Orami Shannon Kalayanamitr

Southeast Asia-based women’s lifestyle e-commerce platform Orami has come a long way in a short span.

Founded in Thailand in 2012 as MOXY, the e-commerce portal was absorbed into Ardent Capital-backed MOXY Group two years later, joining four other e-commerce portals and rebranding the group to its namesake.

In 2015, MOXY merged with a leading Indonesian parent-focused e-commerce site to become Orami. Then, earlier this year, it clinched a US$15 million funding in a round led by SMDV and participated in by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Gobi Partners and Ardent Capital, among others.

Mere months later, Orami announced it was raising yet another round (though this has yet to be finalised).

It was not an easy path for Orami. The region is a hive teeming with lifestyle e-commerce startups vying for the hearts of consumers. For Orami, the largest threat came from Rocket Internet-backed Zalora. Fortunately though, Zalora bowed out early this year, and the homegrown startup continues to plough through the sea of noise.

At the helm of this cruiser is co-founder and CMO Shannon Kalayanamitr. A third culture kid born in the US, she returned to her roots in Thailand at age 12, head-filled with feminist ideals. It was clear that Kalayanamtir was not going to fall in line, but rather carve out an ambitious future for herself, and champion women’s right to kick ass and succeed.

In an email conversation with e27, Kalayanamtir speaks candidly about her business journey and what lessons entrepreneurs can glean from her experience.

Entrepreneurship stems from a willingness to embrace risk to experience new things. So, tell me during your growing up years, did your parents inculcate those values into you, or were these traits that you only picked up later in life?

Definitely from my parents and growing up. My father is a risk taker and a die hard entrepreneur. I’ve known the word ‘opportunity’ for as long as I can remember. My father also ingrained [in me] the ‘sink or swim’ mentality and never let me forget it. My life has been a bit of a rough ride with my parents getting divorced at a young age and going through the Asian crisis – so apart from my father’s values – I was able to put it in practice throughout the years.

Was it always your ambition to be an entrepreneur? What other career choices did you have in mind?

I started out idealistic at a very young age – wanting to be America’s first woman President, though that was before I learned about what politics was about. I’m hoping that Hillary Clinton will succeed this year. I moved into desiring a career in Journalism or International Relations, then finally understanding that if I wanted to make an impact, it would have to be through business first, then marry my passion into it later. Then, with my father’s advice, I settled onto a business degree in Finance.

Do you see being a third-cultured individual as advantageous in the business world? What is the difference between the business world of Silicon Valley and that of Thailand?

I know that at times third cultured individuals grow up lost and confused with culture shock or unable to connect with where they belong. I grew up with many friends like that. Though I believe, if we are able to see through the confusion and use it to our advantage, the flipside is that it makes us resilient and adaptable to whatever life/culture/society/circumstances throw at us. It’s a matter of perspective and how you are able to make the best of what you have around you.

I lived in Silicon Valley until I was 12, then again in high school, but I never worked there so I’m not able to speak about business in the Valley.

Tell me about your failures, and which was the worst? How did you pick yourself up from that?

I’ve had a few, and one of the most memorable was when my firm Altus was hired to build, operate and transfer a Digital TV station in Thailand. I had all the skills to build it and along with my partners, I managed to assemble a production and programming team, technical team, marketing team, and I lead the team in winning the government-lead bidding.

Unfortunately, my aggressive management style was met with even more hostility from the investor’s right-hand lady. I was banished from the company I had helped shape and create, fallen from the dream and vision to lead and manage a large media company and replaced with her ‘people’. I was heartbroken. When I look back at the venture, perhaps I was too idealistic and so determined to do it ‘my way’ that I failed to compromise and use my softer skills to work with the team. That was a big reality check in terms of ego and made a constant note till today that I will never do that again.

Being a seasoned entrepreneur, and a role model to many women entrepreneurs in Asia, you must meet a lot of aspiring female entrepreneurs. What are the biggest fears they harbour and what are the biggest misconceptions they have with regards to being a woman in the tech world?

The biggest misconception women have is usually believing they lack the skill set or resources for a role that they should go for. Men are more prompt to believe that they can do it. I feel that women, who are well-rounded in nature (having to balance work, personal life, home life, relationships) try to make sure that they can perform well, manage expectations and not disappoint – and usually, the biggest fear of disappointment is toward themselves. Women often need to be 100 per cent confident that they can and will do the job right. They should take more risk, just jump in and learn in the process.

