Sandra Saarniit on supporting local startup community and personal growth

This week’s hero is Sandra Saarniit, Startup Community Development Manager at Startup Estonia whose mission is to foster collaboration and learning between local startup organizations. Sandra is also a coach and instructor of Google Design Sprint methodology. We talked to Sandra about her work at Startup Estonia as well as her personal philosophy.

How would you explain in simple terms your role as Startup Community Development Manager?

We have around 150 startup support organizations in Estonia - incubators, accelerators, funding providers, and event organizers. My aim is to enable their development by backing their activities that bring value to the ecosystem, creating learning opportunities, and organizing events where they can meet each other and share ideas.

If you imagine a startup as a child, the support organizations are like the parents, investing their time and money to help the child grow up to a well-functioning adult. In that case, I could be seen as the grandma who sometimes comes to visit and offers advice and support to the parents.

What are your next projects ahead?

Startup Estonia has a new strategy for the next six years, and we need to work closely with the startup community to strive towards the ambitious goals set.

Thus we have created startup ecosystem expert groups, which focus on five crucial topics: 1) integrating global talent, 2) developing future founders from our youth, 3) making our ecosystem more diverse, 4) helping other regions outside of Tallinn develop their local ecosystems, and 5) bringing science and entrepreneurship closer together. The expert groups are formed from passionate community members and are a great way to let our ecosystem direct its development.

It is the first time we are trying something like this - creating small communities that would ideally be self-led and driven by the common purpose and needs.

 Thus, it is definitely a challenge to provide the m with support and structure while letting them grow independently without directing too much. I am a believer in the bottom-up approach when it comes to creating and implementing strategies so I am very curious and excited to be part of this experiment!

In the shorter term, I am looking forward to organizing my first community meetup and the possibility of meeting more community members face-to-face as well as representing Startup Estonia at Websummit in Portugal, where we will be organizing two side events together with Estonian and Portuguese partners.

How did you develop an interest in the startup world?

I think I have been interested in entrepreneurship since I was six years old, creating Excel sheets and flyers for my make-believe flower company. Nevertheless, I only became more immersed in this world during the past few years, when I got to both provide and experience the support services offered to (startup) entrepreneurs.

During my master’s studies, I went through an entrepreneurial internship program and helped my friend kickstart a company called Studio Leek, where we help teams develop their products with Google Design Sprint. This led us to co-organize and moderate hackathons in this innovative format and be design-thinking mentors in other events and incubation programs.

Being able to support founding teams on their journey was very inspiring and increased my desire to develop my own EdTech idea. Thus, I also attended four hackathons and two pre-acceleration programs during 2020, experiencing the rush of teaming up with like-minded strangers, working towards a common goal, testing, failing, and trying again.


I remember attending my first sTARTUp Day in 2019, listening to inspiring speakers, and wishing to be more involved in this awesome ecosystem. It only took two years and there I was at sTARTUp Day 2021 this August: holding a seminar about effective workshopping, pitching an EdTech idea, and settling into my new role at Startup Estonia.

What inspires you in your daily work?

First, purposeful teamwork - I have never really enjoyed working alone. I like working with enthusiastic people and aligning our goals to achieve something bigger than ourselves. Secondly, solution orientation - turning problems into opportunities and failures into learning points. And finally, growth mindset - believing that anything is learnable and that we can develop our talents throughout our lives.

These aspects are also valued in our startup community and Startup Estonia team, which makes me very happy I get to work with them. I also appreciate the openness and welcoming atmosphere in our startup community. Even if you are meeting people for the first time, everybody is so supportive and there are always many exciting topics to discuss openly.

Furthermore, I have always enjoyed the supportive roles, where I get to help others reach their full potential even if I don’t see the impact right away.

For example, I remember when a person who had participated in a rather short workshop I held for young leaders, reached out to me two years later, telling me how much it had impacted their lives for the better and that they wouldn’t be where they were without it. Such moments are priceless as they show how much effect even the things that you consider small can have on someone else.

Do you have a favorite failure or apparent failure that actually set you up for later success?

During a year of leading an international student organization, I managed to overwork myself into complete burnout. Even though I was volunteering, I thought I needed to be available 24/7 and solve everybody’s issues, even if that meant leaving my own needs completely unmet. I definitely didn’t know the difference between working hard and working smart. There was this hustle culture that we sometimes also see in the startup world, that was actually making me unhealthy and overwhelmed.

Although recovering from burnout was a mentally and emotionally difficult process, I am grateful that I had this experience, as I got to know myself so much better and started to set some boundaries both in my professional and personal life. I am also asking for help way more often than I did before. This has helped me to stay way more motivated and productive in my later endeavors while keeping my cup full and life balanced.

You are also a coach and trainer. Do you use a coach yourself and what’s the benefit of having one?

Having a coach has definitely helped me in some key moments in my life, for example, while taking my first steps as a trainer. I have also tried to practice self-coaching, where I use a particular structure to reflect on my values, beliefs, and behavior; check progress, and set new goals. However, trying to coach myself has proven rather difficult as we tend to avoid asking ourselves the tough questions, which make us face our fears but are usually the ones that could make a real change.

A good coach does not tell you how to live your life; they give you the tools and structure to support you in figuring it out yourself and challenge your thinking with the right questions.

Having a coach can also help you stay accountable, as there is an external person checking up on your progress, helping you stay focused on your goals without passing any judgment. I find coaching especially useful when you are stuck in a wicked problem, facing some tough decisions, wanting to make a big change, or adopting a new habit.

Tell us about one thing that you are currently learning?

Self-compassion is something that I am currently working on. Even though I am usually very supportive and compassionate with others, I can be rather unforgiving towards my own behavior and even blame myself for having certain thoughts or emotions. This is a topic that nobody teaches us at school, and in our success-focused world dominated by social media, it’s easy to become very hard on yourself.

One of the simplest ways you can start to develop self-compassion is by simply noticing your inner speech when you are upset or struggling. Are you blaming yourself for your feelings and thoughts? Would you talk to your friend in the same way? What factors lead you to treat yourself and others so differently? Try to respond to yourself the way you would to a close friend who is suffering. If needed, you can even try talking out loud. It is not a magic cure, but it did help me become more kind to myself.

What new belief or habit has most improved your life if you look back at the past five years?

You can’t control the behavior of others, but you can always choose how you respond to it. For example, imagine working really hard on a project while one of your colleagues goes completely rogue and does something that will derail your work. You have two options: play the victim card, blame that person, and sulk in your bad mood without taking any action, or analyze what went wrong and start taking steps to fix the problem.

Having been in similar situations has taught me that not letting things get under your skin, controlling your reactions, and always looking for solutions can help you direct your own life and make progress regardless of the adversities. People often deal with their insecurities and problems by lashing out at others, so realizing that the way someone treats you says more about them than it does about you can help you not take things so personally!

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