SAHRA-JOSEPHINE HJORTH - CEO & co-founder at CanopyLAB A/S

SAHRA-JOSEPHINE HJORTH - CEO & co-founder at CanopyLAB A/S

After two years of work at Rambøll Management, I got inspired by a former fellow student, who went to pursue a PhD. I started thinking whether that could be a career path for me as well. I became aware of a position at the Center for Migration and Diversity at Aalborg University, a position that was actually quite far from the academic field I was educated in, namely international relations. But the PhD project was very appealing to me. I decided to apply and landed the position, which I started in October of 2013. In August 2015, I co-founded CanopyLAB, an educational technology company, but I actually began conceptualizing the idea shortly after I started working on my PhD.

WHAT IS YOUR TYPICAL WORKDAY LIKE?

On a typical workday, I go to work at 7.45. I want to make sure that I have some time to ensure that we finished everything the day before, and to plan the day ahead of us before everyone else shows up. Every Monday, we start with a weekly meeting, where we go through everyone’s plans for the week and what they need from their colleagues in order to solve their tasks. Typically, I spend my mornings giving speeches on topics such as the future of learning, the labour market or automation, or visiting a client or a prospective client. I normally attend the first meeting with a new prospective client together with someone from our sales division, after which I hand over the project – that leaves me with more time to nurse our largest clients and projects that we want to prioritize for strategic reasons. Typically, the rest of the day, I spend on project implementation. Lately, I have been working on a very large project in Sweden with Telia Company, Google, Samsung, Accenture, and DigiExam. I try to structure my week so that I spend 15 hours on my own tasks, 15 on assisting co-workers, and 15 on unexpected occurrences.
 

WHAT HAS YOUR CAREER PATH LOOKED LIKE UP UNTIL NOW?

After I finished my MA in Culture, Communication and Globalization at AAU, I started working for Rambøll Management as a consultant. While writing my thesis, I did my second internship at the company and started as a consultant right after handing in my thesis. My first internship was with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia. During this time, I realized that a career within diplomacy was not for me, and I decided to try something completely different during my second internship. I was working in Rambøll Management’s labour market department for 2 years, functioning as what they referred to as ‘the joker’. That was because I got to work on atypical, but really exciting projects of a very different nature, such as Total’s shale gas-project in Northern Jutland, a mapping of Danish men’s use of prostitutes and whether they consider the likelihood of the women being victims of human trafficking, and investigating the possibilities for privatization of Danish prisons. I suppose I took upon me this role because I had a quite different academic profile than most others, who mainly had a background in political science or economy.

After two years, I got inspired by a former fellow student, who went to pursue a PhD. I started thinking whether that could be a career path for me as well. I became aware of a position at the Center for Migration and Diversity at Aalborg University, a position that was actually quite far from the academic field I was educated in, namely international relations. But the PhD project was very appealing to me for two reasons: 1) it was a collaboration between the Danish Immigration Museum and the university, and 2) it included a focus on how to communicate research to a larger audience through social media. I decided to apply and landed the position, which I started in October of 2013. In August 2015, I co-founded CanopyLAB, an educational technology company, but I actually began conceptualizing the idea shortly after I started working on my PhD.
 

HOW CLOSE IS YOUR CURRENT CAREER TO THE IDEAS AND DREAMS YOU HAD AS A PHD FELLOW AT AAU?

I never imagined that I would become an entrepreneur and run my own company. When I attended AAU, my goal was to become a diplomat. But thinking of it, the career path I’ve taken makes sense somehow. I have always focused on “relations” between people, states, or companies. CanopyLAB is a tech company that delivers software to clients, but I also manage a mix of people who are fascinated by how IT can better relationships between people - just like I am.

During my PhD, I focused a lot on communication and how disseminate knowledge from research projects to a wider audience, particularly to people who are affected by the research conducted. At CanopyLAB, we specialize in developing and implementing eLearning solutions that ensure that people get more individualized training and tools.


