Global Citizens On The Move

Sailing Through The Changing Tides Of Purpose: How Sveinn Got Moving

written by Ash Shah

Before we develop an understanding of our race, our gender, our passions, our family histories and so on, the red thread that weaves itself through all our lives is the shared experience of being a human first. We’re all born as global citizens, but it takes us a while to learn the ropes. There’s a vast number of ways in which different individuals contribute to different causes and our goal is to help you discover a version of global citizenship that is unique to you! In this article we outline the global citizenship journey and practice of Sveinn, the co-founder of Breathe, a revolutionary start-up that is bringing social purpose to the world of private equity.

Unpacking Sveinn

When was the last time you came across an Icelandic business-ballerina whose practice was rooted in meditation and inspired by evolutionary pragmatism? It’s quite likely that this will be your first foray to such a being. Unpacking Sveinn Hróbjartsson takes a few doses of strong coffee, swathes of uninterrupted time to ruminate and a desire to dance back and forth between academic discourse and a Zen guide to the sailor’s spirituality.

I interviewed Sveinn while he was at a dock in Iceland, getting his family’s boat ready for a sailing trip with his brothers and father. The black volcanic hills glistened behind him as he told me about the cocktail of cultures that cement his understanding of home. From the grey lowlands of Holland to the Icelandic lava landscapes to the rainy Norwegian mountains - Sveinn had to recreate a sense of home and belonging every time his family packed up and moved.

Growing up in a variety of cold countries helped him internalise the notion that home is about quantum connections that defy time and space. He’s still in touch with his first crush from primary school who helped him hack his way through the gnarly academic terrain of a very strict Christian school. He still gets Christmas cards from an elderly Belgian biker gang leader who had his back on Route Napoléon through France on a spontaneous solo motorbike trip a few summers ago. This resolute love for maintaining connections is what underscores his idea of global citizenship. These connections help him remember that there is a common humanity that we all share. And the differences? They’re just what keeps the connections spicy and exciting. In the world of this fire-breathing entrepreneur, the differences are there to be celebrated!

Choice paralisys

You could say that Sveinn is a one man circus act. From managing holacracy implementations from his standing desk at Utrecht to jamming on his guitar with his amigos to the odd weekend away with his improv crew, Sveinn certainly endorses a robust playfulness when it comes to his corner of the universe. But long before Sveinn found his Chi and aligned his chakras, he struggled to hone in on a practice that helped him lasso all the moving pieces into a cohesive whole.

When you have a smorgasbord of interests and forms of self-expression that help you make sense of the world, often the challenge can be picking a path that suits you best. Like Sveinn, you might feel just as alive biking through the mountains of Iceland as you do while nerding out on evolution in your damp bedroom, and that makes the choice harder. When every cup of tea feels like your cup of tea, how do you ever grab a bag of loose-leaf from the shops without breaking a sweat?

The only way out, as we all know, is through! If Sveinn seems like a superhuman now, it is because he allowed himself to be laudably human and make several failed attempts at cohesion before he arrived at a method that somehow hit the nail on the head. From disappearing down the philosophical rabbit hole to devoting himself to ballet and musicals, Sveinn has immersed himself into several micro-universes to gauge what essential, enduring “Sveinness” remains consistent through each facelift.

Somewhere in the depths of musty volumes about evolution, he was able to gaze at his own scattered dots from a bird’s eye view and see that the driving purpose behind his endeavours was not to reach a singular end but to derive a sense of purpose in the means. To the layman - Sveinn is stoked for the destination but he is absolutely frothing for the journey. And the whole, as croney old philosophers like to remind us, is greater than the sum of its parts.

From the world of forms to the world of objects

While every interest of Sveinn’s adds a crucial component to the dynamic soup of his life, what gets his pulse pumping is the idea of generating a sense of purpose in every adventure. Rather than seeing money as the sole currency of how organisations are run, Sveinn believes that meaning is key. His start-up, Breathe, uses a purpose driven governance model for the companies in which they invest. The model begins with separating the voting rights from the economic rights of shareholders. The voting rights are then channelled into an integrative decision-making process undertaken by the key stakeholders of the company. In this way, the company finds value creating opportunities where others do not and thrives in the long run in harmony with its stakeholders. The work culture is based on the idea that people get to bring their whole selves to work. All aspects of their employees’ personal and professional development is anchored within the realisation of a larger sense of purpose.

His evenings of being holed away with evolution documentaries gave him the sense that organisations could be organised like an ecosystem wherein each person performed a certain role that was rooted in their own flourishing as well as the flourishing of the whole.

Sveinn’s evenings of being holed away with evolution documentaries gave him the sense that organisations could be organised like an ecosystem wherein each person performed a certain role that was rooted in their own flourishing as well the flourishing of the whole. His obsession with pragmatism helped him tune into the practical embodiment of his values and beliefs - even the most rigorous of philosophical attributes are at their best when executed in the world of objects, rather than the world of forms.

Words of advice

If you’ve got a whole lot of balls you like to juggle, but you keep dropping the most important ones, you’ve come to the right place to gain some earthly wisdom. Sveinn will be the first to draw metaphors from evolution and tell you that every species flourishes through trial and error. Give yourself away whole-heartedly to each attempt and the best ones will be naturally selected for as long as you are cognizant of outcomes.

More than anything, Sveinn believes that the road to hell is paved with the need for certainty. He wrote a thesis on the role of chance in business and operationalising the unknown. He realised that as humans, we need to prioritise our ability to connect the dots better because in everyday life, most change is brought about by coincidences. It’s only when we suspend the need to know how everything is going to turn out and play with the Lego pieces that furbish our neck of the galaxy that we allow new things to come into our lives. We have to let the dots glimmer far away from each other and slowly, we will find a way to draw our own constellations to illuminate a clearer picture.

He cautions us to not lose sight of the connections we make along the way. If global citizenship is about deifying the invisible adhesive bond between humans, then what better way to do so than to honour the friendships initiated by your six-year old, snot-nosed self?

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