"I think study abroad is a fantastic, not only way to get abroad, but real life experience. I mean REAL life experience that you can't get any other way." (Adrianne, Episode 93)
Today is apparently International Women's Day, which I completely forgot about. And while I didn't "forget" about this week's guest before arranging to interview her, to a certain extent this episode has been months in the making. Adrianne George is the founder of a blog and online community called Black Women in Europe, and she contacted me back in September 2021 to see about being a guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad since she and her business partner Angela were about to launch a podcast in conjunction with BWIE's 15th anniversary. The timing wasn't right for me—I really wanted to focus my last few episodes of 2021 on areas outside of Europe, which I ultimately succeeded at doing—but 2022 has been a blank slate as far as new guests go, so Adrianne and I finally got a chance to talk in February. Adrianne's been living in Sweden since 2006 (the same year she started BWIE), but coincidentally she was still in her hometown of Washington, D.C. after arriving to visit her family for Christmas, so we had the added benefit of being in the same time zone for this conversation. Along with her activities with BWIE, we discussed her experiences working in London for six months as an undergraduate student, studying in Brussels for two different master's programs, and of course, what her life has been like as a long-term resident of Sweden.
Although Adrianne didn't go to Europe for the first time until she was a college student, she was exposed to travel at a very young age because it was normalized within her family. She remembers stories she heard from her mother about her paternal grandmother, who had a master's degree (a rarity for Black women of that generation) and would travel the world on her own during summers while her husband did his own thing as the dean of a university seminary. Adrianne's maternal grandparents were so active in the Baptist church that meetings and ministry took them to other countries, and her maternal grandmother brought her a kimono from Japan when she was nine years old. Additionally, Adrianne's paternal brother worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which inspired early dreams that she once had to work for UNICEF. Even her own household was on the move ("We were the station wagon summer road trip family"), driving to Canada and Mexico when she was growing up. In this way, she eased her way into international travel, and her first trip outside of North America was to Senegal. What eventually took her to Europe was her work within the music industry, which is the field she spent much of her early career in.
Adrianne worked in public relations and marketing for a record company when she was a college student, and that company had a distributorship deal with a UK artist for whom Adrianne helped organize a tour. After developing a rapport through working together, this artist (who had a music label of his own) invited Adrianne to visit London and stay in the extra home he used to house his artists when they were recording. He would be out of town, but Adrianne wouldn't be alone because his wife and sister-in-law lived right next door and would show her around. She ended up having a phenomenal time, met and fell in love with a guy there, and while waiting on her flight home from one of her subsequent visits to him, she met a returnee study abroad student who told her about BUNAC (British Universities North America Club). BUNAC assists college students and young adults in securing short-term work opportunities in the UK and other countries, and through it Adrianne was able to do a six-month internship (a paid internship, the best kind) within the music industry in London. Things "fell into place" for her housing-wise before her arrival, because one of her industry contacts was a Black British woman in Los Angeles whose sister would be visiting her for six months at the same time that Adrianne would be in London. Which meant that Adrianne got to live in the sister's affordable council flat in Leytonstone, east London. Despite living so far from all the action in central London and having to commute long distances, Adrianne felt like she was "living the life", and her experience working for a major record label in such a major music business city as London helped her to get more jobs following her return stateside.
After some years passed, Adrianne's cousin strongly encouraged her to add more formalized structure to the expertise she'd already gained working in PR and marketing, and so she pursued a master's degree in public relations at American University in D.C. This was the same program her cousin had done, and in addition to it being Adrianne's first master's degree it was also what she calls her "divorce master's", a new endeavor she started after her second divorce. She completed the program in a year, and as part of it she went on a three-week trip to Europe that was focused on studying the European Union. Under the guidance of Professor Emilio Viano from American University's School of Foreign Service ("I say he changed my life"), Adrianne and her classmates visited EU institutions and agencies in Paris, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, and of course Brussels, which is the capital of the EU.
