Impact Entrepreneur Sahra-Josephine Hjorth describes her journey to success in the Obama Programme
Updated: Jul 10
Award winning entrepreneur Sahra-Josephine Hjorth has spent the past six years creating analog and digital social learning experiences with groundbreaking results. She is the co-founder and CEO of the first-of-its-kind learning experience platform CanopyLAB. In 2019 Sahra-Josephine invented the world’s first AI Course Authoring Tool (AICATO) and she is also behind two methodologies for digital learning: LearnAct.Build (LAB) and the Virtual Immersion Program (VIP). Sahra-Josephine Hjorth was selected for the Obama Leaders Europe 2022 program. She has also served as an advisory board member on the United Nations Development Program’s “Platform Way of Working” initiative, a board member of the human rights non-profit Humanity in Action Denmark, and an advisory board member at Digital Hub Denmark.
Born to a Danish mother and a father who fled Iran as a political refugee, and raised in Aarhus, Denmark, Hjorth’s identity, childhood in an immigrant-dominant neighbourhood, primary schooling in the Nordic system, and entrepreneurial spirit nurtured by Danish government investment in startups have all informed her mission-driven. work. CanopyLAB grew out of Sahra-Josephine Hjorth’s doctoral studies in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at Aalborg University (not yet completed), which focused on the way immigrants use ICT to navigate the Danish workforce, how virtual learning can empower migrants and young people, and the role of NGOs in the digital learning space. She is yet to defend her thesis.
Sahra-Josephine Hjorth and Christian Skræm Juul Jensen have, through CanopyLAB, made a commitment to improving life outcomes through education with the ambitious mission of reaching 10 million youth by 2025. This is only possible through 120+ established NGO collaborations, using the free CanopyLAB sponsored learning platform the LAB in delivering free and engaging learning opportunities in Health, Women's Rights, SexED, Sexual & Reproductive Health, Entrepreneurship, the SDGs, Space Exploration and Sports.
Sahra-Josephine, welcome to the leader’s; show. It is a great honour to have you here. You have accomplished many great things in your career. You are Obama Foundation Leader, an entrepreneur, and an expert in education technology. You are the co-founder and CEO of the first-of-its-kind learning experience platform, CanopyLAB. I would love to know more about Sahra-Josephine, the woman behind these successes. How would you describe Sahra-Josephine in your own words?
I am a very hard-working woman who has always strived to be the best at the things I choose to spend my time on. I’m curious and love learning new things about technology and trying out the newest gadgets. I read a lot of Sci-Fi and non-fiction books about new and emerging technologies, like Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, automation, the Metaverse etc. Sci-Fi and technology are intertwined, and I love imagining new worlds and systems and taking some of those spacy ideas and applying them in the real world. I would describe myself as a super nerd who enjoys a lot of nerdy things, like COMICON, Renaissance Fairs etc.
In some ways, I am very uncompromising, which surprises people because I am a petite woman who tends to wear a pink or red dress: So my directness and refusal to compromise on my vision are often perceived as a bit masculine. Within the field of entrepreneurship, investors and the technology industry in general, you are expected to look and behave in a certain way. You have to pitch in a specific way, make your investor decks in a certain way and engage with prospective and current investors with a sense of humility and gratitude. I make a point of not being that person who gives in to that pressure. I recently criticized the Danish Growth Fund in public, even though they are also our investors with a sizable growth loan. I’ve also made a point out of never wearing pants to show women in the Nordics that you can be a woman and embrace both the masculine and feminine and still be a leader and a role model. You shouldn’t have to act like a man to work in a male-dominated space.
I take some hits in the press sometimes for being outspoken, refusing to compromise on my vision, and calling out bullshit, fake news, and broken systems when I see or experience them. But it’s totally worth it. The fight for justice, more equitable inclusion of women, and massive change does not come for free. Life isn’t a popularity contest, and when I go to bed at night, I feel proud of the way I’m making my mark in the world, attempting to hand over a better planet to my own sons than our parents gave us.
Privately I love the arts, specifically ballet but also visiting museums. The Guggenheim is like a church, and I enjoy observing people and listening in on their conversations when I am there. The Royal Danish Theatre is my favourite place in Copenhagen – talk about being uncompromising – what those dancers do is incredible.
You were born to an Iranian father and a Danish mother. And your mother was a gymnastics teacher (if I am correct), and she taught gymnastics to a group of Somali, Iraqi, and Turkish women. Did your mother inspire you in your teaching career? I’d love to know more about your life as a child in Denmark.
