Although it’s not obvious from her name, Karen Soboleosky was born and raised in Rosario, Argentina. Serendipitously christened after a character from her mother’s favourite Hans Christian Andersen story, the Director of the unit responsible for tendering all EU external aid contracts under €1 million is not surprised that she ended up in Denmark or a company like NIRAS.
“I love the trust and respect that is present in all aspects of life in Denmark, I think I missed that very much living in a country like Argentina. In NIRAS, I think that the ‘culture of generosity’ is more than a slogan, it’s about how we can support each other even though there is no specific financial gain. I truly believe in the common bottom line and relish the joy we experience across the organisation when somebody wins a new project.”
A love of legal assessments and questions
Karen became a lawyer in 1989 and is specialised in contract and procurement law, both at the Danish and EU level. Before moving to Copenhagen in 2003, she worked for many years for the municipality of Rosario, a city of 1 million inhabitants that has received awards for its work in public health and participatory planning among others. Karen was part of the decentralisation project and institutional director of the strategic planning of the city and also coordinated interregional cooperation projects for Mercosur representing Rosario. When she came to Denmark, she got her degree validated so she could work as a legal advisor. For a few years, she was a procurement legal adviser for a Danish university.
“That enabled me to work with EU tendering from ‘the other side of the table’ and gave me plenty of experience on how clients think when working with tenders,” she says. “At NIRAS, I love to get involved in legal questions and assessments. I get lots of questions on legal compliance, the Procurement Directive, PRAG (the Practical Guide on contracting procedures for EU external aid contracts) and the like from all offices, which is interesting because it allows me to dip into several tenders and projects.”
Never a dull moment
As Director of the NIRAS’s EU Framework Contracts Unit, which is spread across Denmark, Germany, Serbia and Bogota, Karen manages a team of 19 working on diverse topics. Although all EU external aid contracts under €1 million must be procured through DG DEVCO’s Services for Implementation of External Aid (SIEA) framework contracts, the specific contracts are tendered and implemented by the more than 100 EU Delegations around the world. The team works mainly in three lots – lot 1 Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and Resilience, lot 2 Infrastructure, Growth and Job Creation, and lot 3 Democracy, Human Rights and Peace – but also participates in other lots as a partner.
It’s nail-biting at times.
“We have a very tight tendering process of only two weeks, and we don’t have a pipeline as such because we can only bid for the tenders in which we are invited to participate. This makes for very challenging and demanding work, but it can be very exciting. We constantly have to reassess our priorities and our resources as we never know what we are going to be doing the next week.”
“The SIEA gives us the chance to tender for assignments in new technical areas or countries where we haven’t worked before. Being involved in the implementation of short-term projects with EU Delegations also gives us insights into their future plans. The fact that we have many small tenders simultaneously means we have to be in contact with a large number of experts, some of whom are new to NIRAS. In many cases, when NIRAS decides to go for a bigger project in a specific country, our history of the Framework Contract Unit having worked there on smaller assignments creates a solid foundation for our offer. So the Unit really has strategic value for the organisation.”
Currently the Framework Contract Unit is implementing more than 35 projects on a whole host of topics ranging from integrating the SDGs into the EU’s Joint Programming process to conducting a feasibility study for a small hydropower plant in Liberia’s Sinoe Rapids.
NIRAS is a very flat organisation, and you have the opportunity to try new things more than in other more structured and hierarchical companies. I don’t know which challenges I will face next week and that is very refreshing to me. At the same time the frames of my work are clear, so that uncertainty is exhilarating in a very positive way.
The knitting polyglot
Karen has been with NIRAS since 2005 with the exception of two years when she worked for the Danish Technical University but came back because she “missed so many things about how we work together in NIRAS”. In that time, she relishes the close relationships she has built with colleagues even though they may be working in very different contexts and often very far away. On the occasions when she does travel to improve cooperation and working relationships between different NIRAS offices and the Framework Contracts Unit, she takes the opportunity to get to know some of our clients in person, many of whom she can converse with in their mother tongue. In addition to her native Spanish, Karen speaks English, French, Danish, and a little bit of Portuguese, the last she credits to a steady diet of bossa nova in her youth.
To unwind, Karen knits. A skill she picked up from her grandmother, she can spend as much as 2–3 hours every night and enjoys making gifts for friends and colleagues while watching the latest Danish crime drama. She also loves to cook and regularly tests out new and elaborate dishes. Despite her Argentinean upbringing, which involved eating a lot of meat, these days Karen spends a lot of time in the kitchen with her husband and youngest son experimenting with vegetarian dishes for health and environmental reasons.
When visiting Karen’s adopted city of Copenhagen, be sure to drop by our offices at Søtorvet that hold a fond memory for Karen.
“The first time I visited Copenhagen and crossed the bridge over the lakes, I instantly felt I could live in this city. I particularly fell in love with four beautiful neo-renaissance buildings on the lakeside. NIRAS has its offices in one of those buildings today. It’s a nice coincidence that I ended up working here, not unlike the origins of my name and how I made my home in Denmark.”
You can learn more about the work that Karen and her team do in the Framework Contract Unit, here.