In our “Global Estonians” feature we talk to diverse people in different cities, countries and continents. Merle Liivand is a professional swimmer and swimming gear entrepreneur, based in Florida, the United States.
Where in the world and how long you have been wandering around?
As a professional swimmer I have had chance to travel around the world lots of different places, but in the last four years in my life I have been living in United States, in a beautiful warm Miami/Fort Lauderdale area.
What have been your greatest challenges, after moving to Florida? How does it compare to your home country?
As a professional swimmer I had chance to visit the South Florida area a year before I moved here. I had a two-week training camp and I remember that every day when I woke up I felt like I was home. I actually didn’t know that I will be landing the same place a year later, but it definitely helped me understand where to go and how the culture around is. I have to admit it was really hard to leave my family and really good friends behind.
My biggest obstacle was to find organic food out here. In Estonia, it’s like a blessing to have organic food and being surrounded by nature where you can go and relax. In Florida, you have to really look for places where you can do this, due to the swamps and the alligators. Here you have tropical weather all year around. But thanks to my profession today, I have a chance to see a variety of nature around the US.
As soon as I moved here, I realised that our ID-card system and how our banks work in Estonia is another real plus to get things done faster and better. Sometimes it is unbelievable how much time I have to spend taking care of paperwork. But the US is a bigger country, so it’s expected to have delays.
But in other hand I can swim in the warm ocean all year round.
I think this move from a small to a bigger country was good. What I have realised is that I have definitely grown stronger and more mature here in America. Also, my fears of life and confidence issues have got some healing. This is a typical Estonian problem, I think. We are a shy and humble people who work hard and we keep our achievements to ourselves. I have been asked so many times, why I am keeping myself like a diamond in a box. We, Estonians, probably think most of the time that we are never good enough and it’s really nothing what we do. We live in a changing society and hopefully we don’t hide our “gold” anymore – what are actually our smart Estonians!
How much knowledge about Estonia did the locals you came across have?
It’s funny how it is, but people first had a hard time to even pronounce my name. I got thousands of different nicknames in the first week. And when the question came about where I was from, things got more interesting! People asked me if I was from Venus or Mars and does Estonia exists on Earth. Sometimes they think that we are really “E-stoneland” and I think there is a lot to do with a movie called Encino Man.
“I am not shy to show that I am an Estonian!”
I often have Skype business and conference calls and when I tell them the service was developed in Estonia, usually business also gets easier, in a good way. It’s so cool to see how people are getting excited to learn about my country after they meet me. I just recently had a situation when I went to Suriname and one of the businessmen had done research about Estonia before he met me. He knew about our prime minister and how smart is our president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Another day I had a meeting here in Miami with a Barbados businessman and I told him about Estonia’s e-residency plan. That system really helps people from far away come and do business in Europe.
I love to be patriotic – all my friends will probably laugh and agree 1,000% here that I am saying that. Our small country is undiscovered and strangers really get to know my country after meeting me and another Estonians. I love to wear Estonian flag colours, designer clothes and also my latest suit, which is Estonian style with printed Estonian symbols. I am not shy to show that I am an Estonian!
How do you make your living and what has been your best professional experience so far?
I always loved to be involved in my family business. My first work experience was when I was four years old and I was my mum’s assistant at my grandmother’s store. According to my mum, I loved to look at tourists and at numbers. In high school, I started to help my dad in his company. I learned quickly about payments, taxes and how to invest into workforce for a better business quality.
I have now my own swim-sports-gear company, called Swimera, in Estonia. We are focused on the Baltic area and Scandinavian market. I have to say that founding my own company was one of the sweetest moments in my life. Working between the US headquarters and factories, and Europe, is what makes days more interesting. What brings still warm vibes is that our company got a chance to help with the European Union health project, “We Are Moving”, as a helper and a sponsor. One of my goals has always been to pass something on to the younger generations!
But I think that professionally my greatest experience in the US has been that I have been able to meet people whom I wished to meet when I was younger. It’s kind of weird to think about it because I hang out now with these people and they came to my life from nowhere. Things haven’t happened overnight and not all was planned, but it’s always interesting to see where the life drives you.
I have many ideas and currently preparing other projects. One idea is to import Estonian organic products to the US. We’ll see how that goes.
My vision in life is simple: work hard, take time when needed, follow your heart and good things might happen to you without even knowing it.
What do you like and dislike most about life in Florida?
I think every place on Earth has its pluses and minuses. Some things are good and some things are better than others. The US is just such a big country that it makes it hard to say what I dislike. Since I live in Florida, I definitely feel that the Estonian nature and weather makes Estonia in some days more enjoyable to live. Yes, I love to swim in the ocean in January, but I also want to have time to do cross-country skiing. Sometimes I feel the need to see our four seasons to feel alive and fresh again. There are some theories which say that thanks to our Nordic weather, we are better at multitasking and generally survivors. There is even statistics which claims that people in the north are more intelligent.
“I feel blessed and lucky that my company is based in Estonia. The Estonian ID-card and bank system are just so convenient that I truly love to open my laptop every day.”
I feel blessed and lucky that my company is based in Estonia. The Estonian ID-card and bank system are just so convenient that I truly love to open my laptop every day. I don’t have to travel and spend money or time to get things done. I can organise my taxes in less than three minutes and I voted at the Europe Parliament elections from my bed in Florida. I remember I was on my way to Miami airport, sat down on a train and founded my company in less than five minutes. It’s just amazing what kind of benefits Estonians have compared to countries where these things take more time and paperwork moves slowly.
