As Thailand mourns the passing of His Majesty, beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, there is a common thread of grief amongst Thai people – a loss that is as expected as it is devastating. To have known or met him would have been a great privilege and honour, and that is exactly how M.L. Ploynapat “Kwan” Leenutaphong feels.
“It was a great honour that I was able to pay my last respects to His Majesty at the Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall at the Grand Palace,” she says. “There were millions of people who loved him as much as I did, but to be able to be there was a humbling experience and one I’ll never forget.”
The daughter of M.R. Supadis Diskul and granddaughter of Mom Chao Piriyadis Diskul, Kwan is a striking woman even when dressed in mourning colours. She embodies a classic elegance not often found in this day and age, which perhaps is attributed to her upbringing.
“My friends always say that I am very proper – but it’s in my blood. I’ve been brought up this way since I was a small child,” she recalls with a smile. With royalty in her bloodline, this is certainly unsurprising.
From a young age, Kwan was taught that there were simply things she could and could not do. Where her friends were able to dress however they chose, she was not allowed to wear sleeveless shirts or short skirts. To have done so, she explains, would simply have been improper and inappropriate for a lady of her lineage.
Kwan admits to feeling frustrated at the time by these constrictions. As a child, she could not understand why she had to act and dress differently than her peers – but as it turns out this frustration was only a passing sentiment.
“My grandfather taught us to be proud of our country and heritage, and to have faith [in Buddhism],” Kwan says. “He taught us that we had a duty to our country and we had to accept our responsibilities with honour and grace.”
When looking at the state of Thailand today, she feels this sense of duty more poignantly than ever before. According to her, His Majesty’s passing is a reminder to everyone to have faith in the country and to always give back when we can. This is a conviction Kwan tries to uphold every day.
It was also the reason she decided to pursue a degree from the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University, and then a Master’s degree in Technology Management at the New South Wales University in Sydney. Kwan knew from a young age she wanted to become an educator to share her knowledge.
After returning to Thailand, she began to lecture Information Technology at Chulalongkorn University. She believed she could help give back to society in the way of education. As her great grandfather, HRH Prince Ditsawarakuman (better known as Prince Damrong Rajanubhab), was the father of the modern Thai education system, this seemed a fitting progression.
It was also around this time she met her now-husband Apichat Leenutaphong, although it wasn’t love at first sight for the couple.
“When I first met him, I didn’t like him that much,” she laughs. “There was something about him that made me think he was egotistical and full of himself. I think it was because he is genuinely just a quiet person. But I didn’t know that at the time.”
The better Kwan got to know him, however, the more she came to realise she had it all wrong. “It was hard not to become enamoured with him,” she admits. “Everyone was. They were always telling me how intelligent and kind he is, and it made me stop and think, ‘is it just me?’ That’s when I started to look at him differently.”
Sharing a sheepish laugh, Kwan also confesses she didn’t make it easy for Apichat. She said she would always tease him by wearing heels whenever he was around – he is shorter than her – but the teasing was born out of fondness and admiration, and that eventually led to their marriage and the birth of their son, Theetat, eight years ago.
Her dedication to her son was what subsequently led her to pull away from an academic life to focus solely on his care. Kwan then realised she didn’t want to go back to lecturing – it was a fulfilling career, but demanded too much of her time.
“The older my son became, the more I realised I wanted to be the one to take care of him,” she explains. “So when he turned three and started preschool, I became so bored at home and that’s when I had the idea to start my own business. If I was still a lecturer, there would have been too many responsibilities on my shoulders. With my own business, I can still have the flexibility to look after my son.”
Founded in 2011, THrobotics imports advanced robotic-engineered household products from America, but the company is also heavily dedicated to giving back to society. Again, it is the duty Kwan feels as a descendant of royalty and nobility.
“If you’re just running a business to meet profit goals at the end of each year, it doesn’t feel like much,” she says. “You have to be meeting more than just profit goals, so to give back and to also meet our Corporate Social Responsibility objectives, I felt like we were doing something fulfilling. I think if you’re not doing that, there’s no point. You always have to give back because that’s what gives your life meaning.”
Kwan is referring to the CSR initiatives her company enacts every year – a source of great pride for her, that she can turn a successful company into something positive and productive to the benefit of her country.
In its first year, THrobotics worked with an animal shelter for abused and neglected animals, and following that the company worked with a charity for the blind – all of which was personally championed by Kwan.
“I had heard there was a blind person who was using one of our products and the thought pulled at my heart,” she says. “They said they had never been able to clean their own house before but with the iRobot, they could have their floors washed or vacuumed with just one simple click. It provided them with a sense of empowerment not to feel burdened by some basic household chores, and when I heard that I just felt so proud that these products could do so much good for people.”
This year, THrobotics’ CSR campaign is called ‘Better Together’. The aim is to help the elderly regain their independence. Kwan also wants to encourage young Thai people to really come together with the elderly in an effort to better understand that just because they’re older doesn’t mean they’re incapable of living.
This campaign was launched in conjunction with THrobotics’ latest product, the iRobot Braava Jet, which has the capability of cleaning in the most impossible of places – a step up from its predecessor, the popular Roomba.
When asked about her management style, Kwan laughs. “Honestly, the core of my management style is still rooted in how I used to teach. I treat my employees as if they were my students. I don’t like to limit them in any way. Every idea is important and has value so I only try to guide them and adjust the ideas instead of dismissing them. I’d hate to be the type of person to tell them what to do or how to do it. It’s not who I am.”
Additionally, Kwan admits to finding great inspiration from her husband, who was previously the managing director of BMW dealership Barcelona Motor and is currently the president of Ducatisti, the authorised importer of Ducati motorcyles. Although their management styles are quite different, she has a great deal of respect for her husband.
“He’s been working since he was young,” she explains. “So when it comes to business, my husband’s the ultimate person to go to. Everyone knows it and everyone always admires him for his business know-how. When I first started the company, he would try to teach me and I would always stress about being just like him.”
But that became too stifling for Kwan. Her husband is a perfectionist and his world is fast-paced – to try to emulate that didn’t feel right. Although, she maintains, her husband is one of the smartest people she knows, she eventually had to divert from what he was teaching her. She had to do what was right for her and her company.
With a laugh, she says that her husband and her work on two different floors of the same building.
“The top floor is where my husband’s team works and it is always so quiet. There’s a sense of discipline there. You’re not allowed to eat snacks at your desk, which is part of his rules so that everyone maintains focus. But then you get to my floor and as soon as you enter you can hear the bass of music pounding away. Everyone’s sitting around eating snacks and laughing.”
The ease and openness of her management style is what makes THrobotics one of the leading robotic brands in Thailand today.
When Kwan is not busy with her roles as a successful career woman, wife and mother, she finds comfort in the simplicities of life. Since she was a child, she has always loved playing the piano or the traditional Thai instrument khim. It is one of the things she says that calms her when she feels overwhelmed – a similarity she shares with the late King Bhumibol, who found great joy in playing the saxophone.
For her, life should be simple, and if she could, she would rid herself of all material objects. Luxury for Kwan is living a life with duty and honour – dedicated to her family and country.
It is a life unspoiled by riches and consumed only by a sense of peace and enlightenment. That is what Kwan eventually wants for herself.