Top 12 most outstanding Estonian women in the world

On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, Estonian World has compiled a list of 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 every day to make life better for everyone. 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 get the name “Estonia” to the lips of more people around the world. We believe this list can only be ever-expanding and when we come around to it next year, it is quite possible that we can compile already a “top 20”.

12. Maria Minerva aka Maria Juur (26), producer, songwriter, singer, DJ

Maria Minerva II

The Estonian Music Awards 2015 saw the US-based Maria Minerva take the Best Female Artist and Best Electronica Album for her third full-length, “Histrionic”. While having been well known in Estonia for years for her eclectic alternative style, she has persistently kept making a name for herself globally. Before moving to the US, she earned a BA in art history and an MA in aural and visual cultures from Goldsmiths College in London. It was during her time in London that she started to attract global niche following for her experimental electronica.

Maria Minerva I

Pitchfork calls “Histrionic” the most confident of her work yet, where the artist incorporates an impressive array of electronic styles – dub, house, eurodisco, breakbeat, urban club and even a bit of progressive rock – while maintaining a strong lyrical thread and sonic identity of her own. In addition to favourable reviews, Maria Minerva has been scoring gigs at important underground events and venues. Last year she performed at the closing night of a legendary Williamsburg club “182 Kent”, which symbolically marked the end of the long road to gentrification of that once-hipster haven of Brooklyn. Maria recently moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles where she is a regular fixture in the alternative music scene. Even though Maria Minerva’s material is the opposite of mainstream, she does not dislike pop music nor think it’s uncool. The underground star actually names getting into the bustling Los Angeles song writing business as her next big ambition.

11. Kerli Kõiv (27), singer-songwriter


Hailing from a small town of Elva in southern Estonia, Kerli – as she is artistically known – is largely a self-made success story, but as always, luck and fate have also played a role. Kõiv was first introduced to music by her kindergarten teacher when she told her mother that Kerli had a “nice pitch” and encouraged her to take part in various singing competitions. By the age of 10, she succumbed into her own fantasy world, brought about by the non-healthy climate at her parents’ home. Writing stories and poems forecasted a rise of a distinctive personality, but her ambitious spirit had its first breakthrough when she won Estonian singing competition Laulukarussell at the age of 15 with the cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Around the same time, she also took part in a Baltic song contest, organised by Universal Music, and her win paved way to global path. However, a couple of years of struggle followed, which included squatting in Stockholm for three months. Her next big break came when she relocated to Los Angeles and after a year of performing and writing, finally got an audition with the American music industry legend, the record producer and executive L.A. Reid, who signed her, at the age of 19, to Island Music Group.

By Brian Ziff I

In 2008, Kerli became the first Estonian pop artist – and so far the only one – to break into Billboard 200 when her single “Love Is Dead” charted at number 126. Another success followed when “Skyscraper”, a song that Kerli originally wrote in 2011, but sung by a British singer Sam Bailey, became the Christmas No. 1 in the United Kingdom in 2013. While some may argue that Kerli’s early accomplishments and distinctive style should have pointed to a more favourable stardom by now, she remains the most successful Estonian pop artist in the world, and by far the most popular Estonian in the social media – Kerli is followed by over 600,000 people on Facebook, 80,000 on Twitter and 40,000 people on Instagram.

10. Katrina Tang (29), children’s fashion photographer

Katrina Tang

Originally from Pärnu, children’s fashion photographer Katrina Tang now divides her life and work between New York, London and Estonia. Her commercial portfolio – boasting brands like Oeuf, MilK, Pale Cloud, Babesta, Xenia Joost and French Connection – will make you want to have kids and spend a considerable part of your salary on their couture. Her pictures have also been featured in the Times and the Sunday Times. Katrina’s most recent accomplishment was getting chosen as one of the top 30 emerging photographers to watch in 2015 by Photo District News (PDN). The selection into this important list marks another level of international recognition for the artist. Educated at the Arts University Bournemouth, the UK, Katrina has kept an international perspective since the beginning of her career, while few could argue that what truly defines her personal style is the connection to home – meaning both close family ties and her native Estonia. This means Katrina has also found the time to put her heart into touching personal projects such as portraying the extinction of Estonian country schools.

9. Kaia Kanepi (29), tennis player

Kaia Kanepi by Tertius Pickard, AP

Having started to play tennis when she was eight years old, Kanepi is the most successful Estonian tennis player to date. Her international career took off when she won the French Open Junior title. Kanepi won her first WTA Tour title in Palermo in 2010, becoming the first Estonian female player to win a WTA title. Kanepi has also reached five Grand Slam quarterfinals in three different Grand Slams, becoming the first Estonian to achieve this and was the first Estonian to be ranked in the world’s top 20 female tennis players when she achieved ranking of world’s no. 15 in 2012. Although Kanepi last reached quarterfinals in 2013 at Wimbledon and her current ranking is no. 45, she is still consistent and purposeful, so one can sense that she’s clearly not out of the game yet and many more wins are still to come.

