Most have heard the old adage:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
To meet someone like Camilla Bilstad Johannessen is to not only see the truth behind this statement, but also the heart and compassion it can entail.
Johannessen is the founder and project manager of an exciting new business in Sandefjord, Norway, Cafe Vintage and Vintage Baby.
Camilla and I sit across from one another at a small wooden table, painted a bright and cheery shade of pink. Surrounded by vintage decor, with soft music playing in the background and the rhythms of her staff working in the kitchen as added soundtrack, we sip coffee and chat.
The conversation flows quite naturally. And just as the conversation flows, so does her passion. She talks intensely yet gently of her desires for helping, for walking alongside women who have struggled to find their place in society, and for a dream of achieving true integration.
Like the old fishing proverb, Camilla wants more than to simply give help in the moment.
In her 20’s, Camilla found herself working as a camp leader with CISV, an organization whose camps and educational programs seek to bring the personal side of international relations together in such a way as to encourage peace and positive action. The organization was founded after WWII with an ultimate goal of stopping further wars. They seek to create environments that emphasize cross-cultural interpersonal contact, giving countries that once seemed ‘foreign’ a face, a name, and a relationship which would cause one to think twice about going to war with another country.
As a camp leader, Camilla walked her campers through themes and ideas such as assimilation, social and economic stratification, differences between peace and war, cooperation and truth. As she was there, she made lifelong friends and found herself drawn to workers and campers from cultures very different from her Norwegian heritage. And in the process, she fell in love with Central America and ultimately visited there several times.
Love and Passion on the Other Side of the Globe
It wasn’t just Central America that captured Camilla’s heart. Shortly after completing her bachelor’s degree, she and her friend decided to embark upon a journey involving interrail across Eastern Europe, a flight from Italy to Argentina, meeting up with friends along the way, and traveling up through Brazil, and then Peru. They had the plan that they would at some point reach the OC (Orange County, California), after seeing the television series of the same name. But while in Peru, she met a young man named Carlos. Love struck, the OC dream faded, and she made Peru home for a couple of years.
In addition to meeting her husband in Peru, Camilla was opened to other things during the journey. She saw firsthand the barriers and challenges of economic stratification. And as she reflected, she realized the stratification exists not only in other countries, but in her own as well. While she feels there are many ways to have a good life that do not necessarily involve financial gains or goals, she thought to the future. She considered how she would not want her future children to feel or experience this divide, this distance between rich and poor, and especially between different cultures and sub-cultures.
On the other hand, she saw something in these countries she had not experienced back home in Norway: entrepreneurs and business models that sought to bridge social and economic gaps. Unlike in Norway where the vast responsibility for integration has historically fallen onto the shoulders of national welfare systems, locals were pursuing avenues for creating opportunity and leverage, for blurring the economic division and creating ways to get people plugged in, no matter the color of their skin or the contents of their wallet.
Camilla saw this and began wondering how such a model might play out back home in Norway. In early 2014 she began formulating a business model document that described a concept of a business run by women as a means for integration and learning. She applied for and received public funding as part of a business plan focused on the themes of marginalization and poverty. And working in cooperation with NAV (Norway’s labor and welfare administration), she identified two immigrant women in need of employment, and began working with them.
Cafe and Clothes
On October 31, 2015, Camilla’s business plan came to life in the form of a cafe and boutique situated in heart of downtown Sandefjord, Norway. Camilla, her two new employees, and a team of other volunteers warmly welcomed their city into this new social entrepreneurship project.
On one side of the store sits a retro-chic cafe. Serving coffee, tea, some more traditional Norwegian food, and a mix of international menu items that pay homage to the flavors and ingredients of the staff’s home countries, Cafe Vintage offers a cozy and inviting atmosphere to sit and relax with friends.
The second half of the shop is home to Vintage Baby. A selection of second hand baby and toddler clothes line one wall. The rest of the room is a colorful display of Vintage Baby’s ‘redesign’ line. It’s a creative and fun example of up-cycling, where old clothes and leftover scraps of fabric are repaired, repurposed, and redesigned.
More than Coffee and Kiddie Couture
First and foremost Cafe Vintage is a workplace. But it is also an educational arena. Through the cafe and clothing venture, Camilla is teaching and modeling a variety of concepts to the ladies on her team: business basics that can easily be carried over to at-home financial planning, cultural work expectations, the skills required to run a kitchen, sewing skills, and more.
But there’s so much more to it than that. She’s getting these ladies into their community. They are actively contributing to a business, and in the process, gaining valuable experience in business, language, and culture; a true integration model.
“…a bridge for someone who’s at risk of facing social exclusion…”
Camilla is also setting an example, as are all the ladies who work at the cafe. An example for other entrepreneurs to create similar business in their towns. As she puts it during our time together, a business that “could perhaps build a bridge for someone who’s at risk of facing social exclusion, when there is no need for it.” An example that encourages other business owners to consider hiring immigrants onto their staff. An example of the beauty of blending and of living a more colorful and flavorful life.
In addition to the day-to-day operations at the cafe and boutique, Camilla also partners with NAV and other volunteer and civic organizations to create further opportunities for expanded integration. This includes classes on starting one’s own business, workshops on learning the ins and outs of basic home repairs, chances to learn about building one’s CV (résumé), and courses designed to encourage creativity and relationships. It’s a true social network, used for the good of society and for the advancement of social integration. As their website puts it: ‘social entrepreneurs who work to reduce the marginalization and social exclusion of women from minority groups by creating opportunities for empowerment and employment.‘
Interpersonal and Integration
Camilla talks about the fact that in many ways, the personal element had begun to slip out of today’s society, and she felt it was time to bring it back. “You go from a society where everything became automatic and regulated. You buy things online. Your bank’s online… Then you go back to the personal. And it’s the things between humans that really touch people. It’s very hard to turn your back on individuals and their stories. It is true not just with businesses but on so many levels. It’s interpersonal contact.”
A focus on the interpersonal element, and a focus on integration. She sees globalization as a beautiful thing, and jokingly says to her fellow Norwegians “if you don’t like it, you should stop eating pizzas and hamburgers and kebabs and everything else as well, and just eat sheep heads!” A joke of course, but it speaks to the beauty in diversity that she sees in her everyday life.
And it speaks to the beauty that is being created through Cafe Vintage. “It’s important that integration is happening in the city. Where people are,” Camilla expresses. And the words she expresses are being seen in both the business and the individual lives at the cafe.