Agent-for-change Natalie Phaholyotin is on a mission to promote environment and wildlife preservation in Thailand, as well as beyond its borders. No stranger to campaigning on the planet’s big social issues, prior to taking up her new position at WWF at the start of this year the 40-something was the associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asia regional office, a role that saw her managing public health initiatives for greater social impact.
Constant travel was part of the job and Natalie says she knew from an early age that she wanted to work at an international level. Her father was a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and would take his family with him on his various overseas postings, which no doubt influenced his eldest daughter. “I think my nomadic upbringing helped me to realise that I wanted to work for a global entity in a job that would allow me to connect and reach out to the world,” she smiles.
Working for the Rockefeller Foundation required her to visit very challenging locations, often on her own—the largest slum community in Nairobi, Kenya for example. “Most of the foundation’s programmes are in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. I managed upwards of 20 projects, several of which are located in Thailand. One of the most recent was an initiative to adopt technology in the health sector as part of the UN’s sustainable development goals. The idea was to see how we could better leverage digital data to enable the acceleration of positive health care for the poorest. I also worked on a recent initiative to boost rural electrification in India and Myanmar based on renewable energy.”
A favourite aspect of her job with the foundation was working with passionate, like-minded people. “I really admired the intellectual curiosity of my colleagues and how they would always challenge each other to find solutions. I learned so much during my time there. It was like being in grad school,” she laughs. The reference to higher education is apposite. As a student Natalie attended Brown, the renowned Ivy League research university in Rhode Island, where she earned a double bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations. An MPhil in political economy at Sciences Po—the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies—followed.
“I’ve always been driven by the need for better social development,” she says. “I started off as an intern at the IMF but really I was just crunching numbers, so to gain more practical experience I moved to the United Nations Development Programme before attending graduate school in Paris. It was after that that I joined the Rockefeller Foundation in 2009.”
While Natalie speaks enthusiastically about her fruitful years at the foundation, she is now ready for a new challenge, saying, “Recently, I have become increasingly concerned by environmental issues and the preservation of our wildlife and oceans. It really pains me to see illegal poaching and the continual abuse of our natural resources. As CEO of WWF Thailand, my mandate is to lead the organisation to excel in conservation and environmental work in Thailand and the Mekong region. It is also my intention to build strong partnerships with the private sector, the Thai public and the government to preserve our invaluable natural resources and biodiversity, which are a vital part of our heritage.”
And it is to nature that the eco-warrior and her husband of five years, Dr Chanwit Wasanthanarat, turn when they have time to relax. “We love to run, particularly in scenic Khao Yai and other mountainous wildernesses of Thailand.” Simply put, she is not the type to stand still while the world needs fixing.