As head of sustainability for Telenor Group, one of the world’s major mobile operators, Mai Oldgard leads a core team of 12 and a larger group of sustainability professionals across Telenor’s 13 markets in Europe and Asia. She helped grow the company’s sustainability practice, which consisted of a team of two people when she joined 10 years ago. Today, sustainability is so integrated into Telenor’s core operations that the company’s corporate mission is to empower society.

Oldgard’s interest in sustainability began when she wrote her master’s thesis on CSR, and since then she has held a range of roles in her career, from a focus on economic development to management consulting. In addition to setting policy and the company’s sustainability agenda, Oldgard is also on the board of directors for Telenor Myanmar. She spoke with us about Telenor’s approach to sustainability and how the company has applied this approach in Myanmar and Pakistan.

Eva Dienel: What are your company’s top sustainability priorities?

Mai Oldgard: There are three layers to Telenor’s approach to sustainability: responsible business and transparency, digital services to empower society, and support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

We are centered around responsible business practices and transparency. This is important because we need to manage risks, and we operate in many challenging environments. We have strong roots in Norway and are partly owned by the Norwegian state. We take seriously the expectations of the Norwegian state and other large investors to run a responsible business—everything from supply chain sustainability to environmental impact to human rights. A key element in this work is our emphasis on continuous improvement. Given the markets we are in, we will always have risks and incidents, but over time we can work on reducing those. And in addition, very importantly, be transparent—also about the challenges we face. So responsibility and transparency are at the core for us.

The second layer is creating positive opportunities: How we can we use digital services to empower people? Mobile can be one of the most powerful tools for mobile birth registration, health, education, and banking. We have a lot of concrete initiatives targeted at making sure we empower society and people with our services.

The third layer, which is the newest addition to our strategy, is delivering and supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It makes perfect sense for Telenor to support those, considering we are in markets in some of the least-developed countries in the world and some of the most-developed countries in the world. They are opposite ends of the spectrum, but regardless of whether you are in Dhaka or Copenhagen, mobile is a powerful tool to create inclusive growth and make sure everyone can take advantage of services. Mobile and digital services is a great equalizer, and Telenor is particularly focusing on Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities.

Dienel: Tell us about how you are working to achieve those goals. What does it look like, in practice, to empower people through mobile?

Oldgard: Take Myanmar as an example: When we started looking into Myanmar, and we got a license to operate in 2013, the country was coming out of decades of isolation. Most people could not speak to each other on the phone. There was a great appetite for mobile, but the price was over US$100 for a SIM card—making it impossible for the average citizen. When we launched in September 2014, we set the price of a SIM card at US$1.50. Since then, we have been focused on rolling out a good mobile network, which will soon reach almost every city, town, and village in Myanmar.

Another example is in Pakistan, where 70 percent of children are not registered at birth. This makes girls in particular vulnerable to risks like early marriage and trafficking, and it makes it difficult to access public services like school and health. It also makes it difficult for government to plan if they don’t have an accurate overview of their population. The challenge in registering children at birth is that it’s often difficult for families to travel to a local office. But almost everyone has access to a mobile phone. So we teamed up with the Pakistan government and UNICEF and started a mobile birth registration project to use SMS or an app to register babies very simply by mobile phone. Already, we have seen some impressive results: In a pilot region, the rate of registration increased from 30 to 90 percent.

Dienel: You worked with BSR when Telenor was considering entering Myanmar. What do you value about your partnership with us?

Oldgard: BSR provides some of the best international experience and competence on sustainability, and I appreciate the agenda you are setting. Before we made the decision to enter Myanmar, your analysis was valuable. Also, of course, the BSR Conference provides learning opportunities and the chance to engage with business stakeholders. 

This blog is one in a series highlighting BSR members and their sustainability stories. To learn more about BSR membership, please contact memberservices@bsr.org, visit the BSR Membership webpage, or join the conversation at #BSRmember.