Getting Settled: An interview with Yvonne Ericsson

Yvonne Ericsson is a Swede who’s been calling Silicon Valley home for the past seven years. Yvonne and her husband Jörgen, decided to relocate to Silicon Valley with their two children when Jörgen was offered an expat contract with his then employer Cisco. I have known Yvonne casually for a few years and was curious about what her relocation experience has been like. What’s been hard and easy? What’s it been like to make friends, get a job and help the kids get settled?

I meet Yvonne at the very end of spring at her new place of employment, a company called Nonobject, located in downtown Palo Alto. She wasn’t really supposed to work here, but rather had inquired about an internship in order to learn more about her new passion – graphic design. She came out of the initial meeting with a month-long internship AND a paid position as a marketer and event planner. It’s probably prudent to add here that Yvonne has been running her own business for the past few years, planning events and company visits for organizations and companies that want to get a taste of what Silicon Valley is all about. Some notables that she has hosted include Beiersdorf Inc., as well as delegations from both the Swedish and Norwegian Royal Houses.  

As she tells me the story of how the position at Nonobject happened, I can’t help but think that it says a lot about how she goes about life in general, and how she tackles challenges in particular. Her attitude is one of action, with the thinking that the worst that can happen is a “No”, or a “ Well, that didn’t work.” For an expat getting settled in a new country, this is an invaluable mindset. I think most global citizens will agree that being in a completely new environment requires constantly challenging and daring oneself – whether it’s gathering up the courage to start speaking the language, looking for a job, getting to know locals or driving.

Yvonne grew up in Gothenburg (Sweden’s second largest city) and felt happy and content there. Leaving her hometown was never really on her mind, she was comfortable where she was. She had a large network of friends, a good marketing job at McKinsey & Company, and a close-knit family nearby.

While Yvonne never considered living and working abroad, Jörgen had always had his sights set on eventually ending up out of the country. Before relocating abroad however, they moved in-country and left Gothenburg for Stockholm, which in itself was a big step for Yvonne.

Around the time of this move was when their first child was born. According to Yvonne, having a young child made making social connections and becoming a part of the local community easy. She says, “Children open doors in terms of social life, they provide a natural network.” Their second child was born a couple of years later and by then Yvonne felt at home in Stockholm.

In 2007, Yvonne decided to start her own business. “It was a good time for me,” she says and continues, “I felt secure with what I had to offer, I was confident in my abilities and I had a good professional network. And with two young children, this arrangement offered flexibility in terms of working hours.”

The kids were seven and ten when the family decided to move to Silicon Valley. “At that point I felt pretty much done with running my own company. I had accomplished what I had set out to do and it was a good time for me to step back. In the end the decision wasn’t that hard, I felt good about it,” Yvonne says.

That’s not to say she didn’t have concerns about moving to the US, or what it would be like to be far away from friends and family. Yvonne says, “I think Jörgen felt much more secure. He had gone to school in the US, and had already traveled back and forth for work for a while. He knew the country and the culture a bit already.”

According to Yvonne, the fact that they viewed the relocation as a family project was a great advantage. She says, “We became a true team as parents. This was not just a ‘job-thing’ for Jörgen – this was a move for the whole family. Jörgen took a lot of time in the beginning to make sure we got settled, to help with the practical day-to-day, such as setting up bank accounts and doing homework with the kids.” Yvonne herself decided to not work during the first few months so that she could focus on helping the children settle.

When I ask her about how they told the kids about the move and what the kids’ reactions were, she says it wasn’t all that dramatic. The family went to Silicon Valley for a visit during ski-week to look at houses and schools. At that time they told the kids that if they all liked it they would consider moving here. She adds, “Our philosophy in general is that the family’s main focus is not based on what the kids want (no kid wants to leave their friends and family if asked), because ultimately, we the parents have to make the decisions that are the best for the family as a whole.”

Looking back, she says the kids were at pretty good ages when they left – seven and ten. They decided that they would start school with their age groups, rather than try to match their grades from home, even though that meant each of them skipping a grade. And school was tough in the beginning, especially math was a struggle. Yvonne says, “They were a couple of years behind in math. Learning the language, however, was relatively easy. Although, I know my youngest was pretty quiet for a while, until she felt she had full command. The eldest dove right in.”

Yvonne thinks it was beneficial to the kids that they moved right after the Swedish schools let out for the summer. She says, “We had the whole summer to explore and get used to our new surroundings. The kids got to hear the language. We made sure we had a fun summer, and I think that was a good way to start – for all of us really.”