Whenever I face adversity, I send a mental thank you note to my mother because she instilled a core strength and robustness in me, which is one of the most vital assets I possess as a founder, mother, and human being navigating a complex world. My mother was deeply invested in helping newly arrived women in Denmark understand their fundamental human rights, and under the guise of teaching gymnastics, she did very important work that she managed to keep under the radar for a long time. That took courage. I remember an episode where some men had vandalized her car because of the work she was doing. But she never stopped. She was never intimidated, and she taught me never to back down from a fight.
My father was a political prisoner in Iran before coming to Denmark, where he was tortured, so many of those experiences have shaped me and my childhood. He was not a nice man after that, and I developed a lot of people skills navigating through having a father with that kind of baggage. Luckily my mother had the courage to leave him. Today, I do a lot of work at the intersection of technology and human rights, and it brings me hope to meet all the people who had similar experiences as my father but were not broken by their time as political prisoners fighting for democracy. In CanopyLAB, we are increasingly involved in the training in non-violence, and in many ways, it feels destined; I was supposed to end up at this moment doing this exact work.
How did your career in entrepreneurship start? When you were younger, did you ever envision yourself doing something like this?
I am an accidental entrepreneur, in the sense that I discovered a gap in the market, and a way to fill it with a new type of learning technology. I do not see myself as a serial entrepreneur in the future. Entrepreneurship is a means for social change, just like technology is – but there are many ways in which you can promote positive social change.
Online learning has become more and more important in the 21st century. According to you, how important is technology and what can be done to ameliorate it? Is there something that we are missing, ignoring, or not understanding?
I wish more people understood the implications and the potential of applying technology in education. Of course, the pandemic resulted in a more widespread adaption of edtech, but a lot of systems are still outdated and not implemented in the best ways. The edtech sector is still underfunded, which results in products being less user-friendly, and not as intelligent as systems in other sectors – at least when you look at the sector as a whole.
My biggest concern is that we are not asking enough questions about how a learning system or app influences how people learn. When picking a learning platform for a school, its not just about whether it has integrations for payment systems or WhatsApp. It’s about what learning philosophy the particular system is built on, and using a learning platform from Scandinavia can be radically different from one built in China. That discussion needs to be moved to the forefront of decision-making.
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, had a significant impact on my career while I was at Harvard. How does it feel to be an “Obama leader”? What are some of the most important lessons you have learned?
During the first weeks of the Obama Leaders Europe Program 2022, we were asked to identify three core values that define who we are. Then we were asked to reflect on how they are exemplified in our work and how we use those values when we are tested by difficult circumstances. That made a big impression on me. The Obama Leaders Europe Program has fantastic programming, but what impressed me the most was the curation of people. I continue to be amazed by the incredible work the cohort is doing.
I feel blessed to have done the opening remarks for President Obama’s speech at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit earlier this year, and that I had the chance to attend the Obama Foundation’s first Democracy Summit in November in New York.
Mental health plays a key role in every person’s experience as it impacts every area of our lives. Yet many people do not talk about mental health for fear of being judged. According to you, how important is mental health awareness in the 21st century, and what can we do to educate people about this?
We have made mental health one of eight areas of priority for CanopyLAB. We did this during the pandemic. The mental health of youth is deteriorating, and it needs to be addressed politically, systemically, in schools and by parents to a much higher extent. I’ve personally always used services from both a psychologist and a coach in order to help me invest in myself, and make sound decisions in my business.
What are your future projects, and where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I’m all in with CanopyLAB, and I am exactly where I want to be. I don’t live in the future, but in the present. Everyone keeps asking me if im getting ready to run for office and what’s next, but there is no next on my mind. You don’t build great companies by focusing on something else. In 5 years in envision that we have taken the company public and that we are the biggest platform in the extracurricular space globally.
What advice would you give to many aspiring young leaders out there who dare to dream big regardless of the circumstances they may face?
Success lies at the intersection of hard work, great timing and luck. Listen, seek advice, consult data and work on your dreams or business idea diligently. Many people have great ideas, few the stamina to implement them.
Can you tell me a leadership quote that has inspired you in your life?
As an innovator and Sci-Fi nerd who likes to disrupt the status quo, I’m very attracted to the quote: “Let The Past Die. Kill It If You Have To.” – Kylo Ren