By: Jabriel M. Hasan
Entrepreneurship requires a spirit of courage and risk. Our class trip to Estonia embodied that spirit. I was confronted with a world apart from the one I had known, and challenged with a newfound sense of independence. The trip itself encouraged me to develop a broader, more global perspective, to recognize the deep intercultural connections of common humanity amidst a gulf of differences separating European and American culture, the over-developed and the developing worlds. I dare say I am better for this experience, better in that I am more equipped to relate to the world around me than I was before. The journey, though brief, sparked my curiosity. It seemed, throughout the trip, that I was somehow more alive than before I boarded that bus for Dulles, before I took that risk.
I began my journey in front of the Main House on March 7th. Passport in hand and luggage meticulously packed and weighed the previous night to remain under the twenty-five pound limit; I boarded the shuttle that transported us to Dulles. I did not know what to expect, and I imagine my eyes were full of wonder hearing the exotic destinations of my peers. I remembered advice I had been told before embarking on other adventures: to always be open to outcomes. Naturally, openness is the preferred disposition, but one also naturally has reservations when approaching new situations. Was I dressed appropriately enough to relate to chic, eclectic Europeans with style? Would they laugh at my accent or think I was too loud? Would Tallinn be as bright as the pictures? I didn’t know, but I was anxious to find out. I called myself dressing in my best to approach a land I could only imagine in dreams. At that juncture, I could only complete puzzles of Google images in my mind of what Europe would be. We arrived at the airport, passed through customs, and the wait began for the plane’s arrival. We boarded quietly, and took off. The Lufthansa media selection entertained me; the delicious food coaxed me to sleep, easing the tension of the long, cramped flight across the Atlantic. Just before arriving in Germany, I noticed that night on the plane’s right wing was breaking into dawn on the left. It was just passing midnight in the States, and this instance where we witnessed a skipped time zone amazed me. I asked the stewardess if such occurrences still struck her with wonder. She responded with nonchalance, but it will always be beautiful to me—man’s ingenuity meeting God’s creation.
We arrived in Estonia that Saturday afternoon. I expected a bigger more bustling airport like Germany’s, but was instead met with far more modest surroundings. The entrance to the developing world of Estonia exemplified the country’s upward trajectory—progressive, yet still developing. On the bus to Sokos Viru, we passed an Estonia not seen at the top of a Google Images search page. We rode through the cold, grey facades hastily built up during Soviet occupation. Some of these buildings seemed uninhabited, and rightfully so I suppose. In a way, they must represent the pain of oppression and the void of vibrancy caused by misguided communism. While Tallinn’s Old Town is the picturesque place of choice for marketing brochures, this vapid section of Tallinn is just as essential to understanding some of Estonia’s complexities, characterizing the historical context that continues to influence their lifestyles and livelihoods.
For most of that first day, Tallinn lay in darkness. It seemed so small to me, though still markedly different from what I knew. Eric and I ventured to Old Town, walking around the square—still unfamiliar enough with the area to hinder us from travelling through the alleys to find the fun we’d have in the nights to come. I remember seeing bear meat for sale at the grocery store, and elk soup at a restaurant in Old Town. Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed with culture that day and wanted to settle for the McDonald’s I saw at the gates of Old Town. I ended up having a pastry at the mall above our hotel. That night was but a precursor to so much adventure the next day.
After a beautiful breakfast of yogurt, hot porridge, and preserves, I joined the group to have the privilege of a guided tour of Old Town with Ms. Kaja Kuusk. The tour opened up the city to me. So much that lay in darkness the night before literally came to brilliant light and bustling life that morning. The town was colorful and spread about with intriguing history up and down each alley. The cobblestones in the square made me feel like I was in the classic Europe of Google images once again. The cold that day also reminded me that I was a long way from Virginia. Tallinn’s sea breeze and the North Eastern European overcast skies made the day the coldest forty-nine degrees I had ever felt! Never mind that though, because there was so much to learn. One alley detailed major dates in Estonian history: the numerous occupations, Tartu’s inaugural year, the year the first book was published in Estonian language, and the year the first Bible was published in Estonian. This tour enlightened me on elements of Estonian culture that I couldn’t have learned from scholarly journals. Ms. Kuusk captured the feeling of Estonian people, and that can only be related through contact with the people themselves.
