Karoli Hindriks

Karoli Hindriks is the founder and CEO of Jobbatical, a platform that connects globetrotting talent to tech companies. She previously founded three and managed five companies in television and marketing field, before establishing Jobbatical in 2014.

Karoli Hindriks: Estonia has become angry

Estonian entrepreneur Karoli Hindriks says in a letter to her father, who passed away twelve years ago – the father who taught her to be a patriot – that she’s worried because within the last year, her country has become angry.

Dear Dad,

Twelve years ago, when you passed, I wrote you a letter promising that your life wouldn’t end there. That I would live for you, take you with me in my heart on every journey and adventure to every country I visit. That my heart would be our meeting place on Earth.

On my journeys since then, I’ve seen places you never did. I’ve introduced Estonia to people who had seemed light years away on the screen and in books. I’ve felt the pain and struggles that have taught me to become a better person – a better Estonian.

Our young Estonia has done well, Dad. Remember when I told you stories about my very first trips, where people would ask me questions like, “Do you have TVs in Estonia?” or “Do you have polar bears running around everywhere?”

Today, when I say I’m from Estonia, I get appreciative nods everywhere from the United States to Japan and Australia. Because Estonia today is one of the world’s digitally advanced countries. It’s a shame that you missed out on our Mobile-ID, e-elections, and Taxify. We’re still a young country, but all of this is gradually enriching us as a nation. And we’ve been taking far bigger strides than countries that embarked on this journey at the same time we did, like Belarus or Latvia.

Immense respect for our culture and heritage

But now, twelve years later, I am writing to you again because I am concerned.

You taught me how to be a patriot before we were ever allowed to be patriotic in public. I was inspired by your stories about your mother and father, the people’s pain and struggle – never losing faith in the inevitable arrival of freedom and an open world. I remember sitting on your shoulders one September evening in 1988, excitedly waving the blue-black-white flag and singing, along with hundreds of thousands of people, about a country that to me had only ever existed in your stories. You passed on to me an immense respect for our shared culture and heritage. A respect that I carry with me every day.

But Estonia has become angry. Hate and fear-mongering have brought about the emergence of domestic terrorism and violence.

A couple of weeks ago my phone rang on a perfectly ordinary evening. It was my American friend. She was in a state of shock. She had just been out walking her dog near her home, in the middle of Tallinn. She’d been speaking on the phone when two Estonian men attacked her. The men began to throw rocks at her and her dog, shouting “Go home, foreigner” in English. Both my friend and her dog were injured – the dog more so.

Harassed foreigners look to their embassies for help

My friend’s husband is Estonian. Her home is in Estonia and she runs a business and creates jobs here. Her heart is in Estonia. Wherever she travels, she’s a vocal ambassador of Estonia, praising this innovative country she’s chosen as her home. But it turns out that she is no longer safe in her adopted home country.

And she’s not the only one. I recently learned from an entrepreneur friend of mine about his Spanish team member – an Estonian resident and taxpayer for the past seven years – who has been similarly harassed. For a couple of weeks now, he and his partner, who is eight months pregnant, have been stalked by a man from their neighbourhood. This man follows them, trying to intimidate them into “packing their bags and moving back to Arabia”. It’s got to a point where the family is too scared to leave their home and have had to ask their embassy for advice.

Dad, this would have been unheard of in your lifetime. And for you, it would have been hard to believe. Remember that Canadian-Iranian family who moved to our hometown of Pärnu in the early days of the newly liberated Estonia? Their kids taught me and my brother English. You, Mom and my sister were simply delighted that such lovely people had chosen Estonia as their home.

Today, our country, which has built itself up from total poverty into an innovative digital nation by the sweat of its people’s brows, is turning onto a path of isolation and internal polarisation.

Estonia’s employment needs to go up to nearly 79%

To understand the gravity of the situation, we need some context. We’re living in an era of an unprecedented talent shortage that is paralysing countries and economies across the globe. By 2030, Korn Ferry reports there will be a deficit of 85 million people from the job market. That’s about as much as the entire population of Germany. This labour deficit can cost the world economy around USD8.5 trillion. Any country that can attract external labour in this environment might hope for a slightly softer landing.

To better illustrate what this battle for talent means for us: the labour markets in Japan, Brazil and Indonesia are facing a deficit of 18 million people each – 54 million workers between them. For each of these countries, that’s 18 million people they need to attract from the outside just to keep their economies at their current levels. Not to mention growth.

For Estonia to maintain its number of people in the workforce, employment needs to go up to nearly 79%. But in the first half of 2017, the employment rate was 77.5%. And a 2017 study showed that by 2025, the Estonian job market will have lost 43,000 people.

That’s about €220 million in unpaid taxes, assuming an average salary (€1,221/month) and an average tax rate of 35%. There were 6,503 foreign workers in Estonia last year, but we’ll need many more to maintain our social system.

