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Shannon Kalayanamitr

Become – High Profiles
August 12, 2016

The sun has come out again after a brief shower, casting its slanted beams across the Marina Bay. Shannon Kalayanamitr gingerly lifts the wide-leg trousers of her black jumpsuit, as she steps nimbly around rain puddles. Her skin is a rich ochre colour, and when bathed in the warm rays of the sun, turns a mellow golden-brown reminiscent of an autumn sunset. Standing tall with her shoulders pulled back, Shannon’s willowy figure and pronounced features would not look out of place in a high fashion editorial. She tilts her head coyly for the camera, and requests jestingly that her white hair be edited out. Of course, I oblige—there is no turning down such a handsome woman, with her warm, throaty laugh. But to my surprise, and what is to become the precursor of my understanding of Shannon’s most striking trait, she turns briefly serious to assure me she’s only joking. “Don’t change anything, this is the real me.”

As the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Orami, Shannon’s objective for the company is clear: to be the online shopping destination for women in Southeast Asia. Yet, as a leader, she constantly faces the pressure to conform to a gender stereotype, often imposed by her male counterparts. “I have an entirely different working style from someone like Steve Jobs, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get things done my way,” she says with deep conviction. Her ability to look at the bigger picture makes her role in the company an indispensable one, as she deftly balances short-term metrics with long-term growth and the development of the Orami brand. Sharing about the mergers and acquisitions that the company has been through since it was founded in 2013, Shannon reflects on how their e-commerce image has evolved from a fun-loving, single girl to a more holistic, woman-centred approach. That journey, also parallels her own personal evolution of finding her own “ikigai”, or “reason for being”, and has matured her into the confident, measured woman she is today.

Listening to Shannon’s experiences brings to mind many iconic women in history—Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana to name a few—who were unapologetically ambitious, unorthodox, and for those qualities, frequently misunderstood. Princess Diana once said that strong women are often seen as a threat, because people do not understand where such strength comes from, and it rouses in them confusion and fear. Shannon confides that she has always felt like the underdog, and even with her success today, her methods are still discounted or met with resistance simply for being different.

As our conversation draws to a close, I am reminded of a scene from the movie Coco Before Chanel, where a bare-faced Chanel, with her unruly hair let down carelessly, is reading a book in loose fitting clothes—defying all stereotypes of women in her time. Her lover Arthur Capel meets her then for the first time and sees not just her physical beauty, but the strength of character that shines through. He says to Chanel, “You are so elegant”, perfectly mirroring my feelings toward Shannon as I take in the last precious minutes of being in her presence.

Conversations with Shannon Kalayanamitr

Co-Founder & Group CMO, Orami
Text by Melpomene Hua
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

MELPOMENE HUA: What are your roles as CMO?

SHANNON KALAYANAMITR: My key roles are branding and business development. People tend to assume that branding is just about slapping a name on things, but in reality, it’s much more challenging because branding has to touch on every aspect of the business in order to be authentic. And it’s so important to be authentic—if not, why would women buy my products? It’s also got to be in the people I hire. For example, an Orami buyer has to know what kinds of products a girl would like to see on our website, how she would like it to be presented, and what kind of product description appeals to her. The reason why I’ve a tough job is because I’m supposed to be a busybody—I have to poke my nose everywhere to make sure that we’re consistent. Sometimes people don’t see that, and they question why I’m spending money on something they deem pointless, when in fact, it fits into the bigger picture. For business development, I need to create comparative advantage by personalising the Orami experience, so that if and when our competitors decide to target women, our customers will choose to stay with us. 

MELPOMENE: Walk me through the ideal path you’d like someone to take to go from normal consumer to loyal Orami customer.

SHANNON: The current pathway is through showing customers relevant products. For example, if you’re a mom who goes to the site because Orami pampers are affordable, you would also see something else that you need, like makeup or Tupperware. Beyond that, and more importantly, women everywhere go through similar issues—be it acne, birth control, or pregnancy—and I want to create a safe haven where people come to get inspiration and advice. Collectively, we’re helping each other “have it all”. It’s not just about sales, it’s also about building a community. This extra dimension and depth are what differentiates Orami from the mall and other e-commerce sites. Right now, we’re the online destination for shopping, but my ideal is for us to be the online destination that caters to all the needs of Southeast Asian women.

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MELPOMENE: What is the strangest marketing experiment you’ve ever done?

SHANNON: [laughs] We produced a marketing video starring an attractive guy who spills coffee on his shirt in an elevator. The girl who is with him in the elevator presses the buttons for every single floor, so she would have time to get out and dress up before he sees her again. It went viral… the police came to our office the next day, claiming that our video violated some pornographic laws, and they wanted to arrest the marketing team. Everyone was freaking out. Some of the girls were close to tears and started calling their families. I told them I’ll take full responsibility and the police proceeded to handcuff me. As we were walking out, someone played “I Like to Move It” and the “officers” started stripping [laughs]. It was an April Fool’s joke!

Rebranding is a painful and expensive process, but it was necessary to bring our companies together, and for people to be aligned with a single vision.

MELPOMENE: Since you started Moxy in 2013, the company has rebranded twice. Do you find rebranding disruptive?

SHANNON: Every merger invariably comes with the challenge of synthesising different cultures. When we merged with WhatsNew Group, they had four brands underneath them, and in order to maximise our marketing dollar as well as avoid confusing consumers, it was important to collapse all our brands into one. At the end of a long rebranding period of 6 months, everything was good—then we merged with Bilna and started the whole process again. Bilna has always been family-oriented, catering to mother and babies; whereas Moxy had a single girl image, with a focus on lifestyle. I am attached to the Moxy brand because it embodies being fun, open, and real, and I wanted to carry these traits over to the new company. But Bilna was also very attached to their name, so it took some time before we eventually decided to relaunch as “Orami”. Rebranding is a painful and expensive process, but it was necessary to bring our companies together, and for people to be aligned with a single vision. It’s always a challenge to make sure that the culture trickles down to every aspect of the business, and it’s only been 6 months for us, but so far so good.