The group happened to be there during the Brussels Jazz Festival, and it was in the basement of a jazz bar that she met a performer who became her next beau. This relationship led to her living in Belgium for a year or two, and although she left the country when that relationship came to an end and got busy working back in the States, she longed to be in Brussels again. At the same time, she also wanted more business knowledge, so she found a suitable master's program that would take her back to Belgium for two years. For her second master's degree, she went for a master's in business administration with a concentration in marketing through Boston University, which had a graduate center in Brussels at the time. (The Boston University Brussels Graduate Center closed in 2014.)
School had always been relatively easy for Adrianne until this point, and she struggled through math and accounting classes that she recalls, "almost killed me." Her grades began to slip, and with her father's blunt advice echoing in her head ("Do better"), she cut back her hours working at the American Chamber of Commerce and committed even more time to academics. She got back on track, and completing her business degree remains one of her proudest accomplishments because of how much difficulty she overcame in the process. And it wasn't all struggle, for that matter. Years before Fenty Beauty and its inclusive foundation shade ranges were even thought of, Adrianne went on multiple research trips for a project comparing the availability of makeup for darker skin tones between Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, and London. Furthermore, this particular extended stay in Brussels also came with new love. While still in grad school Adrianne met a Swedish man ("my Swede") who was in town for work, and that man eventually became her husband. They were in a long-distance relationship for a year, and Adrianne moved to Sweden in 2006 to be with him after her program was finished. She's called Sweden home ever since.
"We're doing our thing everywhere."
Unlike Brussels which Adrianne new to have an ample community of Black people, the small western Swedish town she'd moved to made her feel somewhat disconnected. Having grown up in Washington, D.C. when it was still a majority Black city ("Chocolate City"), it was important for her to get some Black culture back into her life. In other words, she wanted to find her people, "You don't see a lot of negative portrayals of Black women in the media in Europe in my experience, you just kinda don't see them at all... Well I know we're here. We gotta be here." So Adrianne began looking online for Black woman around her and in other parts of Europe, yearning to know who they were and what they were up to. This initially self-interested search for information evolved into Black Women in Europe, an online platform that celebrates the lives of Black women from varying origins and professions, and creates opportunities for them to connect with each other. Both then and now, it's been encouraging for Adrianne to reaffirm for herself and others that, "We're getting warm receptions, or have been making lives for generations all over the place... We're doing our thing everywhere."
After years of running BWIE by herself, Adrianne finally took on a business partner (Angela Fobbs, based in Germany) and she's currently looking forward to doing even more things BWIE has never done before. Besides launching their podcast in November 2021, they also organized a Galentine's Day event in February 2022. And while continuing to publish their annual "Power List" to honor outstanding Black women like they've been doing since 2010, they're also aiming to put together a Europe-wide "Buy Black" directory later this year (an idea of Angela's that Adrianne is thoroughly excited about). They've also started a non-profit organization so that BWIE can live on beyond whenever Adrianne decides to eventually step away from being at the helm. The initiatives she hopes to sustain through this non-profit include boosting media representation for all kinds Black women living in Europe, creating a support services directory, and funding study abroad scholarships and international internship opportunities for young Black college students on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
On a personal note, while Adrianne couldn't see herself living anywhere other than Sweden at this point—relocating and getting accustomed to another country is a lot of work, plus her "bonus" family in Sweden has grown to include not only her husband's adult children but his grandchildren too—she would prefer to wait out the long, dark Swedish winters in warmer and brighter places like Spain or Portugal, if possible. As for places she hasn't been to yet, Mauritius has captured her interest, as have far-away Pacific locales including Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand. For now, Adrianne can always be found wherever Black Women in Europe is found, which includes BWIE's website (blog.blackwomenineurope.com), their podcast, their YouTube channel, and their Linktree.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "From Chocolate City to Sweden (BLACK WOMEN IN EUROPE)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!