With no help from foreign workers, pensions and child support will dry up. Our hatred towards strangers is contributing to the deepening of poverty in Estonia.

Newcomers will go elsewhere if we don’t treat them well

Foreign entrepreneurs – like my friend who was recently attacked – currently employ 110,806 people in Estonia, which is 16% of our total employment. If she and others like her were forced to take her business elsewhere, about one in six workers in Estonia would lose their jobs.

If we don’t treat newcomers well, they’ll simply go somewhere else and contribute to another economy instead. It’s a serious blow for us. Not to mention what a deep disconnect this xenophobia is from the Estonia I grew up in.

“If we don’t treat newcomers well, they’ll simply go somewhere else and contribute to another economy instead.”

We need to bring in more smart and skilled people to keep Estonia from descending into poverty. But right now, we’re throwing rocks at those who, through some miracle, have chosen to make our country their home. What’s wrong with this picture?

Refugees are a great source of fear and concern. But since 1997 – over the past 20 years – only 445 refugees have come to Estonia. Almost a quarter are from Ukraine. 165 have come here to escape the Syrian war. About half are children.

Just like our own people once ran from the war, so others are doing now. But the fact of the matter is, even they don’t particularly want to be here – the climate is bad, social benefits aren’t great. Those who do stay roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Contrary to what the fearmongers might have us believe, there are no hordes of manual labourers at our gates, looking to take over our country. Interestingly, as the World Bank reports, the fastest-growing migrant group is that of skilled workers. Over the past two decades, the number of skilled migrants has grown by 130%.

Hatred is born out of fear

Talent movement is what’s shaping economies right now. Migration into Estonia will determine whether we can afford pensions and child benefits. It will also determine how competitive our labour market is.

I know what you might say, Dad. Hatred is born out of fear. Not everyone in Estonia has had equal opportunity to progress and thrive. The average monthly pension in Q3 of this year was €424.8. It’s not easy to live on that, especially when a harsh winter comes knocking. My Mom is retired now, so I see what is happening.

Which is why I know that we simply must do better. Be better.

It’s probably not very often that most of us think about Belarus, for example, where the average monthly pension today is around €118. Two decades ago our two countries started our journeys of independence together. They chose isolation back then.

Estonia was forcibly deprived of fifty years of freedom. Fifty long years of economic progress. The bitterness we’re seeing today can be traced back to that. And it’s understandable. With the whole world gushing about the success of e-Estonia, wouldn’t you be angry if you couldn’t even feed your family?

They’re just people

But we have a choice to make today. It’s time to be bold. Will we take the path of isolation? Fail to keep up with the demands of the economy and descend into poverty? Or can we learn to respect and cherish the people who want to come here from all over the world to help build and boost this nation?

Because that’s all they are – people. It’s too easy to label them. Refugees, migrants, strangers, foreigners. I don’t even want to mention the truly hideous labels I’ve seen used whenever I write publicly on this subject. There are real people behind these labels. Smart, skilled, eager, and ready – for some crazy, wonderful reason – to do their work and pay their hard-earned taxes here. People who can and want to be just as proud of Estonia as we are.

That’s not to say we should naively believe every person on the planet is perfectly virtuous. There are bad people in every social group. But at this pivotal point in history, many good people leaving should be far scarier to us than a handful of bad ones arriving. The value these people can bring far outweighs the risk of some of them having bad intentions.

I have been a patriot, just like I promised

In 2017, my foreign colleagues were the ones who excitedly bought their tickets early for the Youth Song and Dance Celebration. At a recent meeting in Silicon Valley, I witnessed my American co-worker’s impassioned speech about how moving from Florida to Estonia changed his family’s life. His children now go to an Estonian school and are learning our language. An Indian developer on our team greets me in Estonian every morning.

Dad, twelve years ago I was writing my last letter to you, but I’m writing to you again because I need your guidance. You taught me how to be a patriot, and I have been. On all of my journeys, just like I promised. Today I need to figure out how to steer Estonia towards a path of understanding and patriotism. The type of patriotism that strengthens us and our nation.

So that we remember how we once yearned for an open world, and how this openness got us where we are today. So that we see how much our economy has to gain from opening our borders and our hearts. So that we realise that being Estonian goes beyond a human being’s skin colour or religious background. And so that we understand – we are much stronger united than we are alone.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Soldiers of Odin Estonia members at the Tallinn Freedom Square on 9 December 2018 (The image is illustrative. Soldiers of Odin is an anti-immigrant group founded in Finland. The group has denied claims of being a racist or neo-Nazi group. However, the group’s founder, Mika Ranta, has connections to the far-right, neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement and a criminal conviction stemming from a racially motivated assault in 2005).

