Top 12 most outstanding Estonian women in the world 2019

For International Women’s Day, Estonian World has compiled a list of the most outstanding Estonian women on the global stage.

It is important to emphasise that this is not the ultimate list of the most important Estonian women in the world. There are many others who work hard and stand out. Merely, we have brought out the names of Estonian women who have a larger-than-usual clout and impact outside Estonian borders and help to put the name “Estonia” on the lips of more people around the world.

Anett Kontaveit, sportswoman

Anett Kontaveit is an Estonian professional tennis player. She started training when she was six years old and three years later won her first title. In 2009, Kontaveit won the Estonian women’s championship – at 13, she was the youngest ever to win the adult championship in singles.

Her international breakthrough came in 2011 when she started to play in the ITF women’s tournaments. At her first grass tournament of 2017, the Ricoh Open, Kontaveit reached her second final of the year. In that final, she clinched her maiden WTA title and ensured a top 40 debut. On 1 October 2018, she reached her best singles ranking of No 21 after finishing runner-up at the 2018 Wuhan Open.

Anu Tali, conductor

Anu Tali is an Estonian conductor, currently working as the music director of the Sarasota Orchestra in the US (she is to stand down from her music directorship of the orchestra this year), and she’s also a co-founder of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra.

She has appeared with the Japan and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg at the Salzburger Festspiele, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, among others. In November 2017, the Washington Post named Tali as one of the “female conductors to watch”.

Karoli Hindriks, entrepreneur

Karoli Hindriks is an Estonian entrepreneur and the founder of Jobbatical, a company that blends the concept of a job and a sabbatical, matching employers and talent for short-term jobs worldwide.

At 16, she became the youngest inventor in Estonia with a registered patent after transforming a school fashion project – a pedestrian reflector – into a successful business. When she was 24, she spearheaded MTV’s expansion into Estonia, becoming the network’s youngest national CEO. She tripled the network’s sales in the country within two years. By 26, she founded a media sales agency, working with Fox International, helping launch six Fox channels in the region. In 2014, when she was just 31 years old, she founded Jobbatical.

“I discovered that for a person like me, having worked for more than 10 years, there was an option to go and pick melons in Australia or take up an internship. I started to wonder that there must be a multitude of people like me who could add more value than that,” she told Estonian World in an interview on how Jobbatical was born. The company now has 300,000 members around the world – people who are ready to relocate anywhere in the world for the perfect opportunity.

Kelly Sildaru, sportswoman

Kelly Sildaru is a freestyle skier. She started to ski when she was two years old and at the age of 13, became the youngest gold medallist to date at a Winter X Games event, having won the slopestyle event in 2016. In 2017, she won the slopestyle competition at her first World Cup event in New Zealand. She was the gold medal favourite for the women’s slopestyle event in the 2018 winter Olympics, but she missed competing in the games because of a knee injury.

At the X Games Aspen 2019, she won her third gold medal in women’s ski slopestyle, setting a new games record with a score of 99.00.

Kristel Kruustük, entrepreneur

Having worked as a tester herself, and become disillusioned by how testers were treated by big app-building companies, in 2012, Kristel Kruustük came up with the idea of building a platform that would actually appreciate the work of a tester − if you find a critical mistake and draw attention to it, you are also likely to be motivated to fix it − thereby providing development teams with quality-assurance testers.

That was the start of Testlio – a company with a goal to become a world leader in mobile apps testing. With offices in Tallinn, Estonia, and San Francisco, CA, the startup has so far raised USD7.5 million in funding and its clients include Microsoft and Lyft. Many Estonian startup entrepreneurs point out that Kruustük has become one of the inspiring role models for other women who are now willing to try their hand in IT and even dream about becoming entrepreneurs and leaders.

But it’s not all work and no fun for Kruustük – whenever she feels in low spirits or simply needs time to muse over, she likes to play the piano. “Playing the piano is like being an entrepreneur,” Kruustük said in an interview in 2016. “You will not be very good at it as you start, and it will take a while to excel. You need to practice a lot and learn it by doing, sometimes going slower and then adding speed if needed.”

Kristiina Poska, conductor

In 2011, Kristiina Poska’s career led to engagements at the Komische Oper Berlin for the opera, La Traviata. Poska was enthusiastically received there by both the orchestra and the audience and she was then appointed as First Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin.

It has been said that “wherever young Kristiina Poska appears on the podium, she thrills and convinces with her exceptional musicality and her impressive, highly distinguished conducting”.

Poska is internationally much in demand as a conductor – in 2015, she was the busiest female conductor in the world, based on performances in all genres. In October 2018, Theater Basel in Switzerland announced the appointment of Poska as its next general music director, effective in the 2019-2020 season.

Lili Milani, scientist

Lili Milani was born in Sweden to Iranian parents, but her family moved to Estonia when she was 13, due to her dad’s work at the Tallinn University of Technology. Milani went to the Tallinn English College and picked up both the Estonian and English language pretty fast.

She became interested about genetics and acquired a master’s degree in genome technology at the University of Tartu and then defended her doctoral degree in 2009 at Uppsala University in the speciality of molecular medicine. After defending her PhD degree, she returned to Estonia and started a career at Estonian Genome Centre of the University of Tartu, where today she is a head researcher.

