When you are truly yourself, you will feel so much better – Shannon Kalayanamitr
“I think one of the biggest things I’ve learnt is being able to accept who I am, understanding myself, my strengths and weaknesses, being able to build on them and just to push what I can do going forward.”
No role models
In Thailand’s tech and business world, Shannon Kalayanamitr is among the top female leaders in many people’s minds.
Currently the CEO of 5GCatalyst Technologies and a Partner Advisor to Gobi Partners, Shannon has been a strong advocate for women’s empowerment, paving the way for more women in leading roles for the past 20 years. Her advocacy even carried over to her social work with UN Women as well as many women groups across Asia.
Shannon reflected that, in the past, there weren’t many mentors or role models for women to look up to. However, she did recall a few “idols” during her early career in the banking industry, apart from a lot of “female bosses”, who she describes as being “catty” and who weren’t supportive of other women.
“I remember a few of my older women colleagues, they were senior vice presidents at that time and they were just idols to me,” she recalls. “She had her act together, she was so polished, so smart in the way she articulated things, she led deals, she seemed to have a great life.”
Changes for female empowerment
A few years later, Shannon started to see that there was more awareness about women in male-dominated industries, as women in corporates started to attend more business conferences. This was when gender inequality issues started coming to light, when she felt that there was no diversity in terms of women’s voices.
“When we started going to conferences, we noticed that there weren’t enough women speaking on the panels,” she explains. “We called it a “manel”, or a man panel.”
“Then, when we started talking about having a stage for women or having more women on speaker panels, we actually got a lot of flak. People were saying that we’re trying to alienate men but, in reality, there weren’t many ways for women to seek resources, knowledge or anything tailored towards women at that time.”
Fast-forward to now, she believes that the role of women in business has changed for the better, but there is still a long way to go.
The 5GCatalyst CEO says she’s glad to see that people are more aware of the issue, with more women mentoring and helping each other. Most importantly, a number of men are also advocating for women as well.
“So a lot of these women’s groups have come together to push this and to help elevate each other, which I think is another big difference between 20 years ago and now. Before, women just didn’t really help each other and we were almost competing with each other.”
Working women VS societal norms
With the lack of women in leadership roles, or even being heard in meeting rooms, Shannon thinks that culture and societal norms are still the main factors holding women back.
For instance, her mother and her relatives, who have traditional ways of thinking, would often tell her not to work too hard and to make sure that her goal in life is to find a good husband, get married and have children.
“And, of course, when I hear that, when I was in my 20s, I didn’t have a husband, women were at a fork in the road [between career and getting married]. This is definitely something that is still holding us back to this very day.
Her father, on the other hand, was much more supportive of her career.
“He was like, Shanny, you can do anything. I’m very happy that he just believed in me, to push me to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Apart from society’s expectations of what women should be, Shannon also thinks that awareness of and mindset towards women are also problematic.
She recalled her days when she was fundraising for her startup company, while she was pregnant, when many investors questioned whether she could really “multitask” between running a startup company and having children.
“Those are still some notions that women founders and entrepreneurs still face to this very day. You see a bunch of women CEOs, women CFOs, C-suites and managers here, yet they can still do what they are doing, but men don’t get asked this question.”
With her lively personality, Shannon revealed that she used to be discriminated against by some of her bosses, as people still have stereotypical views of women, particularly those working at C-suite level, including having idealised perceptions of what a leader should be.
“I think it was stereotypical bias plus, I’m not a very stereotypical CEO or CMO. For women, if you’re in the C-suite, you’re either in marketing or maybe finance, but you’re not a CEO, because CEOs need to be aggressive and hard, you need to know everything, not this bubbly or smiley person.”
As this CEO reflects on her career, from her beginnings in banking, working at various companies before running her own startup, she believes that her leadership style has improved over the years.
Although Shannon describes herself as a good project manager, she admits that she wasn’t a team player and that her style was too commanding and egotistical, to a point where she once lost her job at a consulting firm.
“It was a big wake up call for what I did,” she recalled with some regret. “I was very egotistical, I wanted my way, why isn’t this done yet, I didn’t listen, and I was not a team player.”
However, when she started managing her own startup company, she became too lenient and nice, which resulted in low productivity. This was when she started to re-balance her leadership style.
“There’s still firmness in the vision and the goals we set, but how you run things and the mechanism of how you get there is still flexible. So I think, between the two, I think I’ve been able to strive for a much better leadership style than I had 10 years ago.”
Learn to try everything
Describing herself as an extreme extrovert and optimist, Shannon also believes that she’s a risk-taker, as opposed to her mother and her older relatives, who prefer to play it safe.
“So I don’t mean to say that they taught me anything wrong,” she clarifies.
“I know that a lot of what they taught me really came from their hearts. They don’t want to see me hurt. They don’t want me to get into a situation which I could not get myself out of, which was why they said, don’t do it, or maybe you shouldn’t do it. Maybe you should just be an accountant rather than an entrepreneur.”
Being a single mother of twin daughters comes with challenges. As Shannon reveals, she teaches her children to try everything.
“I do want to see my kids try, I want to see my kids fail, but I also want to see them learn from it. If they cry, trip, or fall, then we deal with it and work through the problem.”
Shannon also empowers her daughters to have the freedom to do whatever they want to do, regardless of their gender. Her twin daughters are also into different activities. Ava is into drawing, while Ninja is into coding and is starting to get into chess.
“So, empowerment for them isn’t really a gender thing, it’s more that you, as a person, can do anything you want.”
Be “truly” yourself
When asked what empowering Thai women means to her, Shannon thinks that it means giving the power to yourself, figuring out who you really are and what is most important to you.
“I think, when you start listening to other people’s opinions, the stereotypes and what they want you to be, you’re giving the power to them.”
Therefore, the best way to feel truly empowered, in Shannon’s opinion, is when you are who you really are, not what society tells you to be.
“When you are truly yourself, and when you are truly working on all the great strengths that you have, you will feel so much better. Your self-esteem is so much better, your performance, your productivity are so much better. You are happier around your friends and family and just happier about yourself.”
By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World