MELPOMENE: What does it mean to “have it all”?

SHANNON: The traditional portrayal of an ideal life for a woman is to be beautiful, have a great husband, a successful career, and adorable kids. But life will never reach a static point of perfection, because once we have something, we’ll start thinking about the next thing we want. There’s a Japanese word called “ikigai”, which represents the intersection between what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and what the world needs. To me, that is the path towards having it all. When I graduated with a finance degree in my early 20s, I got a banking job that paid well but I couldn’t see myself doing it in the long run. I went through a period of self-questioning and tried to focus instead on doing good in my late 20s, but I soon realised that wasn’t sustainable. Thereafter, I had an exploratory phase of about 5 years and now I finally feel like I’ve found my ikigai—I’m close to having it all. The process involves a lot of experimentation to find out what you want.

shannon_moxy_art2

Forget this whole millennial new age thing about following your passion—focus on building skills and passion will come.

MELPOMENE: People often talk about chasing your dreams or passion, but it’s hard to figure out what you truly love doing. 

SHANNON: I don’t believe in passion. I made conscious choices throughout my career to prioritise building skill sets. Integrating passion into my work comes at a later stage. The problem with placing passion first is that without the necessary skills, you don’t know where to go, and in the case of start-ups, how to scale. I started working in e-commerce to learn specific skills, and over time it became a platform for me to reach out to women. Forget this whole millennial new age thing about following your passion—focus on building skills and passion will come.

MELPOMENE: Is that something you learnt from your NGO work?

SHANNON: Definitely. I wanted to help because I felt that I was privileged, and had a duty to give back. When the 2004 tsunami happened I flew in to volunteer, and was given the task of identifying bodies. In the process, we found a village where half the population had died in the Tsunami, and I helped raise money for them. It was meaningful to be able to help, but it wasn’t sustainable because I didn’t get the business model right… Did you know that the UN takes about 20% of your donation? I just couldn’t bring myself to take any money which could be used to help someone, so I went broke myself. I decided then that business should come first.

MELPOMENE: You said that your mother had limited choices in life. Did that impact your perspective?

SHANNON: I grew up with a cheating dad. When my dad moved back to Thailand from the U.S., my mum was torn because she had a great job there as a registered nurse, but eventually gave that up and got a job in Thailand as an office manager, with a salary of $1000 a month. Sometimes we would walk in on her crying. I hated that my mum felt compelled to stay for financial stability, us (her children), and a lack of opportunities. Women in Asia feel that our role in life is to have a family, be a dutiful wife, and to fit into a mold. Being a dutiful wife is important, but we can also do other things. If you empower women with tools, ideas, and opportunities to make money, they can be independent and make their own choices. They don’t have to depend on anyone but themselves.

MELPOMENE: Did that affect your view on relationships?

SHANNON: Even after witnessing my parents’ relationship, I still always wanted to get married. I’ve seen many people who are unhappy but stay together because they’re married or have kids. I don’t want marriage to be the only reason I’m with my boyfriend. I want us to be completely free, and stay together by choice. When I was younger, I still felt some pressure to get married. When we got pregnant, I was worried that my kids would grow up being teased and feel insecure. But society has become a lot more progressive, and now I don’t feel the urge or need to get married anymore. When I tell people that I’m not married, some still assume I’m a single mother or something went wrong. But not getting married was our conscious decision, and I’m happy this way.

shannon_10aug_art

I hope that eventually women entrepreneurs will be so common, and the idea so widespread that people no longer feel a need to call attention to gender issues.

MELPOMENE: What is the most challenging aspect of being a woman in your industry?

SHANNON: Soft skills are not appreciated. I am aggressive but not loud and domineering because I prefer to take the soft approach. I believe that the ends justify the means, and thus the methods we adopt do not matter as long as the end goal is achieved. Everywhere I went, however, I am always questioned as to why I don’t do things the same way men do. There’s this notion that if you’re not doing it the same way, then you’re not doing it right. But I always remind myself that everyone has their own way of doing things. I can’t be Steve Jobs because our working styles are different, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get things done my way.

MELPOMENE: Can women leverage their strengths to succeed?

SHANNON: Women are nurturing by nature. You always want to take care of your friends and family, and when you’re building your business that becomes your family, too. Men are sometimes so focused on progression that they forget the bigger picture. It’s possible to make more holistic decisions without sacrificing growth.

MELPOMENE: It’s an underappreciated trait.

SHANNON. Yeah, it’s frequently misinterpreted as weakness, fuelling the notion that nurturing people shouldn’t be leaders of a company. Here in Asia, we’re still on the cusp of change for gender equality. There is still a fair bit of ground to cover, and I’m very supportive of efforts to facilitate that shift in mindset, like the Galboss Symposium. I hope that eventually women entrepreneurs will be so common, and the idea so widespread that people no longer feel a need to call attention to gender issues.

MELPOMENE: How has entrepreneurship turned you into a better person?

SHANNON: I’m more responsible and measured now. I used to be rash and risk-seeking, with a tendency to say yes quickly and overcommit. I’m more aware now of how our actions affect everything around us, and better able to see the big picture. For the first time in my life, I feel settled and not constantly thinking of what’s next.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap