More Than Influencers: 5 Young Thais Who Are Driving The Narrative Of Their Fields
The term influencer gets widely used today, particularly in the context of social media. However, there is a growing realisation that having a large and seemingly devoted Facebook or Instagram following does not necessarily equate to a person being a successful agent for positive change. Actions still speak louder than tweets and so in keeping with this issue’s window on influence, Thailand chats to five individuals who are getting hands-on to make a measurable mark in their respective fields, each one a disruptor with powerful ideas and the will to win us over to new ways of thinking and living.
1/5 Tasty Connections: Chudaree Debhakam
The first winner of Top Chef Thailand, Chudaree Debhakam, or Tam, is not your typical culinary titan. Recognised for her mindful cooking and sustainable food concepts, she is an explorer when it comes to sourcing authentic ingredients and travels to remote corners of the country to not only acquire rare foodstuffs but also further her knowledge of the growing processes behind them and the communities who grow them. The culmination of her efforts resulted in her recently opening Baan Tepa Culinary Space, which boasts its own garden of hard-to-find organic vegetables and herbs. “We work with what the farmers have available,” says the graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York and the University of Nottingham in nutrition and food science. “We cannot and will not force nature. This is the message I want to pass on to the next generation of chefs. All of our actions have consequences. So much damage has already been done to the environment and we have to reverse the trend. We must be aware of the problems in our broken food system and not become an enabler of harmful processes.”
Doing her part, chef Tam’s dishes are 90 per cent locally sourced and she makes a point of explaining their origins to diners. In addition, she won’t tolerate any waste. Education works in many ways though and the chef adds that she wants to improve the farmer’s, the food professional’s and the diner’s understanding of food. “I hope to inspire them because I have an immense respect for our organic farmers. We can create relationships with our producers and share valuable knowledge about food. Ultimately I want Baan Tepa to be a space where people can come and learn about what they eat, by experiencing our garden and getting their hands dirty. It’s a great way to switch off and reconnect with nature.” In her spare time, Tam helps the community whenever she can. During the current crisis, she and her team are doing their bit and are preparing meals for the Chulalongkorn medical staff and others working in the field.
2/5 Platform Soul: Yod Chinsupakul
Since its establishment a decade ago, award-winning online food review platform Wongnai has become one of the country’s leading dining companions and a guide to all things gastronomic. On a mission to ‘connect people to the good stuff’, Yod Chinsupakul, CEO and co-founder says, “We are often praised for the quality and credibility of our reviews and we boast Thailand’s largest database of eateries across the country, over 320,000.” Between 2019 and 2020 alone the company enjoyed revenue growth of more than 50 per cent. And in recent years Wongnai has expanded its reach to include organising food events and delivery services and providing reviews on various aspects of lifestyle such as beauty and travel. Very much an influential player in its field, today it has 500,000 online visitors daily and over 10 million users a month. What began as a small tech start-up has become one of the country’s leading super-lifestyle platforms.
Yod, a socially conscious entrepreneur who graduated from the University of California, is currently focused on assisting food businesses to weather the ongoing Covid-19 storm. “We have initiated a campaign which aims to help restaurants and business partners stay afloat. Part of that is launching delivery and customer food pickup services. We also have a Gift to Give campaign in which customers can buy vouchers from restaurants at special prices and redeem them at a later date. It really helps the food establishments with cash flow,” he explains.
In terms of having an impact he adds, “I hope Wongnai will set a good example of how Thai tech start-ups can grow sustainably. We want to be an app that is second to none and I really hope we inspire others with bright ideas to have a go. If nothing else, given the situation in the world right now, we want to be a champion for the restaurant industry. It needs all the help it can get as we rely on it being healthy.”