HOW HAVE YOU MADE USE OF YOUR PHD EDUCATION, AND WHICH OF YOUR PHD COMPETENCES HAVE BEEN MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

For me, the purpose of writing a PhD is to understanding a challenge more profoundly. That is also how we work at CanopyLAB. CanopyLAB is a smart e-learning platform that, based on algorithms, gamification, and artificial intelligence, enables adaptive and personal learning experiences. When starting to work with a new client, we need to understand their strengths, challenges, and vision in detail before we can figure out, construct, and implement a solution that is right for them. As an example, we are working on a case in Sweden, where we are implementing an eLearning platform for teaching Swedish to immigrants and refugees, with the aim to help them learn the language faster. The pressure on the real-life language courses is simply too big these years, due to the increasing inflow of particularly Syrian refugees. Therefore, they need to implement a new, digital, and hopefully improved solution in order to enable refugees and immigrants to learn Swedish faster, cheaper, and in a more personalized manner.

Apart from that, I think being a PhD fellow and being an entrepreneur has at least one thing in common: Without structure, it is hard to succeed!
 

WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER MOST FROM YOUR PHD STUDIES?

One of the most amazing parts of my PhD has been the contact with students. I have really enjoyed to be able to introduce them to my research and get feedback. Is this useful? Is this interesting? When students got back to me and insured me that it was both useful and interesting, it encouraged me to continue my work. Apart from that, I have obtained a great network – both internally at AAU, but also externally. I still use this network in my work at CanopyLAB, where we collaborate with the group of researchers I belonged to during my PhD.

 

WHAT IS YOUR BEST MEMORY FROM AAU?

I have a lot of good memories. I get a great feeling when thinking about the first times I taught classes and how open the students were to being lectured by a young researcher like me. Also, I have great memories attached to the people that I worked with at AAU. As I said, I am still collaborating with many of them today. To give an example, my “right hand” at CanopyLAB is a former student of mine. So in that sense, you can say that AAU has played and continues to play a big role for me and for CanopyLAB.
 

IS THERE A TEACHER/COLLEAGUE FROM AAU YOU REMEMBER ESPECIALLY, AND WHY?

That would definitely be my PhD-supervisor, Martin Bak Jørgensen, who is an excellent supervisor. In addition to being extremely talented, he has the courage to think outside the box and to supervise a project that lies outside of his main focus area. He gave me a lot of great inputs and I really like that he is still so interested in learning new things and expanding his focus areas. I really respect people who are curious and who have a very high academic standard in everything they do.
 

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO CURRENT PHD FELLOWS AT AAU THAT WANT A CAREER OUTSIDE ACADEMIA?

I think PhDs – and everyone in general – should emphasize what they are good at. At the end of the day, that is what you can sell to others. And if you want to become an entrepreneur, I think it’s important to focus on the challenge that your product or service is solving. In other words: fall in love with the idea of what you want to change, not the concept of how you want to change it. You can easily identify a real challenge, but at the same time have conceptualized your idea for a business wrong – so be open to change your concept. For instance, at CanopyLAB we have changed our concept quite a lot from how it looked in the beginning and until now.
 

WHAT ARE YOUR DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE?

CanopyLAB is a company in rapid growth. One and a half year ago, we were two people. Now, we are 11 and within the next year, we expect to hire seven more people. In order to achieve our dreams, I am focusing on what kind of company we want to be, the internal relations, values, and structures. We especially on how to create a healthy feedback culture, where everybody can be direct and honest with each other. On a personal level, I am focusing on developing my own style of leadership and work on becoming the leader I want to be.

My dreams for the future is that we can leverage CanopyLAB to ensure that everyone has access to education of high quality. I want us to become better at using adaptive learning technologies to ensure that everyone can learn in a way that helps them achieve their goals. I am particularly passionate about the projects we do with refugees and immigrants, as it is a project where you can really see the impact of our work. At the same time, I am learning a lot from working with some of Denmark’s biggest and most ambitious private companies. And most importantly, I dream of continuing to wake up every day and look forward to go to work.

 

ABOUT SAHRA-JOSEPHINE HJORTH

Place of birth: Skanderborg, Denmark

Nationality: Danish

Current employment: CEO & co-founder at CanopyLAB A/S

MA programme and university: Culture, Communication, Globalization - International Relations Specialization

Department at AAU: CoMID

Campus: Kroghstræde, Aalborg

Year of graduation: 2011

Title of PhD dissertation: Managing diverging expectations - Stories of Success and Struggle : A study of the migrant experience in 21st Century Denmark and the impact  of Internet Communication Technologies and Social Media on migrant's social capital, network and mobility