The Baltic nations offer a special opportunity for business students with an interest in digital innovation, economic transformation, and entrepreneurship. The Baltics have long been at the crossroads of commerce: the region was integral to several European trading networks, and were at times part of the Danish, Livonian, Holy Roman, Teutonic, German, Swedish and Russian empires (thus, the countryside is studded with old castles and other culturally enjoyable sites). The Soviet Union illegally annexed the Baltics 1939, but the countries regained independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and each has since joined both the European Union and NATO. Since independence, technology and innovation have blossomed.
This course examines digital innovation and commercialization, with a particular focus on how Latvia and Estonia have fostered cross-sector collaborations as a way to support technology innovation, entrepreneurship, and ultimately the creation of globally significant startups. We will also learn about how the nations became leaders in virtual citizenship and social services; how this differs from the United States; and the synergies that this creates for local business.
The Global Course starts with virtual lectures connecting the students and instructors in three countries. We will visit two nations in this course – Latvia and Estonia – which are among the most digitally advanced and entrepreneurial in the world.
Our site visit begins in Riga, Latvia. We will meet with government and business leaders who will provide insight into the local history and culture, and how these have contributed to the country’s unique approach to economic and technological development. We will then move on to Tartu, which is the intellectual hotbed of Estonia. We will meet with idea generators and leaders who create a supportive environment for innovation. From Tartu we will travel to Tallinn, the economic and cultural heart of Estonia. We will meet with leaders of firms involved in sectors such as digital communications, electronic payments, telehealth, automated accounting, virtual contracting, and robotics. We will also meet with leaders of some of Estonia’s tech unicorns to discuss their journeys.
Course participants will collaborate with peers at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, University of Tartu Delta Management School and the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga to work directly on projects with Baltic startups. Results of these projects will be presented to business and other leaders at the end of the course.
Participants in this program will experience the vibrancy of two Baltic nations, and will explore more deeply how these nations have transformed their economies and policies by prioritizing digital innovation, entrepreneurship and technology commercialization. Students will also gain insight into the startup supporting ecosystems in these nations, and how these contribute to country-specific approaches to building and scaling new technology ventures.
(I) Global trends and economic transformation
Baltic countries have developed by quite different patterns while transforming from systems of the former communist regime. Although their history has been considered quite similar, they are likely to remain also somewhat parallel mini-universes, using different languages and interacting comparatively less than Nordic countries. In the context of fast-changing technologies and global challenges, the question remains, will forward-looking innovation and social policies transform the differences among the Baltic states even more noticeable?
(II) Digital governance
Supported by active policy interventions, digital commerce is ubiquitous, e-governance advanced, and innovation cutting edge. Each nation has a thriving startup scene, producing technology unicorns at per-capita rates on par with the world’s most robust startup ecosystems.
(III) Technology Entrepreneurship
It has been claimed that Estonia, in particular, has the most startups per person in the world: Skype, Bolt, Wise, Pipedrive, ID.me, Zego, Gelato, Veriff, and Playtech are some of the tech unicorns born in Estonia. In Latvia, Printful has claimed the first unicorn status. There are future unicorns to be spotted.
Grading: This course will be graded in the usual curved letter grade or pass/fail basis. The grade will be based on the following:
Participation and Attendance: While in Estonia and Latvia we will be visiting with leading figures in business, civil society, and government. You will also be working in teams with students from our partner institutions to collaborate and consult with local startups. You are expected to be on time for and to attend all presentations and visits. At these events, students represent not just themselves but also The Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania, the Delta Management School of the University of Tartu, and the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.
Reflection Papers: Students will write two reflection papers, each one page in length. The first is due any time before departure and asks students to reflect on the preparation materials. The second is due three days after returning home and asks students to reflect on their experiences in Estonia and Latvia.
Project: Prior to and during our visit, students will work in teams to address a challenge being faced by one of three partner countries, their organizations and enterprises. This may involve helping a local VC to analyze an investment opportunity; assessing growth strategy options for an emerging startup; helping a venture accelerator to hone its curriculum, or something else altogether. In addition to presenting on the last day of the program, each team will submit a 3-5 page write-up (due by 5:00 pm EST on June 10, 2022) detailing their analysis, and discussing how the unique features of Estonian entrepreneurship can inform venture creation practices in the USA, and vice-a-versa.
Preparation Prior to Departure: Students in this module are expected to participate in two types of sessions prior to departure and to read assignments. Participation in sessions may be in-person, virtual, or, for the first type of sessions, by recording.
Sessions: There are two types of pre-departure sessions. (A) Prior to departure for Riga, there will be two one-hour long sessions in Philadelphia, Tartu and Riga (connected by Zoom). One session will be a discussion of the history and culture of Latvia and Estonia. The other will discuss topics related to digital innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology commercialization, with a particular focus on how Latvia and Estonia have promoted activity in these areas (session times may be changed as this schedule is finalized). (B) Students will be assigned to a small group prior to departure; each group will be composed of students from Wharton, Tartu University, and Stockholm School of Economics, Riga. Each group will be assigned a project involving an organization in the Baltic startup ecosystem. Students are expected to meet with their group prior to departure, and to meet as a group with a representative from the assigned organization while onsite in the host nation.
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