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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Local Resident Appointed Honorary Consul of Tech-Savvy Estonia

Imagine you lived in a country so technologically advanced that first graders were taught how to code. Your pizza delivery arrived by a ground-based robot. It took seconds to vote on your smartphone and you could access free WiFi when hiking deep in the forest because your government believes it’s your right to connect.

The vibrant city center of Tallin, the capital of Estonia (Photo by  Kaupo Kalda)
No, this isn’t the United States in ten years. This is happening now in Estonia and local resident Mary B. Nippert wants us to know about it. 

Mary, a certified gemologist and owner of Nippert Jewelers in Mariemont, is also an ardent admirer of Estonia. In fact, she was appointed Estonian Honorary Consul to the states of Ohio and Kentucky in 2016, one of 15 honorary consuls of the republic. She not only holds the distinction of becoming the first Estonian Honorary Consul for Ohio and Kentucky, but is one of the youngest of any country in the United States. 

Mary B. Nippert of Indian Hill is the appointed Estonian Honorary Consul to the states of Ohio and Kentucky, one of 15 honorary consuls of the republic. She not only is the first Estonian Honorary Consul for Ohio and Kentucky, she is one of the youngest of any country in the United States.

It is a voluntary job – since a federal appointee may not accept a salary from another country - but she treats it like a full-time position. Her role is to grow business, cultural and educational ties between Estonia and our region. Her passion is, in part, because her great-grandmother descended from Baltic nobility. The former castle of Countess Ida von Uexküll-Gyllenband Nippert still stands, re-purposed as a school, and when Mary visited she was delighted to observe that the original doorknobs engraved with lions’ heads remain intact.

Although Mary treasures her family’s historical ties to Estonia, she is equally fervent about the country’s future and the advantages it offers U.S. businesses. 

Estonia is one of three sovereign republics in Northeastern Europe which abut the Baltic Sea, and they are stacked such that Estonia lies on top, with Latvia in the middle and Lithuania on the bottom. Estonia, with its flat, yet forested, terrain and humid climate is sandwiched on its sides between the Baltic Sea and Russia. Its capital, Tallinn, is one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in Europe. 

The country contains 1.3 million people - about the population of Hamilton, Clermont and Butler counties combined. Yet its small size belies that it is a world leader in cybersecurity, blockchain (a transparent digital ledger for cryptocurrency), robotics, and cloud-based government. Estonia is the birthplace of Skype, Starship Technologies – a robotic delivery company currently beta testing in major US cities – and Cincinnati’s former symphony conductor, Paavo Järvi.  It commissioned the first mobile parking system via a smart phone app, an example of the country’s cutting-edge embrace. In October 2017, Forbes magazine stated that Estonia “…is one of the most digitally oriented societies in the world, one which is constantly reimaging how both a nation and its people can leverage the digital world for the betterment of society.”

Coat of arms for the office Mary Nippert holds as Honorary Consul of Estonia
These achievements are striking because Estonia was under other countries’ dominion for centuries; Denmark, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia have invaded and occupied the republic since the 13th century. Its most recent subjugations by the Nazis and Soviets during the 20th century were declared illegal. Estonia maintained an exiled government which was turned over to an elected one in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed. Because the occupations were deemed unconstitutional, Estonia is marking this year as their 100th anniversary of independence. 

If you’re wondering how it took a mere 30 years for a nearly-smothered country to became a world leader in technology, it is due, in part, to the fortuitous chance to start over - but the new beginning was not without setback. In 2007, the retaliatory Soviets launched a massive cyberattack crippling Estonia’s government, business, banking and media. Once again, Estonia declared it would begin anew and set out to become a top-tier cybersecurity powerhouse. 

Fast forward ten years, and the World Summit on Information Society Forum announced in 2017 the country ranked #1 in Europe and #5 globally in the Global Cybersecurity Index. “Estonia’s work in block chain and cryptosecurity has increased transparency and minimized corruption,” says Mary. The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence also set up headquarters in Tallinn. 

Estonian Song & Dance Festival (Photo by Merili Reinpalu)
Cybersecurity is one of Estonia’s premier competencies, but Mary adds, “It’s also a great place for companies to incubate and expand their footprint into the European Union (EU).” In 2017, the capital city of Tallinn was awarded 2nd prize (behind #1 Paris and ahead of #3 Tel Aviv) in the European Innovation Capital Competition, lending credibility to it becoming a tech startup hub. Like its Baltic neighbors, Estonia is a member of the EU and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “This benefits US companies wishing to do business with them,” says Mary, “because by establishing a company in Estonia, businesses can bypass red tape and reduce their overhead.” 

Even large companies are getting in on the game, and many are contracting with Estonian tech companies. Verizon, one of the largest telecommunication companies in the world, contracted blockchain platform services with the Estonian company, Guardtime, in February. Another company, Cleveron, counts Walmart as a client for its automated “click and collect pickup solution”. Walmart customers can order products online and pick them up in secure “smart lockers”.

An incentive Estonia offers for establishing business is e-Residency, a transnational digital identity which makes it easy for citizens of other countries to establish an Estonian company via the internet in about 15 minutes. Companies can also benefit from the country’s 99% literacy rate, its location on a busy East-West trading route, its excellent ports, and its proximity to Helsinki (a 1-hour ferry ride) and Stockholm (a 1-hour plane trip). 

Electronic billboard at Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport in honor of Estonia’s 100th anniversary.
Furthermore, Estonian towns and villages are covered by a network of public Internet access points. Foreign and domestic investments in Estonia are treated equally under the law, and in 2017, the Tax Foundation, a leading US independent tax policy nonprofit, ranked Estonia #1 (the US was ranked #30) in their international tax competitiveness index. 

Another tremendous benefit for both its businesses and citizens is virtually all the country’s state services are online. Citizens can easily engage with the government to sign contracts, file taxes, renew drivers’ licenses, access medical records and vote. Using these online capabilities is easy and efficient because the system is designed to enter data only once – so if a citizen submits their address for a medical record, they don’t re-enter it when they vote. Sophisticated authentication and auditing ensures data is secure and citizens can see who accessed their personal data and why. Moreover, citizens own their data and personal information is not brokered or possessed by third parties. 
The world community has taken note of Estonia’s technological prowess - and its centenary – and is honoring it. In Rio di Janiero the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer was lit in Estonia’s national colors. Even the electronic billboard at the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport displayed a message of congratulations in February: “Happy 100th Anniversary, Estonia! Congratulations to our @Estonia_in_US and our Ohio and Kentucky Honorary Consulate as we embrace Estonia's culture of talent and technology advancement” – a fitting laudation linking our region to theirs.

Are you affiliated with a local business, organization or university that wishes to plug into Estonian resources and digital infrastructure expertise? Let Mary facilitate that connection for you. Contact her at:

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