Karoli Hindriks: When the tanks have passed your playground

Karoli Hindriks, the CEO and founder of the Estonian startup, Jobbatical, writes about her personal not-so-pleasant experiences of growing up in the Soviet-occupied Estonia.

This week my native country, nestled in a remote corner of the Earth about 500 miles from Santa’s village, celebrates 25 years since the restoration of its independence. 25 years since I stood by the road in my hometown, watching the Russian tanks leave. 25 years since actual food arrived in the stores. 25 years since I tasted yoghurt for the very first time (it was strawberry-flavoured, in case you were wondering). 25 years since the wall isolating us from the outside world collapsed and the terror started to fade.

I’ve been observing the recent happenings around Brexit and the Donald Trumps of the world wanting to build walls to isolate their people from the outside world. I’ve come to the conclusion that none of these people have absolutely any idea what they’re talking about, much like someone who’s never been hungry can never understand the meaning of hunger.

Everybody was equal, but some were a lot more equal than others

I was born in a country occupied by the Soviet Union and my childhood was largely spent in full isolation from the outside world. Let’s talk about life in that world – a world that some people today are trying to rebuild out of ignorance and hate.

My family lived in a small town called Pärnu. One of the main things I remember from early childhood is waiting in lines. To get anything at all – from a chunk of butter to a pair of socks – you had to stand in line for hours, and in most cases you still walked home empty-handed.

Soviet bread shop in Tallinn - credit Viisnurga Varjus

I have a younger brother, so my mother often sent me to do the queueing. Luckily we lived right next to the grocery store (minus the groceries most of the time, of course). I would recognise the sound of a bread truck from a mile away, drop whatever I was doing to run home for coupons (money was quite worthless), and then head to the bread line. The smell and taste of fresh rye bread (with butter, if we were lucky) still gives me goose bumps. If I could order a tailor-made scented candle today, that would probably be it.

You had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew a high-ranking Soviet state official, just to get access to groceries. That’s how “equal” the world of communism was: everybody was equal, but some were a lot more equal than others.

Once our dad brought home bananas. I’m not sure what he had to do to get them, but we couldn’t have been happier, even though they were green and we had to wait days for them to ripen.

The meaning of Iron Curtain

Travelling outside the Soviet Union was practically impossible. You needed an exit visa and a very convincing reason to visit even the (very Estonian) island of Saaremaa – apparently the risk of people escaping the country by boat (to Sweden) from the island was too high.

Soviet border guards in Hiiumaa island, Estonia - photo courtesy of Arno Kuuse

My grandmother had met a Swedish sailor in Tallinn and married him a few years before I was born. After years of KGB interrogations, tears and threats to her family, she got the permission to leave the country and live in Sweden with her new husband. Years later, when she was finally allowed to visit us in Estonia again, she had to stay in a hotel near the port where all rooms were wired by the KGB.

ThrillerBut during her trips, my grandma managed to smuggle in important things from the outside world – such as tomato ketchup and Michael Jackson’s hit album, “Thriller”. It was that album cover that taught me there were people of other colours in the world. When I first saw two real-life black people years later, I yelled with excitement: “Look, sister! The Jacksons!” My then teenage sister could not have been more embarrassed.

In the Soviet world, anything outside the average was punishable. The tens of thousands of people deported to Siberian concentration camps from Estonia were mostly the intellectuals of the country: the lawyers, the doctors, the writers. Homosexuality was a criminal offense with punishments of up to five years’ hard labour. A disabled person in the public space was a rarity. The dreams of an individual were taboo.

World with open minds and open borders

Fast-forward to ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I had managed to get a scholarship for a student exchange in New Hampshire in the United States. I remember sitting in my favourite Breaking New Grounds café in Portsmouth six months after my arrival, sipping hot chocolate with marshmallows and realising how I had changed for the better during my time in the States. How something in my view of the world had shifted. It occurred to me then that if every person could live abroad for at least a year, the world would be a better place.

Breaking New Grounds cafe in Portsmouth

Although I got to the actual idea for my company, Jobbatical, fifteen years later, this was the moment that sparked my inspiration. It was then that I decided I wanted to help build a world with open minds and open borders.

As the Atlantic magazine reported, “In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining more closely what many people have already learned anecdotally: that spending time abroad may have the potential to affect mental change.” The article goes on to say, “Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalise the mind.”

My daughter travelled more before she was born than I had within the first fifteen years of my life. She has interacted with people of all colours, races and religions. In her world there are no stereotypes, just people. It is my mission to encourage that in her life. And it is our mission with Jobbatical to encourage that in the world.


This post was first published in Jobbatical blog. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: The Soviet tanks and military vehicles entering Tallinn for the last time on 20 August 1991 (photo by Tõnu Noorits). Read also: Visit behind the Iron Curtain.

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