Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Keynote speakers at Oslo Innovation Week,  photo by Susan Lahey.

Keynote speakers at Oslo Innovation Week, photo by Susan Lahey.

OSLO, NORWAY – Just as the event got underway, master of ceremonies Torgny Amdam—among whose credits are as a singer in a hardcore band—announced: “Let’s all stand for the Crown Prince Haakon!” The crowd of about 200 people stood, the prince came forward, and the rap song “I’m On A Boat” started blasting over the speakers. Amdam high fived the Prince just as rapper T-Pain was chanting “Take a good hard look at the motherfuckin’ boat (boat, yeah).” The man in the seat beside me turned with a grin and said “Welcome to Norway!” That was the start of Oslo Innovation Week.

As it turns out, the boat song referred to a controversy about money spent on a boat involving the prince and was a goodhearted joke. It set the mood for the rest of the program filled with the promise of Norway’s future as an international center for innovation. One step toward innovation was that, in a field almost completely dominated by men, organizers created a lineup of keynotes done almost exclusively by women. Norway ranks third by the World Economic Forum for gender equality, behind Iceland and Finland.
Among them were the Norwegian ministers for commerce and development (who announced a new government initiative to support entrepreneurship—but they did so in Norwegian), a venture capitalist from New York, some female startup founders from Norway and Israel, and women who had started various programs to empower women in technology.

Israeli entrepreneur Orit Hashai, founder of Brayola and a judge for the 100 Pitches competition that Austin company TripChamp will compete in later this week, spoke about how difficult it was to get investment from male investors. Her company lets women interact online about what bras they love so that women with the same shape, taste and budget can recommend what works to each other. Men, she said, rarely understand the need for this until she gives them this pitch: “Imagine you had to buy a condom in a world where there are a million sizes, shapes, brands and you have to try many of them on, because it’s not just about the size listed. And then comes this guy (showing a picture of a bald man with a measuring tape). He wants to help you measure…. How fast would you replace that with an online store?”

Babou Olengha-Aaby spoke of her crowdfunding platform to support “The Next Billion,” referring to the billion-dollar market of women who are currently underserved. Unlike other crowdfunding efforts, however, hers lets people contribute what they can, whether that’s money, social media support or something else. The point is that contribution doesn’t just come in the form of financial investment and every contribution toward the economic success of women exponentially improves the society where it occurs.

Oslo, 12.10.2015. Crown prince Hakon enters OIW 2015 Photo by Gorm K. Gaare COPYRIGHT:GORM K.GAARE/EUP-BERLIN

Oslo, 12.10.2015. Crown prince Hakon enters OIW 2015 Photo by Gorm K. Gaare

Anita Shjoll Brede, graduate of NASA’s Singularity University in Silicon Valley spoke of her entrepreneurial journey which included dropping out of medical school, starting her first business at the age of 20 doing “theater stuff,” building a racecar and more. Now she’s starting an organization called Iris AI, a technology to read the world’s research, looking for cross-disciplinary solutions to the world’s problems. “Let’s not build any more photo sharing apps until we make sure everyone has enough clean water, make sure the environment doesn’t go to hell….” she said.

In a country that’s made huge, deliberate strides toward equality over the past 20 years, having nearly all the keynote speakers be women was another conscious decision. Norway, which, like Texas, has relied on its oil reserves for economic prosperity is now looking toward becoming Europe’s most innovative country, with Oslo its most innovative city. Having women leading that charge is a big part of that goal.

Editor’s note: Lahey’s trip was sponsored by Oslo Business Region, which puts on Oslo Innovation Week and the Norwegian Consulate in Houston.