Entrepreneur. Women advocator. Mother of Siamese-Viking twins. World citizen. These are the words Sharinee Shannon Kalayanamitr, the 38-year-old founder of Orami, an online store empire focussing on all things female, uses to describe herself on her Facebook page. But one word is conspicuous by its absence from this list: pioneer. Supplying a broad mix of products and knowledge to women across Thailand and Indonesia, her dynamic startup is one of the most exciting—and innovative—tech propositions in the region.
Orami’s rise, a story that includes mergers between two of Southeast Asia’s women-focused portals, Moxy and Bilna, begins with Shannon’s own story. Born in Portland Oregon to Thai parents, she moved to Silicon Valley when she was two and grew up with a father who worked as an engineer. But while she is no stranger to the tech world, that doesn’t mean she fell neatly into it. On the contrary, as a youngster she was intimidated, not excited, by computers. “I was more interested in being the first woman president,” she says when asked what she dreamt of becoming.
After growing up in a Western environment, Shannon moved back to Thailand at the age of 12. “It was a huge culture shock when I moved back,” she says. Part of the problem was that she couldn’t speak Thai. Then there was her Western mindset. Moving back and studying at Ekamai International School, a place she remembers for the “green janitor like uniforms” helped her to adapt, but the root issue never went away: she looked Thai but acted like a Westerner. This issue has never really gone away. “To other Thais I seem outspoken,” she says. When asked about how she thinks, Shannon says that she relates more to Westerners. “I think and even dream in English.”
Shannon’s unconventional upbringing has served her well. Before creating Moxy and Orami, she put in years of hard work with a top financial services firm, Lehman Brothers, and later she worked for a spell at Singha Corporation. It has also given her an unconventional outlook on life, at least in a Thai sense. For starters, she isn’t married and has no desire to be. Her reasoning is simple: she sees a lot of married couples breaking up and fighting and she doesn’t want to be one of them. “If it’s not broken don’t change it,” she says. She met her soul mate, tech-savvy
Norwegian Geir Zeth Windsvol, five years ago while on a trip to Koh Chang. “The bartender at the hotel introduced us,” she says. It was, to put it simply, a fairytale love affair. Within three weeks of meeting he had moved to Bangkok and then two years later twin girls, Ava and Ninja, arrived. “We came up with their names at a sake bar,” she says.
The way in which her own father and mother raised her is reflected in her plans for her own children. “As a parent the job is to give the tools and resources for them to make their own choices,” she says. It is now, when talking about family time that she really lights up. “The kids are always in the pool and love swimming every weekend with the nanny or my sisters.”
For now her kids are too young to do much more. But when they are grown up, she plans to be a liberal and understanding parent—to let them take their own path in life and make their own mistakes. “As long as they keep trying and don’t give up it’ll be all right,” she says. “I’ll make sure they are pushed and exposed to things they like, and don’t give up before they’ve tried their best,” she says sagely. When asked what language is used at home she says that the twins mostly speak English but also know basic Thai and the odd naughty Norwegian word. “And they also have their own language,” she adds.
Soon our discussion moves back to Orami, her thriving social enterprise-cum-business, and Shannon’s eyes light up once again. According to her it’s the only female-centric platform in Southeast Asia “devoted entirely to the backbone of society and families, women, which is an underserved and untapped market.” During the initial phase, it offered products and media for women in its online magazine while also connecting women in its online and offline communities. “The aim is to create a women ecosystem,” she explains, “in which the website and its communities help women.”
To achieve this end, the brand already works closely with respected women’s bodies such as Lean In and UN Women, and has also played an active role in women advocacy talks such as Fortune’s Most Powerful Women and Women Entrepreneurship forums. Here in Asia, the region Orami is focused on, organisations like Galboss Asia and Thailand’s Connecting Founders are helping to push its agenda out to the grassroots.
But Orami is not just an advocacy enterprise; it’s also a business with a healthy balance sheet. According to Shannon, the company’s revenues have grown over 350 per cent since 2015 and it currently services upwards of 12,000 orders on peak days. It is the number two e-retailer in the region after Lazada, she adds, with over 200 employees spread across Thailand and Indonesia; 70 per cent of them are women.
At the heart of Orami, explains Shannon, is a belief that strong women lead to strong families, and that they in turn lead to strong nations. For her, there is no better example of this than her own mother—the real reason she started on her current path. It was witnessing the struggles of her own single mother (her parents split when she was in 12th grade) that inspired her to do something to give hope and choices to other women. Another female role model that she talks passionately about is the inspiring US talk-show host and media maven Oprah Winfrey. Shannon relates to the way Winfrey has carved out a career in which she shifts effortlessly between media, business and women’s advocacy. “Oprah is my biggest idol. I love the way she is able to connect with every class.”
Shannon is not just a businesswoman and mother—she has also lived an exciting and fulfilling life. As a spry 12-yearold, she almost won a place to compete at the SEA games for gymnastics. She hopes her kids will try gymnastics one day, but not just yet. “When I turn on the TV and switch to the Olympics, the kids will roll around on the floor trying to imitate,” she recalls. Talking to her, it’s clear that Shannon is much prouder of her women advocacy work. Having grown up in a male dominated environment, she now wants to pass on the lessons learnt from her experiences—her ups and her downs—to other people. And her efforts have not gone unnoticed: one of her proudest achievements is being made a HeForShe advocate by UN Women during International Women’s Day last month.
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Looking forward, Shannon has clear and grand plans for the future. “Work is good and steady but it is still a startup so you never know,” she says. “I hope to keep growing the company.” She is especially keen to make sure that women in the countryside get the contact and help they need, and she also expresses a desire to expand the reach of her company so that those with middle to lower incomes can access it. Her family is also a key part of her future plans. More than anything she hopes to start travelling with them. “I would take them back to America if there is no Trump,” she says sharply. “Norway will be part of our travel plans but the weather is very cold,” she says, adding that Geir and her are not big fans of snow. “The kids might enjoy the snow but mum and dad don’t!”
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