The 37th annual Memphis in May International Festival is a salute to Sweden, a country whose climate differs greatly from the host town but perhaps has some parallels in its rich history.
“The joke about Sweden is that nobody’s really from Sweden except for the Vikings and they’re long gone,” said Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May. “But they all came there from other places. It’s kind of a melting pot of cultures as well – and a cold melting pot.”
Last year’s honored country was the Philippines, which has a large population in Memphis. While Sweden may have a lesser presence of descendants here than its Filipino predecessor, at least as far as formal organizations are concerned, it’s a country with a cultural and commercial heritage in the Mid-South that’s just as essential.
From a business standpoint, look no further for the Nordic country’s tie to Memphis than Electrolux North America, a subsidiary of Sweden-based Electrolux that’s building a $266 million manufacturing center in Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park. When the plant is fully operational in 2014, it will manufacture built-in and specialty cooking products and is expected to turn out more than 700,000 ovens a year.
When Electrolux Major Appliances North America CEO Jack Truong came to Memphis in January, he estimated for every one of the predicted 1,200 jobs created by the plant, three to four are created for suppliers in the surrounding area.
“In general, in cooperation with the regional chamber of commerce as well as the American Chambers as well as the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, we will work toward business opportunities that tend to make sense,” Hampton said.
Memphis in May’s criteria in selecting an honored country is a detailed process that includes everything from continental rotation to population and GDP to whether it’s friendly with the United States. The U.S. is currently the third largest Swedish export trade partner, and American companies are the most represented foreign companies in Sweden.
“We look at the potential of cultural components to share, the potential of business relationships that could be formed,” Hampton said. “The real issue behind it is when you honor a country, you want to have as much cultural knowledge as you can. It’s affected in sort of the cultural protocol with a country. Sweden is a very easy country to honor in that regard. There are some countries that that is more difficult or more precise.”
In conjunction with celebrating the cultures, cuisine and commerce of the honored country, as well as producing education, international and economic programs, Memphis in May each year brings in notable guests and experts in their respective fields to share professional experiences with Memphis audiences.
MIM also has an “Honored Nationals” committee, which this year is the informal group of Swedes, half-Swedes, and Swedish descendants in the city who want to be involved with the festival in some way. Kerry Hayes, director of public relations for doug carpenter & associates LLC and the son of a Swedish immigrant, is heading that committee this year.
“The challenge, obviously, is finding these people and getting them to self-register on the MIM website,” Hayes said. “In previous years, as when the Philippines were honored, a large local organization of ex-pats already existed that made this process less of an issue – no such thing exists for Swedish nationals living in Memphis right now.”
Hayes said the number of people of Swedish extraction that live in the Memphis metro area could be a few dozen, or it could be a couple hundred.
MIM is sending letters to the human resource directors of FedEx Corp., St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and International Paper in hopes of rounding up all the Swedish folks in those companies. But Hayes is busy with his own efforts in collecting and promoting his lineage in Memphis.
“I’m just trying to sort of wave my hands in the air and say, ‘This is who I am, this is this thing that I’m doing, and if you are Swedish, half Swedish or a 16th Swedish, email me and let me know that you’d like to be involved,’” Hayes said. “Then we’ll keep building this email list basically of people, and throughout the time leading up to May and then certainly throughout the month of May, I’ll be trying to point people in directions where they can volunteer or contribute to participate.”
Memphis in May International Festival is a month-long celebration of local and international color and customs. The nonprofit hosts the city’s largest events – the Beale Street Music Festival May 3-5; International Week Salute to Sweden May 6-12; the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest May 16-18; and the Sunset Symphony May 25.
International Week may not yield the critical mass as the other weeks of the month do, but that doesn’t take a back seat to MIM’s mission and operations.
“Not everybody is as interested in doing business in Sweden as they would be in seeing the Black Keys perform at the Beale Street Music Festival, but certainly it’s very important to the board of directors and to Memphis in May,” Hampton said.
Hayes can be reached at email@example.com.