Nathchaya “Fon” Pongakkarawat, Head of Public Policy, Amazon of Thailand
Hometown: Bangkok, Thailand
Graduation Year: 2010
Major: Economics and International Business
What other degrees have you received?
Master of Arts in International Relations and International Economics, Southeast Asia Studies (fully funded by two scholarships: Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda Fellowship and JHU Scholarship), Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Washington, D.C., May 2014
What is your current career position?
Head of Public Policy at Amazon in Thailand. My other role within the company includes Diversity and Inclusion Lead (for the Association of South East Asian Nations), Pioneer of “Women in Tech” program.
Please describe your current work.
At Amazon, I help transform businesses, government and civil society through digital technology. I empower and advocate for digital literacy, digital connectivity and greater adoption of high-technology tools such as cloud computing, AI and machine learning, startups and future workforce development programs between Thailand and Seattle.
What are your future goals?
I believe in connecting and empowering people and in strengthening their internal weapons of greatness (through skill development/knowledge) and goodness (through being committed to the values) — the combination of skills and mindset that I learned at Westminster. I hope to continue to do that in my various hats, both professionally and personally, and expand such connection of opportunities across continents, perhaps between the United States and Asia in the near future!
In terms of your professional life, what would you say is your overarching purpose today?
I believe in the impact that we all can create in the society we live in. In my role as an advocate, it is very important to me that we continue to educate and empower people to move forward in the direction that is impactful to the society we all live in, and that is through the meaningful and impactful adoption of new technology. I am proud to be driving one of the most critical and important conversations of our lifetime when it comes to high technology, especially in the part of the world with the most robust world economy, Asia. Other than engineering and powering our economy with tech, we must also arm our human resources with new skills and the readiness to adopt and implement technology in a way that enhances our quality of life and is meaningful to our society as a whole.
Did your liberal arts education allow you to uncover particular passions that you’ve carried into your career?
Liberal arts education changed me completely. I came from a country where students have to choose what to study before they get into colleges, which is a very fixed mindset approach. In addition to the liberal arts education, it is also WC’s faculty who were so kind as to guide me to find my passion and sense of purpose. I remember taking Prof. David Jones’s Introduction to Psychology class in my senior year just to fulfill my subject requirement, but alas that’s the subject area I love the most in my entire college career! It was too late then to pursue psychology as my degree at WC. But I have educated myself since and paid attention to how psychology can support my current role, leading me to advocate and apply influence to drive agenda very successfully. In addition, economics classes with Prof. Gyan Pradhan and Bhandari’s mentorship pushed me to think of economics as a bridge to do good to the world. Learning in their small classes and one-on-one office hours guided me to opportunities outside the classroom. They encouraged me to go to Washington D.C., travel the world to intern/work/volunteer in different sectors (which I did throughout my summers) and circled back to see who I actually am — a theorist or a practitioner. I eventually found my path, not because of what they told me but how they have inspired to seek that passion for myself. Furthermore, it was because of the College’s support via the clubs and organizations that connect me to the bigger picture. I was proud to learn and drive the program at the Remley’s Women Center as the first female international student leader of the Center. It was eye-opening to touch on so many lives of young women who had gone through difficult and silent times and how we as a College community can support one another when it comes to tough conversation around abuse, harassment and support for women’s health, etc. I have carried that passion forward in my career and communities in Asia Pacific. Today I continue to advocate for women’s issues, as I have worked to battle human trafficking and labor exploitation throughout the supply chain, and now work to provide women with opportunities and leadership in technology. At Westminter, it’s always more than just education inside the classroom: It’s a real world you can find on and off campus.
Were any relationships you formed at Westminster particularly influential in helping you find clarity of purpose?
