About a decade ago, private trainer and health enthusiast Ranja Vardali decided to take her passion to the next level and went on to single-handedly launch This is Nuts, a company dedicated to promoting a healthier, more natural lifestyle through better snack and food alternatives.

With International Women’s Day coming up, we wanted to give insights into the career of a woman in charge leading a small company through a tough pandemic, and how she’s putting This is Nuts in the midst of the fight for gender equality.

On March 8, this year, just like every year, it’s International Women’s Day. What is your message to girls and women across the world?

When it comes to Sweden and the developed world today, equality exists in the legal or theoretical sense. Therefore it’s no longer about trying to convince society that women can or should be able to do the things men have done in the past, it’s now time to highlight what women have achieved and the advantages of having women in the world.

While Sweden does have less gender stigmas and is more progressive in terms of gender equality compared with other countries, would you say that you faced challenges starting a business that you don’t think a man wouldn’t have faced?

Personally I have always been somewhat self-secure and confident, and have always considered my womanhood as a pro rather than a con. So this was nothing I had thought about before, but definitely something I felt and experienced along the way.

When it comes to my own experience, men have usually been more open to listen and try to “play nice” with me, while women have been more easily critical. This could’ve been because the women saw me as an equal which made it easier for them to turn me down, while the men had a sense of patronage.

To quit your job and work on starting your own business is scary and challenging to anyone, but did you ever feel that it was scarier or believed that it would be more challenging because you are a woman?

Not because I am a woman, but because I had learnt to be insecure as a woman. That year I started This is Nuts and I was exploring the world of entrepreneurship, it was all men. It was only men who were entrepreneurs and were launching startups, and there was I, just a girl trying to compete with all of these successful men. So in a sense, I was pre-programed to believe that it would be more challenging.

Before starting This is Nuts, did you ever have a male superior and how does that experience affect your leadership approach today?

I actually had a woman superior, and it was awful, honestly. Before studying I was employed as a second receptionist at this high-end sports facility, and we came along quite well in the beginning. However things got more competitive, and in some places even vindictive. This might have stemmed from jealousy that evolved once private life became part of work life. Things became so bad that I even got fired.

That experience taught me that gender doesn’t really matter in leadership, but rather personality and professionality. While men easily develop a superiority complex over women, women might see other women as competitors, even beyond just work. In conclusion, the workplace is neither a place to get personal, nor a place for competition, it should be a place of unity and team effort.

Has being a woman in charge ever put you in a situation where you had to defend or prove yourself in a way you don’t believe that a man would’ve had to?

I haven’t had to prove myself per se, but I have definitely been objectified, countless times. Never looked down on, but objectified.

I overcame this by taking it back and owning it. If a man wants to get flirty because I’m a woman, I use it to my advantage, and at my convenience. I employed it to get what I want, and never gave them what they wanted.

As it happens to be today, you are the only woman at This is Nuts. Being in charge of a team of men, how would you describe your relationship with your coworkers?

It’s actually quite well. It’s easy, honest and very straightforward, exactly the way I would want it to be.

How has the experience of creating your own startup reinforced your femininity and sense of womanhood?

I have never really been the outspoken feminist or involved in women’s rights, but my experience has without a doubt reinforced my confidence in myself. Today I don’t see myself capable of anything less than that a man is capable of in any way. And it’s not just something I believe in, but it’s also something I have proved, both to myself, to women, and to men by challenging the male-dominant industry and achieving.

All of those programmed ideas and social constructs about gender capabilities are today destroyed and nonexistent, and that has made me stronger as a woman and helped embrace my womanhood and femininity even more.

Let’s get into the biological aspect, let’s not pretend that hormones, PMS and period cramps don’t exist. How do you deal with the load and stress of managing a company at times when your body is not cooperating?

Good questions, and it’s important to note that the effects of the menstrual cycle differs from woman to woman, and there is therefore no universal truth to it.

In my case however, it isn’t my body that’s not cooperating but rather my mind; that starts wanting things to have been done already yesterday. And even though my coworkers are understanding when they find me in such situations, I like to take a moment of self-reflection to clear my mind and try to focus. But when that doesn’t work and I feel like I can’t be constructive, I avoid being destructive by trusting everyone to handle their stuff on their own, and either work in self-isolation or cut the day short.

Gender inequality in management remains a controversial topic globally, how much do you believe has been accomplished so far?

It’s really hard to say, but for sure not enough, especially when you think about it in a global context. In some places of the world, like here in Europe, women have come far over the last decades; but the fight is far from over, and it still needs to pick up speed and progress in parts of the world that are still behind on this.

What do you believe still needs to be achieved and what approach do you support/suggest to tackle this?

If you look at Sweden, and even some EU countries, women do have better opportunities and are found in positions of leadership and power; however, this has created a huge division and women and men are today further apart than ever. Things are evolving from an equality struggle to a power struggle, and we should be cautious. We should work towards creating social balance and understanding, which can be done by bringing women and men together through dialogue, by listening and trying to understand one another.

We should refrain from attacking or taking advantage of certain gender vulnerabilities, whether in women or men, whether social or biological. In the end, it’s about equality and not about dominance.

Last year the unimaginable happened, the world was struck by a catastrophic pandemic, economies crashed, businesses shut down, and there was a state of mass hysteria. Since women have always been the most vulnerable part of the workforce, how do you believe the covid-19 pandemic has affected the careers of women?

That is a big question, but let me try to answer it from one small angle. When schools shut down and children had to stay home, it became evident that there is a social understanding or expectation that it’s a woman’s role and responsibility to leave her job or career to become a housewife or caretaker. This proves just how vulnerable women’s careers are and that equality does not exist under all circumstances, at least socially.

It’s only natural that you work towards making your company a global leader in the healthier snacks industry, but what role do you want it to play in the fight for gender equality?

Most global companies and brands are founded or managed by men, so it would be both inspiring and empowering were we to become a women-led global brand.

Ranja Maria Vardali, known at This is Nuts as the Queen of All Nuts (an internal office joke referring to the coworkers as the nuts), it has been a very insightful interview. Our last question is what is the next big step for This is Nuts?

Next up are more innovative, healthy, and super tasty products; we are working on becoming a more sustainable business, both in how we operate and with the products we sell; and we are also going to become available in more outlets across the world.