8. Kriss Soonik-Käärmann (31), fashion label owner


Fashion and art was not always London-based Kriss Soonik’s natural choice by default – in fact, she studied languages and business at the Estonian Business School in Tallinn. Nevertheless, her entrepreneurial spirit found her experimenting with new things and it was during her high school years, when Soonik first started to flirt with a fashion – by chance, as one quite often does in life. Her friend was competing in a womenswear design competition and asked Kriss to help along as an assistant. If this experience didn’t quite yet produce a blossoming Chanel, she nevertheless felt aspired. As she carried on with her own experiments, designing a collection or two, she soon found her niche with a lingerie design. After her business studies, Soonik moved to London to do a master’s degree at the London College of Fashion. A job for the British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur followed, accumulating invaluable know-how. “There are some things you couldn’t possibly have in Estonia – like for example your tutor mingling with the likes of Alexander McQueen on a casual basis,” Kriss said to Estonian World few years ago.

After short stints for others, Soonik decided that the time was ripe to connect her two sides – creative and business – and start her own lingerie brand. With her first collection, she gave the “underwear as outerwear” concept a fresh and modern twist, and in 2009, the term “loungerie” was born – hence the brand name Kriss Soonik Loungerie. Her lingerie is now sold in 15 countries – from Italy to the Netherlands and the UK to the US – and including, rather surprisingly, Saudi Arabia. Although London-based, Kriss thinks it doesn’t matter where one physically lives in today’s cosmopolitan world – she maintains that she would always be an Estonian, no matter where she chooses to live geographically.

7. Jaanika Merilo (35), advisor to the Ukraine’s minister for economic development

Jaanika Merilo by Rene Suurkaev

In January, Jaanika Merilo took up a position as an advisor to the Ukraine’s minister for economic development, Aivaras Abromavicius. Merilo is tasked with bringing more foreign investment into Ukraine and improving the country’s business climate. Educated at the Cornell University (US) and University of Cumbria (UK), as well as the Estonian Business School, Merilo has been involved in the IT sector since she was 17 and founded her own programming company when she was just 21 – the company which she successfully sold few years later.

In the last 10 years, Merilo has been active in the investment business, first as an investment manager at various funds and later as an expert. In 2013, Merilo became the managing director of Center of European Integration and Development of Ukraine, with the task to encourage the development of entrepreneurship, IT and e-governance in Ukraine. Estonia’s strong support to Ukraine in fighting the Russian aggression cemented Merilo’s position in Ukraine and as a minister’s adviser, she will be responsible for the attraction of investment, the improvement of the investment and business climate, the coordination of international programs and the development of e-government solutions in Ukraine. According to Merilo, digital solutions, such as the e-government, where the human contact is minimised, would also help fight against corruption, which is one of the most acute issues in Ukraine. “You cannot offer a bribe to a computer,” Merilo said in an interview last year.

6. Kaja Kallas (37), Member of the European Parliament

Kaja Kallas

A daughter of an Estonian political and intellectual heavyweight Siim Kallas, she represents well the old Estonian saying “käbi ei kuku kännust kaugele” (like father, like daughter). She’s well-spoken, sophisticated and highly ambitious, yet appears charming and friendly at the same time. A member of the party that her father founded – the Reform Party – Kallas was elected with over 20,000 votes to the European Parliament in 2014 and belongs to the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Unlike the rest of Reform Party younger generation of politicians, such as the prime minister Taavi Rõivas and foreign minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, Kaja Kallas held real jobs (she worked as an attorney-at-law, specialising in the European and Estonian competition law) before entering the politics, giving her vastly more subsistence.

Kaja Kallas II

In the European Parliament, Kallas is Vice-Chair of the Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee and serves on the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy. One of her stated aims is to help achieve the European energy union. Potentially the first female prime minister of Estonia.

5. Carmen Kass (37), supermodel

Carmen Kass

Until about 15 years ago, there were only two Estonians in the world who had any kind of international presence and whose name rang the bell among at least a small number of foreigners. One was Arvo Pärt and the other one was Carmen Kass. The fabulous Estonian top-model started her career at 1997 at Chanel in Paris and Versace in Milan. In 1999 she was handpicked by the legendary fashion editor Anna Wintour to feature on the cover of Vogue magazine. By the new millennium, posters featuring her as a “golden girl” for Christian Dior’s J’adore campaign turned heads in London, Paris and New York.

Carmen Kass II

Carmen introduced a whole era of ideal, ultra-sexy super women pulsing with cold and dismissive beauty. She has appeared on the covers of a variety of magazines, in advertisements for Calvin Klein, Chanel, Donna Karan, Givenchy, Fendy, Michael Kors, Sephora and others. By late 2014, ranked Kass among the “industry icons”, joining the honourable list of models, such as Alek Wek, Amber Valetta, Eva Herzigova, Gemma Ward, Karolina Kurkova, Stella Tennant and Agyness Deyn.

A former president of the Estonian National Chess Association, Carmen Kass doesn’t these days appear too often on catwalks, but she still has a number of fashion campaigns running, ensuring the longevity of Estonia’s first iconic supermodel.

