Nicholas Vandrey: Visiting Tartu Is Like Taking a Vacation

Without a doubt, the first question I’m asked when meeting new people is, ‘Where are you from?’ That one is easy – I’m from Texas. Then, almost without fail, they’ll ask me how I ended up in Estonia. That one is a little more difficult to answer. Growing up, I had the opportunity to live in several countries and visit many more. I came to Estonia for the first time when I was 16. I spent three weeks in Tallinn, Tartu, and the countryside. While I had no immediate intentions of moving to Estonia, the tranquility of the countryside left a lasting impression. Despite the prevalence of WiFi in Estonia, it was a rare opportunity to disconnect. I also found out saunas were a thing, and that was pretty incredible.

Nicholas Vandrey – successful alumni of Business Administration programme at University of Tartu.  Photo from a personal archive.

It wasn’t until nearly two years later that found myself considering relocating to Estonia more permanently. I was preparing to graduate from high school in Texas without any concrete plan of what I wanted to do next. I had already applied to a few universities in the US, and had even accepted a spot at one of them (it might be relevant to note that universities generally require a commitment by May, about a month before admission results in Tartu are announced.) A friend pointed out to me that the University of Tartu had begun offering a bachelor’s program in Business Administration in English. I applied and got my acceptance notification a few months later while at the orienteering event for the university I had already committed to. One awkward email to the administration of the other university and a few weeks later, I was on a plane back to Estonia.

I chose Tartu because it offered the most unique opportunity. Estonia was already regarded as an innovative country, and the chance to participate in a new international program at one of the most prestigious universities in the region was something that would be difficult to turn down. Despite having previously lived in Scotland and Norway, moving to Estonia from the US took some adjustment. Coming from Texas where the sun is up nearly the whole day to Estonia where the days were already starting to get shorter and shorter, as well as being so far from family, took some getting used to. Fortunately I had my studies to distract me from all lack of sun going on outside.

Nicholas giving his graduation speech in 2014. Photo from a personal archive.

It would be impossible to condense all three years of my studies into a blog post. The program itself introduced a broad number of subjects: finance, economics, statistics, marketing, management, entrepreneurship, and many other business related topics. For the more adventurous students, myself included, the opportunity to have a go at learning Estonian was provided as well. Aside from the academic prestige of the university, Tartu is a city unlike any other. Despite the overwhelming presence of students and young people, Tartu manages to maintain a relaxed atmosphere and an easy-going pace of life. I’ve been living in Tallinn for over a year now, and it almost feels like living in another country sometimes. Every time I visit Tartu it’s almost like taking a vacation.

Rather than go back to the US after my studies, I opted to stay in Estonia. During my third year at the university I took a job at an Estonian startup called Funderbeam, the world’s first platform where growth companies are funded and traded across borders, secured by the blockchain. Young, disruptive companies can raise funds from investors all around the globe, and investors can trade their stake in startups without having to wait years for a return on their investment. I joined as an analyst to help improve and develop algorithms being used to benchmark startups around the globe. This rapidly unearthed a passion for machine learning and data science. Fortunately, the courses I took in statistics, econometrics, and finance helped lay a solid groundwork for moving into the data science field. Currently, as the Head of Data Product, I’m responsible for a team of two developers and three data analysts tasked with improving our global data intelligence platform through a combination of strategic partnerships, data mining, and statistical analysis.

The team of Funderbeam, an Estonian startup , where Nicholas is currently the Head of Data Product. Photo from a personal archive.

I’ve been in Estonia for nearly six years now. During that time I’ve attempted to learn Estonian, I’ve tried blood sausage at Christmas, and I’ve even been to Öölaulupidu. I’m still getting accustomed to the unnecessary amount of pickled beets served in Estonia (they eat them with everything) but I’m slowly getting there. While I’d eventually like to go back to the US, I have no immediate plans to leave Estonia.

Nicholas Vandrey is a successful graduate of University of Tartu’s Business Administration programme. 

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