3/5 Bags of Potential: Wannasiri Kongman
Founded in 2006, Boyy is the brainchild of Wannasiri Kongman and her Canadian partner Jesse Dorsey. Often hailed as this generation’s ‘anti-It bag,’ the brand’s quality handbags embody a laidback yet chic and classy flair that has enticed fashion enthusiasts worldwide. There aren’t many Thai brands that have accrued such international fame. But it is the journey and growth of this self-funded label that is inspiring—an example of dedication and passion that leads to success. Their first collection was showcased in Dorsey’s kitchen apartment in downtown New York. And from the Big Apple to Thailand and now to Milan, the brand has continued to flourish. It focuses on a uniquely quirky yet contemporary masculine vibe to offer a fresh take on bags much needed in the fashion scene. “I’ve loved fashion and bags in particular for as long as I can remember,” says 42-year-old Wannasiri. “My partner and I were both living in New York when we started, struggling to make it in any meaningful way, but we both had an incredibly fiery ambition.” Boyy bags are now sold at major locations such as Bergdof Goodman in New York and Selfridges in London and present in more than 30 countries worldwide. “We recently set up our European headquarters in Milan with a phenomenal team and we also opened an outlet in La Rinascente department store,” Wannasiri adds.
Carried by celebrities, supermodels and style influencers across the globe, Boyy is having a significant impact on the fashion scene, driven partly by social media. The key to being relevant is sticking to your principles, the designer says. “Be original and believe in what you do! Fashion is so trend-driven. Those who can create something interesting, something different that rises above the norm will soar. What we portray is the importance of staying humble coupled with a constant desire to learn.”
4/5 Lone Ranger: Monthon Kasantikul
When we travel, particularly for leisure, we tend to do it in pairs and familial groups. Not Monthon Kasantikul though, who plies a lone furrow when it comes to exploring off the beaten track. Seven years ago an intrepid 25-year-old Mint, as she is also known, began documenting her travels on a specially created Facebook page, I Roam Alone. Sharing her solo adventures ranging from the Swiss Alps to India, Mongolia, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the page acted as a gateway to parts of the world that many had no means to explore. The Chulalongkorn University graduate estimates she has visited around 100 countries in all, always equipped with a mobile phone, GoPro, a small Canon camera and a big-ass Sony A7 camera. “I also started a YouTube channel a couple of years ago,” the globetrotter says. “There’s something about being on the move that appeals to me. I try to portray the places I visit, often hard-to-reach destinations, in a fun and dynamic way, while always leaving the smallest footprint possible.”
The now 32-year-old’s rising profile—she counts over 2.7 million followers on Facebook—has a lot to do with the strong educational aspect of her content, which increasingly includes commentary on the effects of war, poverty, prostitution, drug abuse and other social evils. Often praised for her courage to travel alone, Mint has had a huge influence on the number of young Thai women taking up a backpack. “Girls travelling solo is still uncommon here but more and more are stepping up. Look, of course you must be cautious and exercise common sense,” she says. “It’s crucial that you research both your destination and route to and from it. And always be respectful of local cultures and religions.” Far from wanting to put people off, she concludes by saying, “I hope to inspire everyone to step out of their comfort zone and travel. Meaningful travel is an education in itself and we should all get to do it.”
5/5 Packing A Punch: Rika Ishige
A rising star of the One Championship mixed martial arts ring, Rika Ishige (or Tiny Doll) is Thailand’s first female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter. Diminutive but possessing a steel will, at the age of 12 the Thai-Japanese enrolled in her first mixed martial arts class as a means of learning to defend herself from school bullies. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s that Rika picked up the sport again. The first time she fought professionally was when she joined One Championship, Asia’s largest global sports media property. An immediate success, at the age of 27 she took home her first title fighting in her home country. “I don’t have a favourite fight but that has got to be the most memorable moments for me,” she says. Since then she has racked up win after win, raising her profile even further, which is important to the now 31-year-old because she aims to be a good role model in society, encouraging more women to join not just MMA but also to take up sports in general. Her journey is an inspiring one for both upcoming athletes and victims of bullying, something she still works to combat. Rika has also participated in philanthropic platforms including workshops to help disadvantaged youths overcome their fears, gain more confidence and learn to protect themselves, just as she once needed to.
When we ask what kind of lasting influence she hopes to have on her field and society she says, “I started out late, at the age of 25, and I still managed to become a professional athlete. I want people to know that if they really want to do something in life, they can. They just have to be disciplined and go for it. Of course, I also want to raise awareness of MMA as a way for both women and men to empower themselves. A lot of people fail to understand the beauty behind this sport. It isn’t just about the fighting, although that can be brutal. It’s about overcoming your fears and rising to a challenge.”