The fact that the Bible only emerged in the language of the Estonian people alludes to both the power of paganism and also the tradition of limited religious practice in the region. It interested me that religion so often came as byproduct of oppression. The iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral atop Troompea Hill, the seat of Estonian government, is a striking symbol of the use of religion to express dominance over a people. While I gazed at the sheer beauty of this monument to God, I also noticed the visual juxtaposition of the imposing cathedral across the street from the relatively simple, Estonian Parliament. Soviet crosses stood firmly atop the Russian Orthodox Church, another example, a shiny example, of a grey past many Estonians wish to leave behind. Nevertheless, the architecture amazed me, and I hurried through the doors to see what was taking place inside. I found a beautiful service in progress. I had never been to a Russian Orthodox Church before. Being Protestant, it was quite different from any service I had ever witnessed—deeply, quietly spiritual. The acapella of falsettos lifted prayers to the heavens with incense rising. The priests, adorned with vestments, retreated into the sacred altar encased in gold ornamentation. Adorned icons of the saints framed with candles abounded throughout the church. I went to the gift shop looking for miniatures of these icons. I found three that I ended up purchasing. When I came across Saint Gabriel, I asked the shopkeeper to verify. She knew close to no English. Of the three people working in the church, none knew English, reminding me that language continues to be a divide between Russian Estonians and others. Estonia now requires anyone seeking citizenship to learn some of the language. In this way, Estonians are reclaiming their identities and characteristic culture after years of being forced to speak the languages of invaders. The service brought me greater understanding into the Anglican tradition, the faith I follow. The mysticism of the Orthodox, stronger even than the Catholic Church, is in many ways lost on the stripped down form of purity in the Reformed faiths. It occurred to me that, with the reformation, the gold altars, incense, heavy vestments, candles, and vivid images slipped away in attempts to reform the church from the unyielding ceremonies that some felt alienated people from the purposes of church and Christianity. I was so moved by the worship, however, that I sought out similar, mystical services offered by the Episcopal Church (the Anglican presence in the U.S.). Returning home after Spring Break, I attended a service in Richmond with candles, incense, and that sweet choral music that filled my heart with joy. In experiencing another tradition, I became stronger in my own. Many Protestants would consider this leaning toward the mysteries of faith to be very Catholic of me–somehow not firmly Protestant enough—but I seek the spirit where it leads me. I became a better Christian, in deeper connection with the divine. It amazes me how such beauty can radiate from a Cathedral that is a striking symbol of oppression for many Estonians. Maybe, in being an outsider, my fresh perspective allowed me to see a light within that has dimmed now to others.
I tended to wander during the tour because Tallinn seemed so interesting to me. It truly was a world apart from what I had known. Wandering time gave me a chance to talk with shopkeepers and embrace more of my surroundings than what a guided tour would offer. I remember seeing so many people looking with such intrigue at Quiona and I. We felt like chocolate people! We most definitely felt like strangers in a foreign land. It became uncomfortable when children would whip their heads to get a glimpse of us—the foreign matter—but I learned to overcome this discomfort. I realized that the experience was too valuable to be too discomforted, that I must take everything as a learning experience. I felt truly “othered” in Estonia. My color and wonder pinned a tourist badge on my lapel. Nevertheless, this experience of being “othered” is so important to accessing global perspective. Being so obviously a foreigner in someone else’s land is a humbling experience. Ethnocentrism quiets, and the comforts of home and the familiar fade away. I believe that we unlock a part of our true selves when being othered, because one must break open the vessel of confidence sometimes deeply hidden within in order to affirm existence. Later in the week, when I became more comfortable with the city, I challenged myself to walk around alone just to feel that I could; just to affirm myself in a foreign country. If I were to be an other, I would affirm it. I would not allow myself to feel belittled, but rather fully energized by the newness of life.
That evening, our quest to dinner took us on another tour through the alleys of Old Town, where we ended up having a beautiful dinner. Within the Town gates, in a chic restaurant, I felt another part of the culture: the love for meat! There is quite obviously no shortage of meat lovers in Estonia. My vegetarian plate was a lovely salad with some roasted veggies—a typical meal prepared by people foreign to vegetarians! All vegetarians must be in love with salad (sarcasm). I think the waiter noticed a bit of my discontent, and approached me to ask if my meal was satisfactory. I was so embarrassed. I rushed him away thanking him profusely for the meal. Though wanting more to fill my stomach at the end of dinner, I was truly thankful for the meal and the hands that prepared it. I extended my gratitude with a generous tip!
