Khanita Khoon on Believing in Yourself, Entrepreneurship, and Growing Up in Thailand
Khanita Khoon is an awesome woman I met while traveling in Thailand! Part of her story is in my new book It’s the Awkwardness for Me. Her story is so amazing that I wanted to share an extended version of the interview with you!
What were you like as a teenager?
Khanita: I really loved computers. Not many people in Thailand had access to the internet 10 years ago. I am from a small town 2 hours north of Chiang Mai. My interest in computers stemmed from the Spice Girls. I was a huge fan of theirs and that’s actually what inspired me to learn English as well.
My parents couldn’t speak English. The only way I had access was through news stories, the media, and the internet. Back then my high school only had a very small computer room with 10 computers. I remember waiting in line every day during lunchtime to get 10 minutes on the computer. I would always look up the Spice Girls and MTV website. I was so fascinated. I noticed there was no Thai website about the Spice Girls. That led me to learn how to program and start my own website.
I taught myself, but after 4 years, when I was 16, there was finally a computer class at school. My teacher was impressed with my programming skills and invited me to join the computer club. I learned how to code with different languages like C, java, all different kinds of websites, animation, multimedia, and databases.
Were your parents supportive?
Khanita: Yes, they were really supportive actually. My dad is a math teacher, and he’s also Chinese so that influenced the way I was raised.
He always taught me to depend on myself. Even now I live by this, that every decision you make is your own and you have to be responsible for those decisions. My dad ran a very strict household. After school, there were always chores to earn money for lunch at school. I always had the choice to do the chores, but if I didn’t, I would have no money for lunch.
When I was 7 years old I learned how to clean the house. Then when I was 8 I learned how to cook rice. At 10 I was responsible for washing my own clothes, at 11 I ironed my school uniform every day. No other kids had these tasks at home. My parents always gave me the choice, but if I didn’t do these tasks then the only person who felt the consequences was me.
Did that frustrate you?
Khanita: Yes. My brother and I were always in the kitchen. We had to help cook dinner every day. We couldn’t go out to play until my mom was done cooking, even if we were done with our jobs. We only played on the weekends. Even then there were rules to follow.
I am grateful for how I was raised though. After finishing high school I moved to university and lived with my roommate. I knew exactly what I had to do with my life. I could clean, cook, wash clothes. I was prepared. Even now, living alone in my apartment, I can adapt and improvise. I can fix the plumbing, do the gardening, keep up with house maintenance. It’s a piece of cake for me thanks to my dad. I really didn’t know what I had until I left.
How can teens find opportunities like you did, even if they’re from a rural town?
Khanita: Nobody is going to find you. You have to find your way up. If you are waiting for somebody to find you, it would take ages, especially if you are hidden in the mountains of Thailand like me.
If you don’t present yourself, nobody is going to find you. One thing that you can do is know what you’re capable of. Know your specialty. I know I am an expert in biomedical engineering, so I found a community related to that. You have to find a society or business, preferably the biggest, most respected one, and find a way to get in. That’s what I did with EMBS, the largest medical society in the world.
You can start small and slow. Participate first as a student. Observe the speakers, learn where they came from and how they got there. Figure out who’s in charge of the conference, who’s the boss, and who’s the staff. Get to know the staff. I helped sell t-shirts at first. The staff started recognizing me when I sold 100 t-shirts.
A year later I helped with student activities. I started spending time around CEOs of tech startups and biomedical engineering companies. There were opportunities where you could have lunch with these people. You have to join. You have to be a part of the conversation. Be friendly, say ‘Hi’ to everyone.
Most people are very tensed at these conferences. I would try to get them to loosen up and open up a bit. One time I walked around with a bunny ear headband with blinking lights. Most people sit with their friends, so I always invited others to sit at my table.
There’s a lot of diversity at conferences like this, people from all over the world. Everybody has their own strengths. Never undermine who you are and where you came from even when talking to people from more famous universities or more senior positions.
Wow, Khanita continues to inspire me with her story! She sets her eyes on something and goes for it. Who is your biggest inspiration? Share in the comments!