Tallinn, Estonia old city skyline at dawn.

Tommie Expats Finding Home In Estonia

Quick: Can you find Estonia on a map? Extra credit if you can point it out on a map without country names. Got it? It’s that one just across the Baltic Sea from the eastern border of Sweden, tucked between the northern border of Latvia and the western border of Russia.

If you’re not overly familiar with the country of about 1.3 million people you’re probably not alone. But, in recent years, Estonia has become one of the European Union’s fastest-growing startup hotbeds. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that drew two Tommies, Bjorn Lapakko ’05 and Courtney Smith ’09, to live and work in the country’s capital, Tallinn, more than a year ago.

“Estonia, I never would have thought of as somewhere to go, but it’s an awesome place. It’s good to think outside the box of England, Italy or France, Germany, those big places you think of [to work abroad],” Smith said. “Estonia just [regained] their independence in 1991, so you’re there to see all these changes. You feel you’re on the cusp of really cool things happening.”

Many companies in Estonia (and increasingly around the world) coordinate with online services to draw English speakers to work for their companies, often in marketing, writing and developing roles. One such service, Jobbatical, drew Lapakko to Tallinn, where Smith joined him shortly afterward.

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Bjorn Lapakko and Courtney Smith at Poff, an annual film awards in Estonia.

“It’s always kind of been my endgame goal to end up somewhere overseas working internationally,” said Lapakko, a Minnesota native whose father exposed him to global work with his career in international sales.

Both Smith and Lapakko had international travel experience before moving to Estonia; Smith spent her junior year at St. Thomas studying in Italy. Even so, it was surprising, Smith said, how little culture shock they felt moving to Estonia, which shares many geographical and ancestral similarities to Minnesotans’ roots in northern Europe.

“You kind of see these practices and celebrations and these days that are familiar, and they even have some of our personality quirks, which I think is just our cultural norms from our great-grandparents coming over and being instilled in us generation after generation,” Lapakko said. “You see stuff like, if there’s a dessert or even a meal that’s being shared by everybody, there’s always that one slice of that one bit left because nobody wants to be that person; nobody wants to be the person to be so bold to take the last piece. And so you just see these similarities all over the place and, man, that’s kind of crazy.”

At the same time, Tallinn’s emphasis on drawing people from around the world has created a cultural melting pot for Lapakko and Smith to immerse themselves in: “I work with a couple Danish people, Maltese, Estonians, Finnish, Russian, British, Australian,” Lapakko said.

“All the different cultures are such a gift, so to be able to experience them, go out of your comfort zone and figure out how people live and do things and relate to one another, is really important,” Smith added. “It really helps in understanding the world; the world is bigger than the community you’re in. It helps with compassion, being open-minded.”

The two ex-pats said they hope to encourage other Tommies to consider overseas work as part of their career path, both for the experiences of living and working abroad, as well as for the professional opportunities to make an impact with up-and-coming companies.

“The idea of someone being able to work as a global citizen in the digital age, there’s so much more opportunity if you’re willing to be more bold and willing to go to these places,” Lapakko said. “There are a ton of things out there.”