When it comes to settling and getting acclimated during those first months, Yvonne mentions two things that were particularly helpful: the expat package they received from Cisco and a connection Yvonne made with a Swedish woman, Sara, who had arrived in Silicon Valley a couple of years prior. The Cisco package included some of the usual benefits such as health insurance, help with paperwork, and assistance with finding a house. But what really made an impact was access to tutoring. Yvonne says, “As a family we got a certain number of hours of tutoring paid for, and that was a tremendous help. The kids and I signed up and it was a difference maker, it helped us get over the hump.”

“Socially, I got a fantastic start,” Yvonne says, and continues, “I met Sara pretty much right away. She was in the driveway to our house, banana bread in hand, welcoming us to the community. She shared generously of both her knowledge of how things work here, as well as her network of friends. She became my secure spot. It didn’t hurt that she had twins the same age as my son, so we had that to bond over as well.”

We talk about how Yvonne has aimed to copy Sara’s model of generosity and she is now often in touch with Swedes who are preparing to come to Silicon Valley, or who have just arrived. “I want to pay it forward because it was such a great help to me. I want to be able to make a difference to people arriving here,” she says. She goes on to tell me that they are about to host a dinner for a newly arrived couple.

Even though they got a great start, it still took several years to feel like full participants in their new community. She says, “You are constantly a step behind, especially the first year, mostly because you are not aware of how and when to sign up for activities, or which paperwork you need to complete first in order to get the necessities taken care of. You are not yet in the system, which means everything takes extra time. The second year is when you can enjoy life a little more freely, and by year three we started to feel like this was home. I definitely recommend staying at least two years to get a fuller experience.”  

Seven years in, the family is fairly settled, they have bought a house, the kids are completely immersed in school, they have good friends and are involved in plenty of activities. Both Yvonne and Jörgen are working and have full social lives. Yet, Yvonne says the close friendships they have built here are all with Europeans, and mostly with Swedes. She says, “Americans are very nice and easy to talk to, but harder to get to know on a deeper level. We should have more American friends, but it hasn’t turned out that way.”

Yvonne continues, “One simple reason is that there is a big, very active Swedish community here, so it’s easy to make connections while at the same time avoiding some of the known barriers, such as language and cultural differences. Also, as Swedish expats we often face the same kinds of issues or concerns, which means we have some immediate ‘bonding material’.” She wonders if there isn’t also an aspect that has to do with the locals’ point of view, that maybe it doesn’t make sense to invest that kind of time and effort in someone who is only here temporarily.

Yvonne continues, “Having said that, there is an amazing sense of community among Americans and if there is ever an emergency or a need for help, you can count on getting it. When my daughter ruptured her appendix, there was a tremendous outpouring of support from parents at school. There were food lists for bringing us dinner, and another sign-up for driving my son to practice. I have never experienced anything like it.”

Yvonne clarifies that it’s not that they don’t have local friends but that the deeper friendships are with fellow expats. She thinks it’s actually very important to try to mix it up, or you won’t be able to become part of the local culture. And that would be a mistake, because there is so much to learn from each other. She gives the example of how people are really good at seizing the day here: going to the beach, or for a hike if the weather is nice, or having spur-of-the moment casual dinners with friends. She appreciates that mindset and feels it has enriched her life.

While on the subject of social and cultural immersion, we drift on to the topic of the attitude surrounding drugs here in California, which has been one of the tougher things to come to terms with for both of us. As Swedish mothers of teenagers, we both struggle with the very relaxed views towards drugs like marijuana. We have grown up in a society where this was seen as a gateway drug to harder drugs, not a party drug to be used recreationally. Figuring out how to navigate that cultural divide has been difficult.

I ask Yvonne what her thoughts are on the subject of staying or going back home. It’s a question I have personally struggled with for as long as I have been here (and I am on my 23rd year). She says that their mentality is to take one year at a time; adding that for now they are here and they are determined to make the most of it. For the kids’ sake, they have decided to not make it an ongoing conversation, but rather a decision they will make if and when they feel the need. She sees no point in having the kids wondering and being insecure about where they are going to live, so what the kids know is that this is where they are and this is where they are making plans. She summarizes, “For as long as we are here, it’s 100% here.”

Yvonne says that what she misses from back home is the simple stuff like being able to have dinner with her dad, or going to certain stores. Keeping in touch with people is easy these days, so that’s not a big problem. Obviously, when someone gets sick or there is an emergency, that’s hard and that is something all expats struggle with. It’s part of the equation of living far away from home, and it’s the type of issue that you have to deal with as it arises.

As for right now, Yvonne mostly sees the positives of living here. She says, “There are many life stories and a melting pot of cultures here in Silicon Valley, and it’s a huge advantage to be part of that, not just for me but maybe even more so for my kids. They have become global citizens and that is something they will always carry with them.”

By: Felicia Shermis

Moving day -- the end of planning, preparing and packing, or so you thought...
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