International Women’s Day: An Interview with Marie Mark, Co-owner of MK Illumination Handels GmbH
To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we’re showcasing some of the women who work at MK Illumination around the world throughout the month. Today, we met with Marie Mark. She is one of the three owners of this family-owned and family-run business, and she shared some of her thoughts about being a leader, an entrepreneur, and of course, a woman in the working world.
Marie, can you tell us a bit about what you do at MK Illumination?
On my business card it says hospitality and social responsibility. It’s an unusual title, but my role is all about welcoming people, giving them a taste of what the MK Illumination family can offer from a human point of view. My role is infinitely varied: I make sure that our working environment is healthy and productive, I fill our space with flowers and make sure they’re watered, I take guests to lunch or make sure that lunch comes to us, I manage refurbishments and extensions, I organize events, and play an active part in areas of the business where my contribution is helpful.
I love my job!
MK Illumination Handels GmbH is a family-owned business. You’re one of the three owners, and the other two owners are your husband, Klaus Mark and his brother, Thomas Mark. You’re not only the only woman in the trio, but you’re also working with family! Have you ever had difficult conversations about male and female roles with Klaus and Thomas over the years?
We all have our own areas of expertise, which allows us to work well together because we respect each other’s insights and knowledges. Occasionally I bring a more feminine perspective to discussions, as well as a different cultural perspective. Klaus and Thomas are Austrian, and I am Swedish, and we benefit from the mix of personalities, cultures, and probably gender perspectives, too.
Sometimes we differences of opinions: for example, when the company was smaller, one of our male sales representatives went on paternity leave. As I had grown up in Sweden, this was nothing new to me, but it was very new in Tirol, and that sparked some lively discussions between us. The result was positive all round, and as owners, we grew stronger from the experience, too.
But to be honest, I can’t say that gender has been a significant roadblock in our discussions over the years.
What is it like being focused so heavily on Christmas all year round?
Fantastic! Especially now that we work on festivities and celebrations throughout the year in addition to Christmas.
At MK Illumination, we get to be magic-makers who use light to make people happy. Obviously clients visit us for specific projects, but we also get drop-in visits from neighbors, friends, curious people, all of whom just want to visit our showroom and soak up the atmosphere. What could be better?
Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite projects and why you love them so much?
Ooh, difficult question! In 26 years, we have created thousands of festive experiences and I have a soft spot in my heart for so many of them!
If you force me to mention a couple, then I’d have to say that I love the Stockholm festive lighting. As Stockholm is the capital of my home country of Sweden, both the location and the project are near to my heart. My heart skips a beat as I wander through the city.
I’m also very proud of our involvement with our contribution to the “Luci d’Artista” city lighting in Salerno, Italy. Festive lighting changed the way of life for a whole city, and today, what used to be a quiet winter season is a thriving time for residents and visitors. Visiting the city over Christmas is like taking a walk in an outdoor museum, a museum full of emotions.
Speaking more broadly, is the festive lighting sector male dominated in your opinion, and is that an issue?
The sector is male dominated as are many others, however things are changing as you’ll see from the interviews you’re doing with other women in the company.
I would love to see more women taking positions of power in the sector, although I realize that these things take time. I challenge any businesses in the festive lighting sector take women seriously, encourage them to take on senior roles, and to help them thrive: I am certain that this would be beneficial for businesses and women, too.
What do you think is the single biggest issue currently facing women in the workplace?
I don´t think there the issues women face are workplace-related, certainly in our sector. In my experience, if you are good at what you do and you deliver on your promises, you get respect and move upwards.
However, working women face challenges because they often have two full-time roles: the workplace role and the “work in life” role outside of the workplace and in the home – raising children, cooking, cleaning, caring for family members, and so on. With this sort of workload, many women hesitate to take on leadership roles and that’s a shame.
I recall a cartoon by Carlin that I saw a while ago that illustrates this beautifully. It’s called “Meritocracia” by Carlin and it shows a running track with 3 men and 3 women poised to start racing against each other. Ahead of the men, the track is clear. Ahead of the women are obstacles that they have to leap over or run around: washing machines, irons, and so on. Obviously this is just a cartoon, and things are changing rapidly, but for many women this is still a reality, which means that men and women don’t always start from an equal playing field.
If we can overcome this, I think that the sky is the limit for women!
Tell us about work-life balance.
For me work and life is one and the same thing. It is a flow 24×7. Within this flow it is important for my wellbeing to make space for body and soul, so I make time for friends, sport, singing, and one of my true passions, dancing!
I am very fortunate to have a supportive husband who shares many of these activities with me: in a relationship, as in many other parts of life, sharing really is caring.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
Where shall I start! Seriously… Use humor wherever you can. It’s an invaluable tool in almost any situation. Don’t take life too seriously. It’s not necessary to know everything about everything: focus on what you’re good and do it to the best of your abilities.
Being in a senior role at MK Illumination, how do you make sure that inclusion and diversity are considered when making decisions?
Inclusion and diversity are vital to us. Diversity brings more ideas, different ways of seeing and doing things, and without diversity, we can’t be the best that we can be. We’re proud of the diversity in MK Illumination. Although I feel that we’re in a good position when it comes to inclusion and diversity, there is always room for improvement, so this is topic that we always have in mind when making decisions.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women who want to be entrepreneurs and business owners like you?
I think that the challenge is a personal one: staying authentic in the face of rapid change. I also think that self-belief can sometimes be a challenge.
How can we encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship as a career?
Start young. At school age, both boys and girls need to be exposed to the idea of being entrepreneurs. We should be talking to them about money, politics, the opportunities out there. We should be sharing the message that ideas are equal opportunity, that can turn into businesses if nurtured. And of course, as a society, we need to give them chances to experience business ownership for themselves. Not everyone has a role model in their families, so business owners need to step up and become societal role models.
Do you think it’s important that we celebrate International Women’s Day, and if so, what does it mean to you?
I have to answer that with a question: why only the one day? It’s a good start, but we should celebrate ourselves every day. There are many female role models and it would be great to make them more visible throughout the year!
Is there a particular female figure that inspires you?
Pippi Longstocking, a female super-hero who I grew up with. She is a character created by Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, and she is strong, independent, funny and she has her own horse!
I am also inspired by so-called “normal” who are able to manage their lives on a day to day basis. Super-heros come in all shapes and sizes.
Do you have any last words for women around the world today?
Speak to yourself as you speak to you best girlfriend. That means encouraging, gentle, kind, and loving. Sometimes it means laughing at and with yourself, too!