Mentorship was the most important thing for me at Westminster. Westminster faculty served as my second parents and family in the states. Being an international student, in the beginning I felt lonely not having families to go to during thanksgiving and Christmas break, but the faculty and staff were there for us, the international student families, and with that I am very grateful. Although Dr. Pat Kirby wasn’t teaching any classes, as he was the Director of International Admissions, he was also my boss for Work Study, and he taught me to always stay positive, remember people’s names and sincerely be interested in their stories. Pat celebrated everybody’s stories and struggles, no matter how difficult and bumpy it may sound like. His positivity always shined on others to care for the community as a whole and to always seek solutions. Professor Gyan Pradhan, who taught me economics, also had a lot of influence on my path to seek clarity of purpose. As a former World Banker, he could have stayed in Washington D.C. and worked in a fancy building, but I remember very well how he chose to come out here to teach, make a real impact and inspired the younger generation to make their own version of real change. That way of thinking is now my way of living. In 2014, I came back to Asia to make those changes, and every day since, I am waking up motivated more than ever to create change because of what Dr. Pradhan had said to me when I was only 19 years old.
What does being a “leader” mean to you?
I remember requesting meetings with Dr. Bob Hansen and Dr. Carolyn Perry to tell them about my crazy idea to create WC’s first “freshman leadership seminar.” I said, “I have the money from this national grant I just won from Omicron Delta Kappa, The National Leadership Honor Society. I think we need freshman to think more about leadership and know what it actually means to serve others. Can we just do this?” Then I told them about my specific plan to create a group of active freshman leaders that faculty pre-selected and invited them to join this special class for credits. I was scared that my proposal would get rejected, but the College supported me. I served as a mentor for that course. That was how I learned about being a leader at Westminster — bold, trusting, grateful and responsible. Being responsible is the most important element of leadership. No great leadership can be done without being truly responsible for the whole community. Because of the trust from the College leadership, I was able to be bold in sharing my ideas to develop our community through a project that benefited the freshman class.
This mindset of leadership follows me throughout my career and personal life after college. In my current leadership role at work, I am taking a big responsibility to changing attitudes towards the adoption of technology, and this comes with great level of sincere relationships I have built with various high-level contacts throughout the industry. Being responsible and trusting are key to my success as it would also be my company and eventually my industry success.
What does success mean to you?
To many people success might mean how much money in the account you have and how big of the house is but to me success means how happy you simply are with yourself. Almost everyone after college spend their lives chasing after money, titles and things. I am also one of those people, but to me it is not the things that truly matter but the feeling of having just enough to be absolutely happy without having more and being more. This might come from my Buddhist perspective that I have learned over time how to be sufficient and happy with what I already have. I learned it during my time at Westminster, where I didn’t have my parents or relatives around to bring me extra food and comfort, but together with other international students who also didn’t have much at that time, we shared were grateful of what we had. When we had a little bit more food, clothes and things, we often shared.
Today, success means my ability to make an impact through my job every day to create a more robust economy through the power of technology, influencing people to realize their own powerful ability and skill to build and do things that can change the world, bring food to my family, have time to travel and meditate and more importantly taking my parents to wherever they want to travel!
What is it about Westminster that makes it the kind of community that empowers students to discover their purpose and find success?
“Small college, big opportunities,” Dr. Pat Kirby told me at the interview when I first met him in Norway when I was just a high school student there. It was because of an excellent combination of faculty who truly care about student success and the curriculum that is designed with flexibility that allowed me to learn many things and talk to anyone about it. The only limit to all the great opportunities available on and off campus would have been just myself locking myself up all the time in the room (which I did in my freshman year). Faculty is the big part of my college experience, and as a young woman, I needed guidance, confidence, support and more importantly, listening ears, to listen to all my curiosity and struggles. WC faculty never judged me for who I was but was always there for who I want to become and guided me towards how I can achieve that without losing my chance of being as young as a college student, as I kept on making some mistakes and learning from them.
Favorite Westminster faculty member?
I have too many to name! I appreciated learning and receiving mentorship from Prof. Carolyn Perry, Prof. Gyan Pradhan, Prof. David Jones and Prof. Bob Hansen.
Favorite spot on campus?
The water fountain on the lawn not far from the Columns
Last book you read?
Brave, Not Perfect
I don’t lie so here is it – Legally Blonde 1 and 2!!
Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
Taking my parents out for dinner or cook for them