Ally Chonlakarn Sirikolkarn
CEO of Sa Thi Thai Food and Beverage
Your educational background is in finance and business. This was obviously a smart move given where you are now, but why did you decide to choose this pathway when you were younger? Do you have any advice for young women who are trying to figure out their pathway or working field at the moment?
I grew up in a family that ran a business in plastic manufacturing so I realized how important finance is to successfully managing a business.
For young women who are trying to figure out their pathway or working field at the moment, I would suggest my idea of doing what you like and enjoying what you do.
First of all, you need to understand yourself then define what your passions are and areas of interest. I personally believed in the idea of trial and error because it allowed me to experience different things by actually doing and making yourself grow in an area that you have a passion for.
In each decision of change, there are definitely many struggles and negative situations that require us to figure out the solution or direction to go down. But keep in mind that we need to focus on the processes which you might like or not like; therefore, you need to balance and prioritize them.
Moving from Thailand to the US must have been a big step to make, tell me more about that experience… What made you decide to move to the US, especially Silicon Valley, one of the most famous port areas in the world?
Since I was in high school, I always had a dream of pursuing my MBA degree from a 'Top 30' university in the USA; consequently, I prepared myself for that.
Also, working in the USA, especially in Silicon Valley, was my next goal after I graduated with the MBA. The question is, why the USA and why Silicon Valley? The USA is well-known for MBA case study practices and the different style in management. Silicon Valley is a fascinating and inspiring place where people are very open, innovative and they like to share their fresh ideas at coffee bars, start up communities, restaurants, etc.
I had a culture shock during my first month of arrival in Berkeley since I went there alone. Luckily, I had my best friend who was also studying for an MBA in San Francisco, so I slowly adapted. I was also lucky to meet many international friends who shared different perspectives.
The most impressive experience that money can’t buy is life’s experience. Living in different cities like Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Jose as well as learning the differences of diversified cultures extended the way I handle life and enlightened my attitudes and knowledge, which are important when becoming an entrepreneur.
What were the main things you learned during your time in the US and what were your biggest achievements? How do you think the experience of living and working abroad helps you grow as a person?
Being part of a top American university and being in the Silicon Valley working environment shaped me a lot in terms of skill sets, such as people management skills, solid skills, language skills, time management skills, problem-solving skills, decision making skills, mindsets toward work and life, attitudes toward people and challenging situations, and etc.
Never stopping learning became one of my mottos during my working life in the USA. My biggest achievements were graduating from a top university in the USA and getting promoted while in my job in Silicon Valley.
In my MBA class at the top tier university, overseas students have to be motivated enough to participate and compete with local Americans who are English native speakers or diversified cultures from other countries. In many classes, my classmates and I were split into groups to work with several classmates who came from all over the world. It’s an unavoidable circumstance that you need to be focused and be on your own when you face any problems without your family’s help. In other words, you have to overcome those challenges and learn how to grow competitively.
During your US green card application process, you decided to pack up your bags and move to Beijing, China instead to start a restaurant business. What was the reason behind this bold move? Do you think it was the right one?
Mostly because I was cultivated by an entrepreneurial family, after working as Assistant VP of Sales for 3 years, I could foresee my possible future as staying in the same field with my current skills. It was amazing for the first 2 years to learn how to deal and manage operations with big customers like Groupon, CDW and Tiger Direct as well as famous suppliers such as Asus, Acer, Super Micro, etc. However, it was hard to get a promotion to another level, even with the green card which required another 2 years of waiting.
Before making the decision to quit my job, I had joined a start-up group to try and create a company, but there are many limitations for non-US citizens wanting to register a company in the USA. After becoming frustrated, I was motivated by my Chinese friends, who were much younger than me but so full of passion, determination and braveness. They came back to China to start their own businesses at the age of 23. Their actions inspired me and stimulated me to make a similar move of becoming an entrepreneur in China.
I found that the Chinese market, especially in Beijing, has opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs like me to invest and fully operate legally. As of now, I never regret making the move, even though last year I faced a lot of challenges, pressures and burdens that made me age faster than when living in the USA! With the full support of my family, I became more and more confident that soon I will reach my destination. So I think it was the right decision.
Your restaurant ‘‘Sa Thi’’ aimed to introduce your hometown cuisine of Bangkok to the capital of the world’s most populated country. This must have been a challenge in such a big city! Tell me more about your business journey…How did it start? What challenges did you encounter? What are the milestone moments/highlights?
The idea of this business began with a phone conversation with one of my close Chinese male friends who had gone back to China. He and another friend who started companies at the age of only 23 convinced me that there are lots of opportunities for promoting Thai food and for myself as a Thai female business owner in the Chinese market. This is because Chinese people nowadays love going to Thailand for vacations and Thai cuisine is getting more popular and widely known among Chinese people.
The next question is which city in China is the most fitting to start? I started researching the number of Thai restaurants open in first tier cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing. It turned out that northern parts of China like Beijing do not have many authentic Thai restaurants provided by Thai chefs and Thai owners, so I saw there was some demand in the Beijing market.
I have encountered several challenges. First, choosing the location in the city where I’ve never lived, and am not familiar with, as well as limited resources, which was time consuming and effort consuming. I spent 3 weeks to trying to secure the location.
Second, how to register the company in Beijing and what business type is appropriate. I was lucky that I found a reliable and professional agent who later became one of my good friends and who still massively supports me. They helped me get all the required business registration documents for a legally operating food and beverage enterprise in Beijing within just 4 months as well as an import/export license for my e-commerce business within just 2 weeks.
Last but not least, crossing the chasm to make profit was the most hectic one. Operational and marketing strategies needed to be adjusted monthly. My first time being a business owner didn’t go well since I struggled with my first team. I realized that having a great team to execute business strategies is the most important for start-up companies so I decided to change the whole team and recruit the right people.
Regarding milestones, after operating my Thai restaurant for over a year, we hit record profits during winter and spring. However, our target is to grow not only in dining revenues but also catering and delivery. We have applied 80/20 ‘‘Pareto rules’’ to focus on 20% of KOL customers and delivery platforms that increasingly bring us revenues.
During our first year, we appeared in The Beijinger magazine, and later asked by the Thai embassy to cater 300 boxes of goods for an event held at the Olympic stadium hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In our second year, we appeared more on the radio and in articles for being involved in recent big events that we were hosted by the Thai embassy to promote Thai tourism and Thai street food. We also partnered with Sherpa, a famous food ordering platform, as well as other expatriates, and we just launched the Sa Thi website! I will also introduce an online store that provides several authentic Thai products and my new brand through Chinese customers this winter.
You have also just started an e-commerce business to help Thai SME products enter the Chinese market by cooperating with Thailand’s trade department. What motivated you to take on another venture alongside the restaurant? What do you hope the future holds for this business and why do you think it’s so important for countries to boost their bilateral trade ties?
Statistically, the number of Chinese tourists entering Thailand in 2016 reached 9 million, generating huge incomes and it is predicted that the number will hit 10 million in 2017. After I built the team to take care of my restaurant business, I decided to start an online business along with offline trading by partnering with the Thai trade government and prepared for the Silk Road project by attending business matching events and exhibitions in third-tier cities. We believed that this idea will help and elevate many Thai SME companies to be able to compete and increase their chances of entering the Chinese market. I plan to create my own brand for physical products and am currently overseeing the development of product quality and packaging.
My Thai restaurant now has a 4 and half star rating in customer reviews on the famous app called Da Zhong Dian Pin. It has become the Thai showroom for products, foods and cultures. The Silk Road project will connect China with Southeast Asia in terms of logistics and transportation that are more convenient for international trade and commerce. My short-term goal is to focus on promoting my brand and increasing the revenues for Thai SME products including my own because I firmly believe that Thai products have certain quality.
As far as I am concerned, it’s so important for countries to boost their bilateral trade ties because they create fair competition that eventually benefits the people as consumers. For instance, the Silk Road project will create many more potential business opportunities. The investment will not only enhance the choices of products in several industries such as medication, cosmetics, foods, education, insurance, IOT, etc, for consumers but, will also increase competitiveness for small business owners. The exchange of new technology will mutually develop countries in many ways. There will be less monopoly for suppliers who are spoiled to control market prices, but provide low product quality. Many regulations will be revised to facilitate trade that faster enhances the velocity of the economy and lessen the gap of social stratification.
Lastly, what are your key pieces of advice you would give to an aspiring woman entrepreneur? Or perhaps even a ‘‘restauranteur’’ like yourself?
It is always tough to step out from your individual comfort zone and even tougher to keep calm and carry on your goal when you are struggling. However, I would like to share 8 things you should know about being an entrepreneur. I always use them to remind myself whenever I felt down, depressed or stressed:
Everything takes time, so be patient, persistent and persevere - I call it ‘‘the 3Ps’’.
Other people are not the answer to your happiness; what you are trying to achieve today will only result in your happiness later.
Grow. Never stop working on yourself because you never known what is gonna happen in the future, so be ready.
The more you wait, the more time you waste; YOLO, you only live once.
Often, people are temporary. But it’s okay, cherish the time you have with them and have no regrets.
Some days will suck for no reason, so allow yourself to cry, take a break, eat some good food and exercise, then get back on track.
Don’t let anyone determine who you are; read and listen to other successful people and filter out useless information.
Change is inevitable, so when it happens, learn to face it; accept and let go of what you can’t control, but focus on what you can control.
By Katie Capstick,
"Everything takes time, so be patient, persistent and persevere - I call it 'the 3Ps’.'
Assistant VP of Sales, MA Labs (IT hardware distributor), San Jose, CA, USA, 2012-2016
Assistant Account Executive Intern, Vantage Communication, San Francisco, CA, USA, 2011
Marketing Director, New Look Product Co., Ltd, (Family business), Bangkok, Thailand 2008-2010
Assistant Sales Manager – Retail Sales Team Leader, Siam Cement Thai (SCG) (Public company and second largest enterprise in Thailand), Bangkok Thailand, 2006-2008
CEO of Sa Thi Thai Food and Beverage (Beijing) (A Thai restaurant est. 2016) and founder of an e-commerce business for Thai products (est. 2017)
Degree: Banking and Finance, Chulalongkorn University
Master's: University of Southern California (USC), Marshall School of Business
Languages: Thai, English and Chinese Mandarin
3rd December 2017