First off, I should probably start with the obvious; that I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to participate in the international trip as a previous survivor of the Executive MBA program. Survivor, wait, I meant alumnus. I joke because many outside of the program may not realize how much work is involved.
Travelling abroad to Estonia and Finland, two very similar yet different countries, provided me an opportunity to relive the end of the program 10 years later through the current students’ international trip. I witnessed them wrapping up capstone projects, reading for their remaining course work, and taking in the businesses we toured. However, what they impressed upon me most was the comradery and enthusiasm they all displayed despite having 14 intense months behind them with only one to go.
Our fearless EMBA leaders Marty, Jeff, and Sarah ensured we all arrived in one piece without any detentions in customs; and now that we were in Estonia, it was time to explore in an attempt to fight off the jet lag. Our local guide, Julia, set up a scavenger hunt that afternoon to keep everyone awake in order to adjust to a seven-hour time difference. This scavenger hunt took everyone throughout the city of Tallinn, finding some of its most famous locations. Did I mention this exercise was a competition? In order to collect points you needed to answer questions about the various locations you found. Of course being EMBA students, it was a quite competitive with plenty of strategy involved around planning optimal routes and of course a few google searches.
In Estonia, the businesses we toured mostly centered on start-ups and innovation. Fun fact; did you realize Estonia’s entire government is online? Literally online; the citizens vote, submit taxes, complete real estate transactions, access their medical records, request prescriptions, and much more all from their phone. As our tour guide put it, she can do most anything from the comfort of her home. It was even more interesting to learn that this was born from necessity. The constraints of a small population with a limited tax base forced the government to think differently on how perform these basic services with less cost but without loss of accessibility.
For a relatively poor country, they aim to leverage their high tech government to foster and encourage other tech start-ups and investment in Estonia to drive economic growth.
Finland has some similarities to Estonia, but also plenty of rather dramatic differences. One dramatic difference is the economy and wealth are much more developed. This appears largely due to being independent from Russia, whereas Estonia only recently became so (in the early 1990s). It was apparent comparing Tallinn to Helsinki, as the Finnish city’s retail stores were high end and the types of businesses we were visiting tended to be large and global corporations rather than small startups.
The businesses we visited were Finnair, Nokia, Kone, and others similar in size and scope. My personal highlight was our visit to Kone. I never would have thought elevator manufacturing would be glamorous and interesting. Something I take for granted almost daily is getting in an elevator, and it never occurred to me the complex engineering and planning that goes into them. I also never thought of high-end elevators as a thing, but we saw quite a few custom ones on the factory floor. Everything from custom light shows and a booming sound system to elegant high-end materials. I will be checking the manufacturer of the elevators I get in to from now on.
Back to that similarity part I talked about - both countries have an extremely robust safety net system through public health care, maternity leave, public education, public transportation, and an emphasis on work life balance. These similarities lead to a very high feeling of security throughout their populations. Finland, in fact, is ranked the happiest country on earth based upon these metrics.
One other similarity is the love of Saunas and I suspect having some rather cold and dark winters keeps this trend alive and well. I had the privilege of spending one of our free afternoons in the public Sauna drinking beer and going in and out of the Baltic Sea with a few brave students and our program coordinator, Sarah. Now keep in mind that the sea was a refreshing 41 degrees Fahrenheit. This unique experience proved extremely therapeutic despite, or actually probably because of, the quick swings in temperature.
Both countries were amazing and the business leaders we met with were very senior and knowledgeable, but that's to be expected as the EMBA leadership team ensures this is the case every year. The ability to view two countries socioeconomic and cultural similarities and differences is extremely unique, and one of the main values to the students. However, this is a short blog, and I luckily am not required to write a 10-page strategy paper on how to leverage and dissect these points as the students do!
One last thing that I'd like to add before closing this blog is my reflection after spending 10 days getting to know the 31 students from both the Online and On Campus cohorts on this trip. Each of these students embraced me as if I was a member of their class rather than an outsider who happened to be tagging along. I can confidently assert that this current class will be a great addition our alumni network in only a few short weeks. Thanks for the memories Class 26, you are on the home stretch!
Read more reflections and perspectives from the global study trip to Estonia and Finland:
- Bob Penland: Estonia - The Most Advanced Digital Society In The World
- Zach Bensusan: Estonia and Finland - Digital Meets Design