Having spent almost a decade at a global bank, working my way up the ladder to become Head of Economics for Emerging Asia, my family and friends had always assumed I would stay in finance forever. So when they found I was leaving the familiar realm of corporate finance to jump into the unknown world of a fast-growth internet company, they immediately had questions. Why would I make a move that seemed risky and uncertain? Was this a wise choice? Had I researched properly and considered the risks?
But I was asking myself a very different question.
The question I asked myself was not about what the right career choice is. Rather I asked myself who I want to be, especially at this stage in my life.
My passion deep down has always been to make positive impact on the economy and society. That was why I started my career in the public sector and academia in Thailand. That was why I went to Harvard Kennedy School to study international development, where I earned my PhD. During that process, I also co-founded a non-profit that helped match interns to government agencies and non-profit organisations in Thailand. Even when I became an economist at a bank, my greatest passion was to help policy makers and public fund managers identify and manage key economic risks that the market may overlook, and make a contribution to policy discourse in the process.
Over my career, the years spent analyzing key global and regional economic trends for ASEAN led me to one important conclusion – that technology might be the key to unlock the hidden potential within Thailand and more broadly ASEAN, the region I call home.
For example, in a region with a somewhat underdeveloped offline retail network, technology like ecommerce doesn’t just exist to disrupt shopping malls. In fact, it serves to empower the small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs who may currently not have access to markets, or may lack the manpower and financial resources to scale the business.
Ecommerce platforms are also a powerful enabler for women who may have dropped out of the labour market, empowering them to earn extra income and try out new business ideas. In fact, there are numerous cases whereby the online business founded by these housewives are doing so well that their husbands would quit their own jobs to help grow the venture. We are also seeing a trend whereby more and more transactions are happening out the capital region, pointing to rising participations by rural sellers and consumers.
The development economist within me immediately saw the promise of a more inclusive economic growth model when technologies are utilized the right way. At the same time, I also saw a great deal of work that needed to be done to equip our youth with the digital skills to effectively employ technology and thrive in this rapidly changing world. And so I chose to ‘invest’ in, and become part of, the solutions that I believe in, as the Group Chief Economist at Sea, a company whose core mission is to better the lives of small businesses and consumers in the region using technology.
To be sure, the career move I made was admittedly unorthodox and did require moving outside my comfort zone. However, sometimes that is exactly the point. I am a strong believer that we all need to embrace life-long learning to survive and succeed in a world of exponential changes. Yet, what is most difficult about life-long learning is not lack of access to knowledge, for we are already constantly bombarded by information and “answers” on the internet.
The hard part is generating the right “questions” – to keep yourself curious and hungry to learn new things. Worse yet, staying curious becomes even harder the more experienced you are, and the more comfortable you have become with the status quo. Therefore, disrupting yourself is sometimes required to keep that thirst for learning going, to truly embrace life-long learning needed to constantly reinvent yourself.
So why the career change? Sometimes change is necessary to remain unchanged – to stay true to your life mission and who you aspire to be.
By Dr Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist, Sea (an internet company based in Singapore) – one of the key speakers at the ASEAN-UNICEF Conference on 21st Century Skills and Youth Participation organized November 2018 in Singapore.