4. Anu Tali (42), conductor

Photo by Kaupo Kikkas

Among the Estonian heavyweight conductors, such as Tõnu Kaljuste, Olari Elts, Eri Klas and Järvi triumphirate (Neeme, Paavo, Kristjan), Tali stands out as the only female Estonian conductor to make her mark internationally. She and her twin sister Kadri Tali founded the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra in 1997, when Anu was only 25. The orchestra, now called the Nordic Symphony Orchestra (NSO), still performs five times a year and has members from fifteen different countries. 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. Tali made her conducting debut in the US in 2005 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, but it was the Sarasota Orchestra, the oldest continuing orchestra in the state of Florida, that named Tali as its next music director in 2013 and elevated her international career further still.

3. Maive Rute (48), Director of Resources at the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, the European Commission

Portraits of Maive Rute

Rute’s systematic hard work has taken her from a tiny Käru Parish in Estonia’s Rapla County to the high position at the EU institutions. Rute works as the European Commission’s Director of Resources at the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Aside for her work at the EC, Rute is also a Harvard University fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Rute began her career as Country Director for a US assistance organisation devoted to reforms in agro-food sector, followed by a stint as Chief Executive Officer at KredEx, a provider of loan and export guarantees as well as mortgage insurance in Estonia. Rute holds an MBA from Danube University in Austria, a Masters in international politics from the University Paris-Sud and a Masters in agricultural economics from the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

2. Riina Kionka (54), chief foreign affairs adviser to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council

Riina Kionka by Vallo Kruuser

One of the most high-ranking Estonian diplomats – if not the most – Riina Ruth Kionka is the chief foreign affairs adviser to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. 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, having worked as the Estonian ambassador to Germany, the Head of the Central Asia Division of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the undersecretary of the Estonian foreign ministry for EU affairs etc. From 2007 to 2010, Kionka was Javier Solana’s personal representative for human rights.

Like Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Kionka has also worked at Radio Free Europe, as an analyst.

Kionka 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.

1. Marju Lauristin (74), Member of the European Parliament

Marju Lauristin by Patrik Tamm

The Grand Old Lady of the Estonian politics, Lauristin’s influence in the Estonian society is impossible to underestimate. Not only is she one of the heavyweights in the politics, but she is also a social scientist whose thoughts and lectures at the University of Tartu as a professor have helped shape generations of Estonian journalists and thinkers.

Her family history is controversial – her father Johannes Lauristin was a communist who was appointed in charge of Estonia by the Soviet Union shortly after occupation in 1940. But Marju Lauristin is not “like father, like daughter”. In 1988, she was forming a forceful duo with an Estonian politician Edgar Savisaar at the helm of “Rahvarinne”, the first large-scale independent political movement in Estonia since the beginning of the Soviet occupation. It was Lauristin who played a major part in formulating the goals and ideas of the movement and she was also very successful at being a calming and moderate voice between the radical Estonian ethnic Russians who were fiercely against an independent Estonia, and more extremist Estonian nationalists. Lauristin’s actions helped calm tensions.

Lauristin’s later career saw her working as deputy speaker of the Estonian parliament and as the minister of social affairs. Although she has always within the past 27 years been a thoughtful voice in the Estonian political arena, she briefly withdrew from the active politics in the previous decade and focused on her work at the University of Tartu. Hence it came as a surprise to some when Lauristin stood for the European Parliament as a Social Democrats candidate in 2014. TV-ads saw the agile and vigorous Lauristin jump on a motorbike and call everyone to “come along to the European Parliament”. Almost 20,000 votes took her there indeed.


Cover: Maria Minerva by Marko Krunic. Pictures courtesy of Maria Minerva, Kerli, Katrina Tang, Kaia Kanepi, Kriss Soonik-Käärmann, Kaja Kallas, Carmen Kass, Kaupo Kikkas, Delfi, Müürileht.

21 thoughts on “Top 12 most outstanding Estonian women in the world”

    1. There is nothing wrong with having prominent parents. What about you? Are you proud of your father? Was he intellectual or political heavyweight or something else? And what are your intellectual accomplishments your children can be proud of?

    1. The same question occured to me. The achievement and work of some of these women should clearly be stated above others. Unfourtunately, in Estonia too much empasis is put on externalities like age or looks.

      1. It seems to me that this is actually the best and the most respectful way. People who are older, have had more time for achievements. Good and intelligent list!

  1. Estonian female scientists missing – Marika Mikelsaare enim avalikku tähelepanu pälvinud saavutus on patenteeritud probiootilise piimhappebakteri Lactobacillus fermentum ME-3 avastamine.

  2. Wait! What? No Ene Ergmaa!? She is the sole person responsible for having EstCuber-1 launching to the space & Estonia becoming an ESA member. How could you!

    1. Not achieved much internationally, have they? This list seems to be about Estonian women who are active on a global stage, not in Estonia proper.

  3. Kersti Seksel from Sydney Australia Veterinarian well known for her work with Dogs lecturing all over the world about how to manage them. Written Books as well.

  4. Victoria Henchy

    I guess Helena-Reet Ennet is the most outstanding woman from Estonia, at least by social media analysis and foreign press. And where is Karmen Pedaru? Very random list…

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