Having attended several VC gatherings, it sometimes feels like an ‘old boys club’. Did you personally face discrimination or had to fend off snarky remarks from VCs or even fellow entrepreneurs (specific examples would be nice)?

In many meetings with investors, they would make eye contact with my male colleagues, even though the subject matter is my domain of expertise. My soft skills, emotional intelligence, or vision don’t seem to matter in ‘more important’ roles.

As a board member, one needs to have the stereotypical hard numbers and aggressive sales-centric roles. Most of the time, people tend to associate strong leadership with aggressiveness, with being able to ‘deal-make’ rather than sit and look over the overview of business fundamentals. But the truth is that there are many types of leaders and not one mould fits all.

How do you negotiate a tough deal?

I have to break away from the whole deal, sit and think. It usually comes to me in my sleep.

What keeps you going when things aren’t looking so bright?

Knowing that half of everything is your mindset – and the other is perseverance. Everyone who knows me will tell you I’m a very positive and optimistic person, though I know that won’t get me anywhere without the work. I’m also a very scrappy and resilient person.

Is there a routine you adhere to energise yourself and stay upbeat? What small success do you celebrate every day — or every week?

I do a mind ritual every day before I sleep – and I thank [no specific being] for all the gifts I have and what I’m blessed with: all my loved ones and all the opportunities I’ve had. I believe that life is fundamentally good and I hope it gives me the opportunities to make it great.

Do you envision your children becoming entrepreneurs too? If so, how would you guide them? Would you invest money into their startups?

Hah – I would never want to impose my vision onto them. I believe that as a parent, the best gift is to show them how to live a fulfilled, happy life in their own way. I’ve grown up around family members with imposed goals and vision; they grew up unhappy and feel like they have disappointed their elders, not reaching someone else’s ultimate happiness. I think there is no ultimate happiness, and you will disappoint yourself if you believe the grass is always greener elsewhere. I will support my kids in whatever they want to do and yes, I need to pay it forward like my parents did by guiding them, sometimes with tough love or ‘sink or swim’ style, but having them know I’ve always got their back.

I think there is no ultimate happiness and you will disappoint yourself if you believe the grass is always greener on the other side. I will support my kids in whatever they want to do and yes, I need to pay it forward like my parents did by guiding them — sometimes with tough love or ‘sink or swim’ style, but having them know I’ve always got their back.

What are books that you think contributed immensely to your outlook on life and business?

  • Blue Ocean Strategy, by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan KimHow. It taught me to create your own differentiation to make sure you don’t go head to head with the competition.
  • 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
  • The Other 90%, by Robert K. Cooper
  • Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

Besides business books, what is one book you think all entrepreneurs should read?

Learning about themselves and capitalising on their strengths. I recommend doing psychological tests like Myer’s Briggs, which is great to know yourself better, and also the Gallup’s Strengths Finder test.

What resources — organisations, workshops and events — do you think women entrepreneurs in Asia should leverage to build their business, elevate their game, and build connections?

Role-models and mentors are very important in the path to success, because they help us visualise how far we can go, and how big we can dream. The women-helping-women movement is spreading in South East Asia with brilliant initiatives.

In July, the first Galboss Asia Symposium in Singapore brought together A-list business women and media influencers to share their knowledge and advice. It was truly inspiring to witness these brilliant Asian women taking the lead and talking to the pumped-up new generation. In Thailand, Orami is sponsoring Women in Business, a monthly mentorship program where seasoned entrepreneurs coach aspiring female founders to build their business. In Indonesia, we love Cewequat, a network empowering women to grow in business.

I believe that the gender gap is wider in Asia than in the West due to traditional representations of femininity. If women feel more confident networking at women’s forums, so be it. There are also many forums specific to certain sectors, like Echelon or Tech in Asia or Tech Sauce for tech startups, or WPP Stream for Advertising and Creativity.

What is one advice you would impart to aspiring entrepreneurs in Asia?

Just do it – many people are just ‘analysis paralysis’, and want it to be too perfect before actually taking the leap. One thing that Lazada taught me is to do it, test, fail quickly, learn, get up again then do it better. Test your MVP (minimum viable product) before you press accelerate.

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Image Credit: Orami