The economy lecture took place the next day. This lecture enhanced my perspective on the concept of International Development. I found it to be one of the most important lectures of the week. The professors detailed Estonian economy, its workforce, and its innovation capabilities. We learned that Estonia is still a relatively poor country in the European Union, continuing to suffer from issues of unemployment felt by the recession in 2009. The Estonian population is roughly 1,294,000, with a GDP per capita of approximately $23, 631. GDP dropped by roughly fifteen percent that year. Weak external demand, however, has been offset by rapid growth in consumption. Economic freedom in Estonia is also relatively high, ranking 13th in the world. Innovation pushes Estonia forward, rapidly moving the country out of the category of “innovative follower” to “innovation growth leader.” Much of this innovation is coming from Enterprises—small and medium sized businesses developing new goods and services for the people. In Entrepreneurship, Estonia is above the European average. Later in the week, we visited Enterprise Estonia, where much of the same information was covered. The Enterprise Estonia showed a clear commitment to the country’s commitment to development and investment. Following that visit, the IT Demo Center displayed the groundbreaking innovation of E-government—an innovation that even the States hasn’t picked up. Estonia’s small population makes much of this system feasible for the country. I couldn’t imagine the abundance of fraud in a system of over 300 million people–although he assured us of E-Government’s safety. It is clear that innovation and enterprise are carrying the torch of Estonia’s future.
I found it intriguing that there is also essentially no Union power in Estonia. As a citizen from a thoroughly capitalist, individualist culture, I saw unions as being absolutely imperative to society. I don’t think I would’ve been able to attend private school if my Dad hadn’t been a member of the Union where he worked. Though some may consider Unions a wholesale rip-off for the corporation, I remember the pain from surgeries my father underwent as a result of years of repetitive motion and strenuous labor. The job paid him, and he paid for the job in a sense. Unions are not a dirty word to me. They are a necessity in a land where the economy collapsed because banks made millions on failed loans and insurance companies make a business of illness. Yet, examining Estonia’s historical context, it is understandable why Estonia would stray away from unions. The professors explained that most employees treat their workforce well, so there is no need for unions.
This lecture also sparked interest in me to examine the system of capitalism and is effects on society. I am amazed that economic principles are taught from the same framework as before the rise of vast income inequalities and the decrease in overall happiness correlated with increase in America’s GDP. The American economy is extraordinarily productive—one of the most productive in the world, yet many Northern European countries seem to be much happier with their systems which meet the needs and the reasonable desires of the people while still maintaining a collective sense of social well-being. This desire for social well-being is something I noticed in Estonia, although their GDP is substantially lower than the States. It is grey and cold, many work tirelessly and have little money to show, but people enjoy each other’s company. I was almost begging the waiters for my check because they just assume that you want to appreciate your friends and conversation. Businesses and individuals pay hefty social taxes, but health care and education are considered social rights in Estonia and throughout much of Europe. This is an element of Estonian society that the representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce veered away from when discussing their proposed cap on social tax at their lecture later in the week. While they can only suggest, I still recognized an insistence on channeling a “global marketplace” view to the larger world. This reminded me so much of a quote from the 1976 film, Network.
You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU… WILL… ATONE! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that… perfect world… in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused (“Quotes”).
With economic globalization breaking down barriers, we must also remember the importance of globalizing human values.
I questioned the professor’s on what “quality of life” and “development” really means. I don’t think that quality of life from an economist perspective captures the fullness of what it means to have a quality life. Given, the goods and services supplied by an economy are absolutely essential to maintaining high standards of living. Resources are necessary for survival. Yet, before drowning in the well of western materialism, there must be an understanding that resources alone do not equal quality of life. Development does not mean laissez-faire capitalism for the whole world, benefitting those who are advantaged enough to gain power over capital—monetary and social—and always leaving behind those most disadvantaged to the black hole of natural selection. American capitalism seems to me more and more like Social Darwinism, but class-based rather than race-based. (Never mind that race and class are still correlated in the States.) Investigating economic systems more, I think that we need more of a Third Way system that focuses attention on both economic development as well as social well-being. America is out of balance, yanked simultaneously by the extremes of moral pressure and individual freedoms. “A house divided cannot stand.” The lack of cooperation so essential to upholding a functional civilization has left us in an impasse.
That night was much less thought-provoking, as we had the chance of eating with students from Tartu and Hokkaido University at a swanky restaurant. We all had so much fun that night that we became Facebook friends and instagram followers of some of the students.
