Kairi has never thought of human resources (HR) as her career path, and yet she’s achieved extraordinary things by building unique company cultures and making the voices of every employee heard. In her past, Kairi contributed to building large technology organisations and making them successful. She joined Salv at the very beginning and helped us create the environment we want to work in.
Kairi is a true pioneer who is always up for a new challenge. Her whole life has been one exciting adventure, and we can’t wait to read her memoir. Before her book goes to press, we want to tell you Kairi’s story of growth, discovery, inspiration and hope.
What events in your life pointed you to a career in HR?
It’s fair to say that I didn’t choose HR but it chose me. When I was an IT student at the University of Tartu I thought I’d be a project manager or analyst. And I was, for some years. During those years, I especially enjoyed leading my own software development team. I got to be around people, listen to their needs, solve problems, and improve processes at work. I was still very young, but one thing I could see very clearly – whatever you do, people are at the centre of everything.
Ever since I can remember, I loved everything that had to do with people, communication, and teamwork. During my first maternity leave, Taavi Kotka invited me to take the role of HR manager at Webmedia (today’s Nortal). Since then, I’ve helped shape strong culture in amazing organisations like Nortal, Wise, and Salv. 💙
The universe has a plan for each and every one of us. And if we learn to take cues from our peers, our environment, ourselves, little by little, this great plan begins to unfold. It might not be too obvious at the start, but years later you can look back and think: I’m very grateful that I’ve made these decisions.
You spent over 4,5 years at Wise. You must have learned a lot!
This is true. When I joined, we had 60 people in 3 countries, and by the time I left, we had 1260 working across 9 countries. Wise was a disruptive global startup with an ambitious mission: money without borders. I wanted to be part of the mission and help build a strong culture that can unite people from different backgrounds and different countries. It was an amazing but also super challenging time in my life.
Building culture from the ground up sounds exciting, but also challenging. How did it go?
My very first meeting at Wise was a discussion about our core values together with the leadership team. We knew we’d be growing really fast, so we wanted to create the kind of **trust, common values and shared purposes **that would serve as a common ground for all employees on all levels. I think we did a great job.
We put a lot of effort into making sure our people understand & live our values. It was crucial because sometimes people who had joined 2-3 months before had to interview the next round of applicants and choose the new joiners. We had to make sure that everyone had been properly integrated into the culture, otherwise, the company would evolve very differently. I know many great startups that changed for the worse after they started to grow. Wrong decisions down the road can cause a lot of damage and put you in jeopardy of losing your best talent.
I know that you really enjoyed working at Wise. What brought you to Salv?
My work at Wise gave me the sense of clarity and purpose I was looking for. It gave me joy and excitement, because it was centred around people, and in just a few years I could see how far we’d gone and how much we’d grown. But there are many passions in my life, and of all of them, motherhood has always been the most amazing, meaningful part of it. So, initially, I wanted to take a one-year leave to spend more time with my family, and my dear daughters, before they grow up. I want to teach my daughters to be open, curious, and accepting to different cultures and people. This is why we decided to spend the year abroad – in Spain.
A year together with my family worked magic. It was like a third eye opened, we learned so much about each other, and we created many precious memories that changed our lives forever. I realised how important it was to have more time for myself and my family. Overall, taking a one-year leave was the best investment of my life – and it produced the highest returns: happy children, happy partner, and a more fulfilling family life.
I didn’t have a clear plan for when we had to travel back to Estonia. From Jeff, who used to be my team leader at Wise, I learned about anti-money laundering and why he couldn’t ignore it. Little by little, the pieces started coming together. By that time, I was equipped with the experience at Wise, an established & hyper-growth organisation. I was excited to learn what it means to build a company from scratch, when all you have is a big dream, a world-changing mission, and a strong team of professionals. Salv gave me this opportunity, and that’s how my journey at Salv started.
Almost three years in, we have an amazing product, an even greater, bigger team, and we haven’t lost our passion and commitment. Whether or not it’s clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should, revealing many wonderful things. Let’s not lose our faith as we move further!
What are the pillars of a successful HR strategy in a technology organisation?
I don’t like the term HR as it lacks empathy and warmth, and transforms the whole idea of what we do every day. Our mission together with other leaders is to build the environment where employees can succeed, grow, and achieve more together. I never studied HR but I understood early on that listening to people, understanding their struggles and improvement needs, their strengths and weaknesses is the most important part of this job. Throughout the years, I have discovered and incorporated the following principles into my work:
- No politics. Workplace politics can create a hostile and competitive environment, and make it difficult to enjoy your work. When we have a strong mission and a clear understanding of what we do, there is no need to complicate things.
