On going home again — why I am moving back to Estonia after 12 years

This coming weekend, my husband, my dog, and I are undertaking a new adventure: we are moving to Estonia. After 12 years in the UK and US, I am finally going home.

When we’ve told people about this plan, we’ve heard many surprised reactions — so I wanted to explain why we are extremely bullish on Estonia: as a place to call home, but also as an economy to bet on.

First, some background: to explain why I ended up in the US, I have to explain how growing up in a post-Soviet country meant dreaming of getting out.

I had a uniquely 90s childhood: on the precipice between the analog and digital ages, between East and West, between cowboy capitalism and social democracy.

Me at home in Estonia circa 1995

I watched my parents and their peers build a country from scratch. It must have been an exciting time — exhilarating, stressful, but ultimately very rewarding. By the time I and my friends were in our teens, Estonia was a pretty well-functioning country in the hinterlands of Europe whose rapid economic growth promised an even better future ahead. But the ambitious dream was still to go “abroad” — to Finland, the UK, the US, wherever the elusive dream of “the West” might be found.

Estonia in the 90s — images from @eesti_90ndad on Instagram

For me, the dream had been to go to university in the UK ever since I was about 11 or 12. By the time I was 16 and an opportunity arose to complete my high school education in England, I jumped at the chance. Initially I may have believed that I would come home “soon” — maybe in 6 months, or a year. But my family knew what I didn’t yet realise: once you are set on this path, it’s far easier to keep going than to turn back.

Indeed, one year turned into two, which turned into getting my bachelor’s degree at the London School of Economics, which in turn opened up a far broader range of career opportunities in London and beyond that any degree from Estonia, no matter how good, could have done. The way forward seemed clear: build a career and a life in London, settle down, occasionally fly home for the holidays.

6 years into my career, having spent my time working and learning about the worlds of both e-commerce startups and Fortune 500 companies, the next step took me even further — to get my MBA at Yale University. I somehow convinced Rob, my British husband, that he would love (or at least not completely hate) living in the US; we packed 15 boxes of books and set off. The plan was to stay a while — maybe 4 or 5 years. We could live in New York, or maybe San Francisco. We could try our hand at this long-heard-about American Dream.

To my surprise, the main thing I learnt while living in the US was an appreciation for my original homeland. Every time I spent 30 minutes on the phone to pay the electricity bill, I thought fondly of the online banking system I first learned to use at age 10. When our joint US tax return required four weeks worth of professional help, I showed my envious husband my pre-filled digital Estonian tax return and how I could stretch it out to 5 minutes if I really took my time.

Source: @taavirõivas on Twitter

And when the 2020 US presidential election tested all of our patience, the former Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas rubbed some additional salt in the wound by telling us how tough he found the 38 minutes it took to get a first sense of results for his election (where 30% of people voted online).

Meanwhile, the Tallinn of my childhood had transformed from a crime-riddled city filled with sketchy dealings into a modern, thriving, tech friendly capital with the highest number of startups per capita in Europe. Estonia was nicknamed “The Digital Republic” by The New Yorker, and a whole new national narrative emerged.

Source: Atomico’s The State of European Tech 2020 report

Our long-held national handicap— the need to rebuild a country from scratch after a 50-year-long Soviet occupation — turned out to actually have given us an edge in the coming information age, as there were no incumbent analog systems to slow down progress. Case in point: in 1992, Finland decided to upgrade its phone system from analog to digital, and offered the old technology to Estonia for free. The government declined, and instead built a new, digital system from scratch. This pattern repeated itself in many industries — for example, I had never even seen a bank cheque before moving to the UK, as the Estonian banking system simply skipped right to online banking (first launched way back in 1996).

In this fertile environment, new types of companies flourished: tech-first solutions to a variety of problems, from international money transfers to B2B sales management to the need to get around, which would go on to be valued in the billions of dollars and generate jobs, teach new skills and attract investment to Estonia. And as Estonian tech entrepreneurs started exiting their companies, they often re-invested in the local tech landscape — creating a positive feedback cycle and a newly powerful industry.

In light of that, moving to SF with its rising crime rate and tiny expensive apartments just to work in tech, when I could do the same from among Estonia’s forests, no longer seemed as appealing. More broadly, in 2020 the US went through a reckoning of its own, and the picture that emerged was not pretty. The daily revelations of just how deeply embedded racism is in the fabric of American society were made all the harder by the realisation that as a non-citizen, I would never be able to affect meaningful change.

Somewhere in the middle of these realisations, my husband (who co-incidentally happens to also hold an American passport by birth) made a radical suggestion: why don’t we move to Estonia instead? And suddenly, for the first time in 12 years, it made perfect sense.

Tallinn in 2019 — photo by Ilya Orehov on Unsplash

I don’t want to give you the impression that all is rosy in e-Estonia — nothing is ever that simple. From March 2019 to January 2021, we grappled with a government that included a far-right minority party. In a country where everyone knows their neighbours, xenophobia is alive and well, as are various other -phobias. We have a long way to go to ensure that all of us — regardless of skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation — feel safe and accepted in Estonia.

But Estonia’s greatest weakness — its size — is also its greatest strength. We are small enough that the actions of each individual make a real, measurable difference.

To paraphrase tech-speak, Estonia is what you might call an “MVC — minimum viable country”. Small and nimble means we can test out new ideas — such as digitised prescriptions, or autonomous buses — easily. We can take the things that work and discard the rest. I believe the same is true of our broader culture: we can take the best of our history and traditions, and add the things tech has taught us about innovation, openness, and adaptability.

We’ve made the most of the US before we leave by seeing as many national parks as possible — this is Zion, Utah. Suvi the dog does not yet know she’s about to become fully Estonian!

And finally, let’s be clear: I’m not expecting it to be easy. Both my British husband and my American dog are in for a bit of a culture shock — they may think they know what a cold, dark winter looks like, but they’ve never seen November in Tallinn…

As for me — I have gotten awfully comfortable with the luxuries of living in big cities: one-day e-commerce deliveries, efficient public transport, and most importantly, broad diversity: in nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, lived experience. I can live without Amazon and the London Tube, but that last one will require hard work to improve in Estonia. I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and get on with it.

PS if you or someone you know has recently moved (back) to Estonia, please let me know your (re)integration tips here or on Twitter or on Instagram. And say feel free to say hi to Rob on Twitter, too — he’s in the market for language learning buddies in Tallinn!

Strategist, book nerd, early-ish adopter. Estonian in the US.

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