Since then, Milani has implemented new methods in the core facility of the Estonian Genome Centre that are not only used for research purposes but also to diagnose serious genetic diseases. In 2018, the centre ran the Estonian government-backed project to collect the DNA samples of 100,000 Estonians – with the aim of collecting genetic data and integrating it into every-day medical practice by giving people feedback of their personal genetic risks.

Milani has also published research papers in magazines such as Genome Research, Nature, Science, Nature Genetics and BMC Genomics – and is among the most cited female Estonian scientists in the world. Despite her Iranian roots, Milani has publicly said that she feels Estonian and likes that feeling.

Maarja Nuut, music artist

While combining vocal work with violin, Maarja Nuut’s music is a blend of Estonian folk traditions with contemporary experimental sounds. Since 2016, she has toured in over 50 countries around the world and found many culturally influential fans along the way. “That’s what it sounds like when the snow sings,” Simon Le Bon, the lead singer and lyricist of the band, Duran Duran, once remarked on Twitter about Nuut.

Le Bon is just one of many culturally influential fans of Nuut. “It would be churlish to miss out on reporting, or raving about, what a phenomenal artist Maarja Nuut is. /–/ There’s a touristy pub in Tallinn centre called Hell Hunt that boasts a painting above the door showing a naked girl, eyes shut and smiling, riding on the back of a grinning wolf. That’s what her music sounds like,” said the Quietus, a British online music and pop culture magazine, in a review of her sound.

Currently, Nuut is touring Australia and New Zealand.

Mari Kalkun, music artist

Singer-songwriter Mari Kalkun relies in her work on her southern Estonian roots, singing in the Võro dialect. Her songs are inspired by nature, Estonian poetry and folk music. For making music and accompanying herself, she uses the kannel, the piano, the accordion and the guitar, but sometimes also pipes, whistles and various experimental instruments.

While most of the Estonian pop and rock artists have struggled to attract even the tiniest of attention abroad, Kalkun has been on a radar of the international music press for some time.

In December, the Guardian included Kalkun’s third album “Ilmamõtsan” among the 2018’s 10 best world albums – a list otherwise dominated by African, Middle Eastern and Caribbean artists. Back in June 2018, the Guardian wrote in its review of the “Ilmamõtsan” – which Kalkun recorded almost entirely solo at her studio in her Võru county farmhouse – that “the result is a mesmerising record steeped in a sylvan atmosphere” and called the album “a magical creation”.

Separately, another British media outlet, the Arts Desk, also included Kalkuns’ “Ilmamõtsan” among the Albums of the Year 2018.

Marika Mikelsaar, scientist 

Unlike most other women in this list, Marika Mikelsaar has not stood out in any single year – rather, the scientific work she started back in 1995, has produced successful results as years go by. Mikelsaar, together with Mihkel Zilmer, led the University of Tartu research teams that discovered the ME-3 probiotic bacteria. The ME-3 protects the human health by attacking harmful microbes and contributing to physical well-being.

Subsequently, the ME-3 bacteria caught the interest of manufacturers of leaven, food and food supplements in Estonia, Finland, Denmark, France, Italy, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Taiwan, China and other countries. It can be added to yoghurts or sold as capsules in pharmacies.

“At every conference, the most fascinating presenters are asked about their dreams. A scientist always spontaneously answers that their dream is to have their discovery put into use,” Mikelsaar, now a professor emeritus, said in 2018.

Moonika Siimets, film director

Moonika Siimets is a film director whose 2018 debut full-length feature film, “The Little Comrade”, wowed the audiences at home and caught attention also abroad. She studied her trade at Tallinn University and in addition, participated in Judith Weston’s screenwriting and directing master classes in the US.

She started her directing career with several documentaries, but it was her debut feature film, “The Little Comrade”, that brought her a wider attention and praise. The film about Stalinist tyranny is based on the autobiographical novel written by the renowned Estonian writer, Leelo Tungal, and tells the story of the six-year-old Leelo, whose mother was sent to a Soviet prison camp.

The Variety magazine said that “Moonika Siimets successfully captures the perplexed perspective of a traumatized 6-year-old who sees her mother, a school principal, arrested and taken away at gunpoint. … Siimets’ screenplay makes it possible for those unfamiliar with Baltic history to comprehend what is going on from Leelo’s point of view, as even the everyday language around her changes,” the magazine added. It also noted that “Siimets and her adorable lead actress create numerous instances of plaintive humour”.

In 2018, Siimets’ movie was crowned best debut film at Nordic Film Days Lübeck in Germany, won the grand prize at the Waterloo Historical Film Festival in Belgium and the Public Choice Award at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea.

Riina Kionka, EU official

Riina Kionka at her desk in Brussels. © European Union

Riina Kionka is the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, making her the most influential official of Estonian nationality in the European Union. She has held that position since December 2014 when the former Polish prime minister took over the presidency from Herman van Rompuy.

Detroit, Michigan-born Kionka is a lifelong diplomat. Like the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Kionka has also worked at Radio Free Europe, as an analyst.

She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and German literature from Michigan State University, and a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University in New York. In an interview with Estonian World, she said she never even wanted to be a diplomat and had rather been a conductor, but fate had other plans for her.


Cover: Mari Kalkun (photo by Matti Komulainen). Facebook cover: Anu Tali (Kabir Cardenas/Sarasota Orchestra). Special thanks to Kaupo Kikkas!

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