- Create meaningful policies. It’s important to bring clarity and share best practices in order to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, so be mindful that each policy adds value, not unnecessary bureaucracy.
- There is no one-size-fits-all. People are unique and you need to find the best way to lead every individual. It’s wrong to force the same practices on everyone.
- Forge strong partnerships between leaders. Strong connections between the leaders help them learn from each other’s experience. This way, many things can be solved before they escalate.
- Strong team is a diverse team. Everyone has a unique personality, unique way of thinking, ideas, and life experiences, but it’s important that people share common core values.
- Every employee shapes the company. All of us are building a “work home” we want to have for ourselves.
At Salv, we make everyday decisions at the lowest possible level, which means we can get things done faster than in larger organisations. We don’t need to force decisions from top to bottom, because we trust our people and the decisions they make. This approach adds a lot of responsibility for our individual choices, actions and decisions. But it also gives us freedom. And this is what makes Salv so unique.
Can’t argue with that! What else makes Salv stand out?
Everyone at Salv is truly amazing. There are so many people who are passionate about our mission, who want to fight crime and make a change in the world. It’s impressive! Our mission may still be far away, but in just a few years, we’ve made a huge amount of progress with our AML Platform and AML Bridge. As the world faces new challenges, our mission becomes even more critical and important. There are things that stand out in particular:
- Mission-driven company. We have a talented and diverse team who believe in our mission and values. We work smart and we lift each other up. It’s not a competition – we may not always agree with one another, but we find a common ground and move forward.
- Autonomous culture. You can grow and develop your skills but it all comes with a lot of ownership and responsibility. You need to take initiative and deliver results. It’s hard but rewarding at the same time.
- Work-life balance. Many of us at Salv are parents. We come from different backgrounds, we see things for what they are, and we know what is really important. Knowing that, we built a sustainable culture where people feel better about their life as a whole.
We are more than just employees. Every year, we organise a summer get-together with our colleagues, their partners and kids. We have wellbeing weeks where everyone can step forward to guide us through a meditation exercise, or host a health and wellbeing session. We have weekly sessions at the Gordon family school, where we learn to improve our relationships at home and at work, we learn to listen to each other, and become better, compassionate human beings.
Describe your typical day at Salv.
Every day is different. In my position, I must build a strong foundation, which is not an easy task, and it can’t be accomplished in one day or month. I work behind the scenes, most of the time, meeting people, listening to them, trying to understand the root of the problem – and supporting them to solve it.
The other day, my 15-year old daughter had to fill out a school survey asking what your parents do at work. She wrote, ‘my mother goes to cafes and eats biscuits’. Although my children are not aware of everything I do at work, this is also true, as I often meet someone for breakfast or lunch. Nothing helps understand each other better than a conversation in a casual setting: if you know what questions to ask, you can go deep, and deeper, and reach the core of things.
Since you mentioned going to cafes, what is your favourite café in Tallinn? 😋
My current favourite restaurant is Kodas in Southern Estonia. In Tallinn, I do most of my meetings at Kuusk Hernesto or somewhere in Kadriorg.
If Salv were a food, what food would it be?
Good question. For me, it would be lasagna. 🥘 There are many different layers that all come together as one great dish. You can make a basic, average-tasting lasagna, but if you want a rich satisfying meal, you are going to need many ingredients, and you have to make everything from scratch. That’s what we do at Salv. We have many great chefs who step in at different stages: engineering, customer success, sales, marketing, legal etc. From the outside it may look simple, but it’s really not. There is so much more than meets the eye.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to join Salv?
Salv is a good place for someone who is independent and entrepreneurial, and wants to make the world a better place. You deliver what you promise and care about the result, you care about people around you and want to create an environment of mutual trust and respect. You like a good challenge and you don’t stop halfway through.
It’s definitely not a place for you if you are afraid of change, can’t make decisions on your own, and need to be told what to do. If you have a competitive personality, Salv is not your best choice – we don’t support workplace competition. I hope that helps!
This story doesn’t have an ending. What’s the next chapter in Kairi’s life? Only she can tell us. You can write your own story at Salv – just look at our Careers page.