel Sweden contributes most globally?

Sweden has become dependent on export and global trade. Sweden needs to stand strong in keeping this position. This is fantastic for a small country since it can set the standardsthat will prevail in the world. The ability to find fast solutions acrossstakeholder barriers and collaborate between researchers in universities, companies and the public sector is adding advantages to the Swedish way, especially when leaders come with these assets. With the growing awareness that future markets will be driven by gain on a systemic view of economically, socially and ecologically solutions, Sweden has an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat. In areas that have succeeded in taking this opportunity, Sweden also has a strong global position. IKEA is a good example of a company thatunderstands and uses this strength.

How do you think the image of Sweden is changing and developing internationally and particularly in North America?

I think that the old image that the Swedish consensus-culture is hindering concrete action and talented leadership is changing with an increased awareness that individual strength also has become an important part of the Swedish culture. This combined ability to act in a group and individually is going to be even more respected going forward, since the societal challenges we face today are far too complex to be approached with yesterday’s methods. They call for solutions demanding a new mind-set and new ways of collaboration over traditional boundaries and cultures. To cope with such an assignment, research and education institutions must optimize their own operations to fully exploit the expertise and potential in their research, education and innovation activities. We can see some of this increased respect for Swedish culture, for example, in the way the Chinese owned Volvo Cars is making the image of this car more Swedish than the Swedish or American owners ever did. It takes a system approach to develop the clean, sustainable and safe products with subtle beauty that are coming out of Sweden today.                                                                  

Why do you think Sweden has achieved the success it has despite being such a small country, population wise?                     

The ability to cross borders is an essential part of the Swedish school system and this mind-set builds an important foundation for understanding and listening to different opinions. Another important component has been international experience early on in different careers, especially researchers and business leaders. Sweden has also gained from being open to skills and influences from other parts of the world.

What aspects of Swedish culture and life are you personally most passionate about promoting?

Sweden’s young people are mature, outgoing and concerned about the values carried by their future employer. Their digital skills will also help them to the next level in any area. If these young people are provided with opportunities to meet across present barriers, and get inspired by new perspectives, they will take this chance. I would like to promote this talented generation, Swedish and international, and make them able to become the talented leaders of tomorrow.

Are there any other upcoming projects or events that you would like to mention?

When the House of Sweden in Washington DC celebrates its first decennium next year, my hope is that the event will bring visibility to Sweden. I also hope that young American students will choose to study abroad and learn systemic skills.