The next morning we had the privilege of meeting the CEO of Microsoft’s Baltic Region. We learned some one of the most important concepts of business, particularly entrepreneurship, which is building your business on core values. He presented on some of Microsoft’s main core values: Integrity and Honesty, Openness, Self-Critical, Accountability, Passion, and Readiness to face Big Challenges. Of those core values, Passion speaks most to me. I believe that a business cannot function without passion for the product or service provided. Entrepreneurs must believe in their mission and accept the challenges posed when aiming to achieve their goals. Contrary to the compassion with the consumer these values stress was the response to Dr. Quigley’s question challenging the safety of electronics. He responded by basically saying “we’re all gonna die anyway.” This is not the Accountability expressed in the core values. I think he needs a better answer to such questions, and maybe Microsoft also needs to develop a better strategy for addressing such concerns. My belief is that social responsibility means much more than showering money on non-profits. Social responsibility means integrating social goals within to a business mission. Building on passion and core values, the Piano Factory tour embodied these components of excellence when striving to produce quality merchandise. It also showed how a family business can be balanced and focused. Just seeing him play the piano showed his dedication to the craft. His spirit seemed so fully invested in the product. Skype also radiated this passion for creativity and commitment to balance. The employees, one of a business’s key resources and key publics, seemed to be treated so well. We saw the accommodating stress relief rooms and the warm cafeteria. Skype was a lesson in employee investment; how commitment to quality also means to commitment to the people who produce.
The Business Incubator also proved a rewarding business experience for me, showing the passion, creativity, and innovation of entrepreneurs committed to their craft. I was most intrigued by the growing enterprise, New Vintage by Kriss. I admired her product so much, that I purchased a pair of Kriss’s lapis earrings for my friend from the Incubator store. Not having the desired time, I conducted my interview with Kriss primarily via Web. She provided me with a wealth of information on starting a small business. The full interview follows.
1. What was your motivation for starting your own business?
I have always liked being in charge of my own schedule and making decisions, taking responsibilities, etc. Making jewellery was just a nice way to rewind and relax and also to make the kind of pieces I liked. The fact that so many others also liked those pieces was a bit of a surprise at first. So for the first 2 years I just slowly did it on the side- testing, seeing if there is any potential to actually make a living out of it and figuring out who do I make these pieces for, who is my client and what is my brand all about. Finally when I felt that timing was right I searched out one of the Creative Incubators in Tallinn, Estonia and joined them. Early on I discovered that time and great team are essential to making your plans come true. So truly the motivation for starting the business was that I wanted to spend my entire day doing something that I enjoy and getting paid for it – and I have to say so far it is pretty great:)
2. What are your core values?
– Keeping it simple.
– I value good people – my team, my clients, my business partners.
– Believing in the products and the company.
– Business can be personal and still successful.
– Curious and open mind are essential to learning and developing.
– Healthy work/life balance
3. How does the business incubator help you achieve your business goals?
It saves me time and money. I know what direction I need to go with my brand and company, but to keep moving towards it requires hundreds of little steps. Since time is the most valuable commodity, then I try to use the help of experts when making important decision- lawyers, accountants, marketing specialists (Incubator has all of these people under one roof). I save lots of time and money by having the all in one place and at arms length.
The incubator also provides the studio space with all the extras at a much lower cost. This enables me to channel more of my finances into expanding the business.
Thirdly they organize events and bring in guests, so that more and more people find out about my brand and at times out of some of these connections I have found new business partners. Again it is a matter of time – you could probably get to them eventually but it would take much longer and be more costly.
4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting and owning your own business?
These are just a few that came to mind…there are certainly more, others, but hopefully this is ok:))
You decide how you spend your time
You can create the kind of working environment that you enjoy
You feel proud of your achievements
You feel valued
You can positively inspire and touch so many others
You can create the kind of lifestyle you want
You are always busy
You are responsible for the failures
5. How do you finance your own business?
I have been fortunate enough to be able to finance the business through the profit from the sales. We don’t have any loans and for some of the bigger projects we have also gotten some government funding.
6. With the success of your product, do you ever think you will ever try selling your product through a larger retailer?
Yes, why not if the circumstances are right. For me the process is continually developing, changing so I am always open to all options. If that time comes, then I will look at all the facts, discuss it with my team and try to make the decision that fits into the goals of the company.
Trips to other cities refreshed the overall experience for me. Helsinki gave me a chance to see “how the other side lives.” Helsinki, Finland is quite obviously a much more affluent city than Tallinn. Helsinki is a bustling Northern European city unmarked by the scars of the Soviet years. While only a short trip across the sea separates Tallinn and Helsinki, the striking difference between the developed and developing world is apparent. The last day, I took the adventure to Tartu with Dr. Quigley, Corri, and Sarah. I will never regret taking the risk even though the rain and snow felt like it froze my feet. We saw so much of the country between Tartu and Tallinn on the trip, and had the chance of experiencing another part of Estonia. The tour guide was so kind and even sang a song to us! Tartu was beautiful, though its college town status is apparent when seeing the shortage of attractions. We did, however, enjoy delicious food at a restaurant near the school and ventured through a toy factory that told the stories of the nation’s children.
Estonia challenged me to think and learn, to dance, to grow in confidence and independence. I think I embraced the risk.
“Quotes.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 07 May 2014.