When Margrét Jónsdóttir Njarðvík lost her job as a professor in 2011 due to cutbacks and a change in university leadership, she found her life and career at a crossroads. After spending years pursuing her passion for Spanish language and literature at the University of Iceland, UNAM in Mexico City, and Princeton, she struggled to find ideal employment that would utilize her education, passion, and diverse skill set. Iceland is a small country where academic jobs are scarce, so she decided to make a bold transition to the business world instead, creating Mundo—an innovative travel and consulting agency centered in Reykjavík.
Drawing upon her rich experiences as a scholar, researcher, and intrapreneur (someone who works as an entrepreneur within an institution), Margrét successfully carved a niche for herself in the Icelandic marketplace and established a now thriving travel business that offers student exchange and volunteer programs around the world. In her view, her unanticipated departure from academia, though frightening at first, became the best decision she ever made. An inspiration to students and aspiring entrepreneurs alike, Margrét has a wealth of wisdom for those who want to take an unconventional career path and turn their academic interests into a profitable company.
Took Her Own Advice
Margrét’s journey from scholar to CEO (Chief Executive Officer) began when she decided to take the advice that she had been giving other women for many years. “The idea to start Mundo (which means “world” in Spanish) came to me in 2011 when I lost my job. I remember that I had for more than a decade trained and advised women to start their own company. Now it was my turn,” she says.
A lifelong learner, Margrét had already laid the groundwork for her eventual transition to the business world. From 2004-2006, she completed an MBA program at Reykjavík University (RU), where she had previously worked to start an Office of International Affairs and a master’s program in international business. While honing her business skills at RU, Margrét discovered that she had always been an entrepreneur, but her education and environment had never empowered her to take the necessary risks to become one. “Gradually my identity as an entrepreneur became clearer, and I started listening more to who I really am,” she describes. “The Icelandic school system does not necessarily help you to foment your entrepreneurial skills.”
A Growing Business
Mundo combines Margrét’s passions for teaching and travel. The company organizes exchange trips for students who want to expand their horizons by studying or volunteering abroad. “Mundo will offer exchanges to Spain, France, Germany, and the USA in the next year,” she explains with enthusiasm. “We also offer summer camps in Spain and Germany and hopefully in France soon. Mundo’s slogan is education, diversion, training, and culture. When it is possible to travel to new destinations, Mundo does not hesitate.”
Margrét’s passion for orchestrating exchange programs stems from her own life-altering experiences as an exchange student. “I went to Spain as an exchange student 30 years ago,” she explains. “I fell in love with the language and the culture, and I am still in weekly contact with my Spanish mother. I was especially lucky to have had this opportunity.” Throughout the years, Margrét has established such a strong relationship between Iceland and Spain that she currently serves as the Vice Consul for Spain in Iceland.
Margrét’s world travels have taught her just how important it is for Icelandic students to live abroad at some point. “It is of utmost importance for Icelandic students to live and study abroad,” she says. “We need to learn languages and especially adopt to the way people in other countries think. That includes becoming conscious of how insular we are and the fact that we need to adapt to the world. The job market is changing and our children will work wherever they want. For that they need international skills. Research shows also that those who live abroad benefit from that in various ways.”
Women at Work
Despite achieving tremendous success as a businesswoman in Iceland, Margrét still sees a lot of progress that needs to be made in order to improve gender equality and increase female entrepreneurship within the Icelandic workplace. “Over 70% of Icelandic women work for municipalities and the government,” she explains. “If we have our businesses, they are small and risk averse. We are careful and do not represent money.”
International media outlets often praise Iceland as a role model for gender equality and women’s rights. However, Margrét holds a completely different perspective than most on this issue as one of Iceland’s few female business executives. “Icelandic women are definitely not role models in that sense as we are far behind American women and women in Southern Europe,” she explains. “Indeed, female entrepreneurship is high where insecurity is also high. Just look at statistics for Africa. Iceland has developed as a workplace for women, and we have more flexibility than in many other countries. But – we need to work hard to reach equality, as most responsibility for children, and sick and old people is still in the hands of women.”
A Scholar at Heart
Before completely leaving her life as an academic behind, Margrét wanted to pay her debt to the Spanish language in a unique and ambitious way—by creating the first Spanish-Icelandic dictionary. Funding for the project was initially sparse, but Margrét used her intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial skills to find grants and raise support for the endeavor. “This project was a crazy one, but I am very proud of it. It makes me leave happily my career as an academic,” she says. “I learned a lot about myself through the process. I found out that although I move fast, I can also slow down to edit a dictionary, which is all about details. I also learned that if you plan quality, money, and time, you can manage such a crazy project as compiling a dictionary!”
While business acumen and marketing skills are essential for creating any profitable business enterprise, Margrét attributes the bulk of her career success to her education. “Whatever education you have will never be taken away from you,” she says. “I would never have been able to found Mundo without my academic background. That is for sure. Life is like an accumulation of layers and whatever you do at one layer, you can use it in a different form at the next layer.”