In the first week of July, Riga was literally bursting with energy and excitement. The streets and beer gardens were overflowing with revelers, the parks and squares turned into colorful outdoor markets, and the stadiums and concert halls were transformed into packed venues for the Song and Dance Festival, held once every five years. The Latvian capital truly became a radiant Castle of Light, shining from dawn to dusk – which, at this time of year, means just about around the clock.
Though most of that week’s activities involved copious amounts of singing and dancing – the crowds reenacting rituals that evoked and thus strengthened the foundations of Latvian identity – not all of the events were spent in folk costumes. On July 3, almost three hundred Latvian professionals from across the globe changed back into their business suits and gathered at a hotel in central Riga for the first-ever World Latvian Economic and Innovation Forum (http://www.ieguldilatvija.lv/en/).
The forum, organized by the World Federation of Free Latvians (PBLA), the Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with a range of public and private partners, was a chance for entrepreneurs from the Latvian diaspora to meet one another, exchange ideas, and learn more about the economic landscape in Latvia. Overall the event was a great success, providing a wonderful platform for both networking and forging new collaboration projects – the marks of a truly great conference.
A brief glance at the forum’s program (http://www.ieguldilatvija.lv/en/agenda/) makes clear the vast range of topics discussed. (For instance, I moderated a panel on the service sector and branding, which was followed by a discussion about the creative industries and a panel on tech innovation.) It also proves another point: diaspora Latvians work in almost every imaginable industry, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, from high-tech laboratories to the boardrooms of major corporations. The conference organizers could easily have paraphrased the title of Otto Ozols’ recent novel, Latvieši ir visur or “Latvians are Everywhere,” and renamed the event “Latvians Work Everywhere.”
The conference’s stroke of genius was to give professionals from the Latvian diaspora an opportunity to learn about their respective industries here in Latvia. Instead of coming to Latvia just to sing and dance and enjoy the white nights, they could also take the time to find out more about their particular field, get to know representatives from their industry, and share ideas with like-minded people. Usually diaspora Latvians come to Riga to meet friends and family; now they could come here to meet new colleagues and business partners.
Of course, not all of these new contacts will result in collaboration projects. That would be too much to ask. But by learning more about Latvia’s companies and competitive advantages, diaspora Latvians can provide another much needed function for Latvia: serve as unofficial “agents” for Latvian businesses around the world. This is something that all of us can do – and thankfully, with the availability of information about Latvia on the internet, it is also easy to accomplish.
Working over the last year at the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (http://www.liaa.gov.lv/lv), a government institution that promotes exports and foreign direct investment, I have heard Latvian businesspeople say time and again that they often lack one very crucial skill: sales and marketing. Latvian entrepreneurs themselves admit that, though they have great products and wonderful ideas, they often don’t know how to sell them abroad. Surely the natural reticence of the Latvian character is to blame, as well as the low self-esteem that comes with being a small nation. But whatever the reasons, this lack of communication skills is standing in the way of development. This is particularly detrimental considering the high rate of competition among nations in the Baltic Sea region – for foreign investment, for export markets, and for international attention.
Diaspora Latvians are uniquely suited to step in and help in this task. If there is one thing that unites us, it is our skill at communicating. Diaspora Latvians are wonderful communicators and great conversationalists. I think there are several key reasons why. First, we have all been faced countless times with the question “Latvia? Where’s that?” This has usually entailed giving a detailed response that touches on everything from history and culture to language and politics. I’m sure most of you have mastered a pretty good “Where is Latvia?” stump speech, ready to be delivered day or night, but the countless questions that usually follow always make you think quickly on your feet.
Another reason why diaspora Latvians are such great communicators is the unique way in which our social groups were formed at an early age. In normal circumstances, such as at the schools we attended during the week, people choose their friends based on a set of shared interests. But at Latvian school on Saturdays, all of us – suburbanites, city kids, nerds, jocks, and everyone in between – were thrown together in small classrooms, forced to spend countless hours together, in addition to time at various summer camps, folk dancing troupes, and choirs. People who might never have spoken together in normal circumstances became lifelong friends. As a byproduct of these friendships, we learned to socialize with a wide range of different people, instead of just sticking with people who shared the same interests. These friendships not only strengthened a shared heritage, but also bolstered our skills as communicators.
Now we have the chance to apply these communication skills to helping Latvia. If the main goal of the Latvian diaspora used to be to uphold Latvian culture abroad, then today it should be broadened to helping the Latvian economy grow. This is what Latvia needs today. As unofficial agents of Latvian businesses, we can help to “talk up” companies from Latvia, spread information about Latvian products and services, and help serve as facilitators for collaboration projects between businesses in Latvia and abroad.