Another thing I have to point out is our safety in Estonia. I truly feel that as a little girl, when I was growing up and had a chance to go to the kindergarten or school by myself, was a privilege. I often see how older kids get picked up and dropped off to school in the States and I feel a little sad about it. They miss the fun part of life. It was so cool to go and play at the playground for a couple of hours, come home and not bother mum and dad. At the age of six, I was able to visit the market to pick up milk and had to calculate whether I get the correct change or not.
Often, when I visit Estonia and ride on a bus, I feel happy to see kids and students using public transport and being independent. In Florida, the public transport doesn’t almost exist and people here will dream to ride around for free like in Tallinn. I don’t see any need for a car when I am in Estonia and meeting my clients. The free and convenient transport in the capital really helps people get everywhere. People maybe don’t get it, but we are really blessed today.
There are many great benefits in Estonia – I sometimes feel our country is so small that we really need to go around the world and be global and build up life globally.
What about Estonians in your place?
In South Florida, we have a community called South Florida Estonian Families. We are really united and organising picnics, birthdays or “mummy nights”. I am a 24-year-old young woman without a family yet, but I love to hang out with mums and learn from them what to do one day when I have kids. One of my dreams is to have an Estonian school for the kids or adults where we can teach our language, culture and food. I even spoke about that once on an airplane with Estonian member of the European Parliament, Marju Lauristin, and she gave me good advice about it.
Because of the warm weather, you could meet many Estonians who have come to Florida from Canada. On the Estonian Independence Day, we had over 200 local Estonians celebrating.
What do you think should be differently in Estonia? What should be never changed in Estonia?
As lovely as Estonia is, I have witnessed and get the feeling that our people are not happy.
I notice when dealing with companies that it’s hard to find good service-oriented people sometimes. Our customer service people should get different training before they are ready to serve customers. I know our economic situation compared with the larger EU countries is not that great, but we need to make the best out of it. For example, I had a situation where I felt it was better to speak in English and subsequently get a better service, than speaking my own language in my own country. It is sad.
Our behaviour has a lot to do with our history. We weren’t allowed to be happy and our lives were constantly under pressure. But that’s not an excuse to be grumpy all the time. Now it’s time to change our attitude. It will start serving us better when our customer service even in toughest times has a positive feedback. I believe this is another key to energise our economy.
“There is an old saying – for an Estonian, best meal on the table is another Estonian. I think it’s time to change that and make a change and start being more united together!”
There is an old saying – for an Estonian, best meal on the table is another Estonian. I think it’s time to change that and make a change and start being more united together!
Then again, there is a weird paradox. At song festivals and historical cultural events, we are more united than ever. Maybe we need more of these kind of events?
The change starts with us – the people. Our parents, friends, coaches and teachers can make a huge change. We often criticise and judge each other. I agree that a little criticism is good for a successful life, but we should start giving each other more positive vibes than putting each other down.
When you are telling about Estonia to a complete stranger who has not heard anything about it in your country or region, what are the things you point out, or the story you tell them? How should Estonia be seen around the world?
I am a true patriot and my friends often laugh that I am like a Disney character from some kind of mystery land called Estonia. I love to talk about our Christmas market and the snowy old town in Tallinn that is really unique.
I have discovered that due to Estonia’s location, we are really good at business. It’s not a miracle that centuries ago, our cities like Tallinn, Tartu, Narva and Pärnu were part of the Hanseatic League. Our success stories about Skype, TransferWise, Teleport, the ID-card system and mobile parking are my favourite topics – I keep sharing stories about Estonians and Estonian businesses on my Facebook profile!
“I think Estonia has a lot, but now we should focus to put that out there, instead of waiting world to come to our country.”
Thanks to startup success stories in Estonia, I have recognised that our younger generation is really hard working and smart. I don’t think that parents in Estonia should really complain about their laziness.
Well, our women’s beauty is also something that I get often asked about. I’m a little bit shy to talk about – mostly because to me, my soul and brain are more important than appearance, but I am not shy to share an article where American designer Michel Kors was talking about smart Estonian females.
Estonian sesigners are also great. Another day I was walking in Miami on Lincoln Road with my Brazilian friends and they wanted to do shopping at Osklen. They were surprised to find out that Oskar Metsavaht, who is behind this company, has Estonian roots.
But sometimes I don’t have to introduce Estonia – people know already about it. For example, Margus Hunt doesn’t need introduction anymore because people followed his story in American football.
Another recognised Estonian person is our singer Kerli. Her story is really something cool to follow. The fact that she makes her costumes herself shows how skilled Estonian talents are in so many different ways.
“We are Estonians, we can do everything!”
We have lots to show to the world because in a short time, we have built up a pretty unique country. I hope there are many other patriots who really keep carrying on our culture. I have multiple friends who have visited Estonia because they learned something by my stories and they wanted to see it by their own eyes. Being a young traveller, I have ended up in situations where I have discovered that the places were not as great, compared to books or stories. Sometimes marketing has to be done better and more viral than we think. I think Estonia has a lot, but now we should focus to put that out there, instead of waiting world to come to our country. Our humbleness and shyness is our biggest problem sometimes. A sleeping cat will not catch a mouse.
If you could encourage Estonians to do one thing, what would it be?
Let’s be more united! I have seen our civic-led mass movement that aims to clean up the whole world from illegally dumped solid waste – ‘Let’s Do It World!’ I think we need these kinds of projects in other areas as well. As a small country, we can make big changes faster and quicker. But this has to start inside ourselves if we want to. And I believe we are able to do things better in this world. Like one businessman told me: “Merle, you are an Estonian and looks like you can do everything.” We are Estonians, we can do everything!