The first step is to learn as much as you can about your respective industry in Latvia, as well as about the sectors where Latvia excels, the overall economic landscape, and the competitive advantages of doing business in Latvia (such as those outlined in the promotional video “A Journey through Latvia,” which I worked on as project manager last winter: http://youtu.be/8CdzQkl4PRU). With the availability of information online, there is no longer any barrier to finding out everything there is to know about the Latvian economy and what Latvia can offer the world. Here are a few helpful resources:
• The Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA) has a wealth of information in English about the Latvian business environment and industry profiles, as well as the country’s competitive advantages and incentives for investors: http://www.liaa.gov.lv/en.
• The Latvian Institute has invaluable resources in multiple languages about Latvian current events, history, politics, and culture, all in a beautifully designed website: http://latvia.eu/.
• The annual Export and Innovation Award, which honors the year’s top Latvian exporters and most innovative companies, is a wonderful showcase of the best that Latvia manufactures, builds, designs, and creates: http://www.liaa.gov.lv/trade-latvia/export-and-innovation-awards
• The Latvian Export and Import Directory is an international database of Latvian exporters and a site for business proposals, helping to link up potential collaboration partners: http://www.exim.lv/
• The Latvian Ministry of Economics provides information about government policies on the economy and EU funding programs, as well as annual economic development reports: http://www.em.gov.lv/em/2nd/?lng=en&cat=3&lng=en
• The Latvian Foreign Ministry maintains detailed information (in Latvian) about economic ties between Latvia and countries around the world, including information about trade relations and export activities: http://www.am.gov.lv/lv/Arpolitika/Ekonomiskas-attiecibas/
• The Red Jackets, a new initiative organized by a local export consultancy, the Chamber of Commerce, and a pair of branding agencies, champions the top exporting brands from Latvia, as well as up-and-coming exporters: http://www.theredjackets.lv/lv/
Of course, one of the best ways to keep up with the latest information is social media. Here in Latvia, social media is huge: government ministers and deputies get into heated debates late at night on Twitter, tweets and Facebook posts are frequently quoted in the news, and locally designed social media campaigns have won several international advertising awards. In fact, Latvia is one of the only countries in the world where a local social network site – Draugiem.lv – has more users than the global giant Facebook. The best part is, anyone can follow along with what’s going on. Here are a few suggestions for Twitter accounts (mostly in Latvian) to follow to find out more about the Latvian economy and local industries:
• Investment and Development Agency of Latvia: https://twitter.com/LIAALatvija.
• Latvian Institute: https://twitter.com/LatviaInstitute.
• Ministry of Economics: https://twitter.com/EM_gov_lv.
• Daniels Pavļuts, the Minister of Economics: https://twitter.com/pavluts.
• Valdis Dombrovskis, Prime Minister: https://twitter.com/VDombrovskis.
• Cabinet of Ministers: https://twitter.com/Brivibas36.
• Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry: https://twitter.com/LTRK_info.
• TechHub Riga: https://twitter.com/TechHubRiga.
• Baltic Startups: https://twitter.com/BalticStartup.
• Dienas bizness: https://twitter.com/dblv.
• Ir.lv: https://twitter.com/irLV.
By all means, follow the official Facebook account for Latvia, which regularly updates with links to fun facts about Latvia and the country’s achievements around the world: https://www.facebook.com/IfYouLikeLatviaLatviaLikesYou. I helped start this project when I worked for the Latvian Institute, and it continues to be a fun and informative English-language resource for keeping up with the latest from Latvia.
Of course, social media is an ever-expanding network, so once you start exploring the Latvian social media universe, you can gradually discover much more of what interests you. Most companies and brands have their own accounts, which are a great way to keep up with what they are doing, as well as to learn about their achievements. You’ll also find most Latvian politicians on Twitter, as well as all the major opinion makers, pundits, columnists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and a whole swarm of buzzing gadflies.
By learning more about Latvian industry, diaspora Latvians will get that much better at answering the age-old question “Latvia? Where’s that?” turning the classic stump speech into an eloquent – and very well-informed – all-night monologue. Talking up Latvia, you’ll be able to spread information about what Latvia is building, what it is exporting, and what Latvia has to offer the world. Better yet, turn that stump speech into a pitch. Perhaps you’ll spark some interesting in a new collaboration opportunity? Perhaps you will interest a potential investor in Latvia? Perhaps you’ll introduce a buyer to a new Latvian product that can be sold abroad?
If every diaspora Latvian who attended the Song and Dance Festival this summer goes back home and talks up Latvian companies – singing their praises, so to speak – and spreading the word about Latvian products and services, the opportunities for growth are boundless. The next time the World Latvian Economic and Innovation Forum is held in Riga, they’ll have to rent out the largest stadium in the city, making room for crowds in the thousands.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could harness the enormous energy and hard work that goes into organizing the Song and Dance Festival and channel that power into economic development? If we could bring together the hundreds of thousands of Latvians around the world, representing every conceivable sector and industry, and focus their efforts on strengthening the economy and supporting Latvian business? The sheer energy on the streets of Riga this summer proves that we have the critical mass to achieve this. So let’s keep singing Latvia’s praises, let’s keep communicating. After all, it’s what we do best. Let’s make sure Latvia is heard around the world.
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