What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.
In this Icon NOW interview, Pichai “Poa” Uamturapojn talks about his inspirations and experiences co-founding a social innovation hub in his hometown and what he has to say to other aspiring social entrepreneurs.
Though Bangkok seems like the logical choice for social entrepreneurship, with incubators and accelerators cropping up all over the city, Pichai “Poa” Uamturapojn was committed to his hometown, Udon Thani.
“We can do anything as a shared experience together,” Poa says, “to give back to the communities that raised us. I believe that every hometown has the potential to grow, and I wanted to do something with local communities without having to wait for anyone.”
As a co-founder of the social innovation hub Ma:D Esan, Poa is a local champion for social enterprises in the “Esan” or northeastern region of Thailand, and many go to him for advice and support. But who did he turn to when starting out?
“Long mue tum (take action)”
Poa freely admits that at first, he had little knowledge about social entrepreneurship. Yet, he managed to connect with many key pillars of Thailand’s social impact ecosystem, from Ashoka Thailand and School of Changemakers to ChangeFusion, adapting their knowledge to fit the needs of his social innovation hub.
The social entrepreneur credits his mother for inspiring him to start his journey in social entrepreneurship and to simply long mue tum or “take action,” despite his lack of familiarity.
“My mother didn’t know how to raise a child or what a child will be like when they grow up. But she did it anyway,” he says. “My mom is super cool.”
“Mah dee (in good faith)”
When the Esan native was starting out, the term “social enterprise” had been relatively new to Thailand, and it was especially foreign to locals in the Esan region.
“I wanted to start an organization that focuses on the purpose and not just a profit,” he explains, but lack of awareness made it challenging for Poa to communicate his intentions and objectives.
Poa and his team wanted people to instinctively understand their sincere good will for the region, so they decided to co-found Ma:D Esan, the regional chapter of Ma:D Club for Better Society.
The word Ma:D (mah dee) in Thai means “in good faith.” Ma:D Esan was established five years ago by a small group of five people (including Poa), who have different interests but the same ambition.
That first year, Ma:D Esan launched over 70 projects to share and support with local communities.
“Connecting the dots.”
You might ask, “Why so many projects?” It comes down to an important idea that Poa and his team evangelize: “Connecting the dots.” With this many projects, he hoped to create enough “dots” in the region, sewing together great ideas with great opportunities.
“The first year was the year to unleash all of our powers [to connect people],” Poa says. His goal was, and still is, to connect social projects together in a way that pushes society forward.
One of the major projects that he did with his team is the “Long Mue Tum” project, in which Ma:D Esan invited eight affiliated entrepreneurs to come together to create business plans that reflect real issues in the Esan region within three months. Some of the affiliated entrepreneurs include ToiLAB, S OO N T A R E E +, ARMS LAB, and ISANROOTS.
ToiLAB collaborated with local designers and architects in the region to develop new public toilet facilities, tackling the issue of inadequate toilet facilities within the Esan region.
Meanwhile, S OO N T A R E E + sought to reduce waste in the construction industry by upcycling surplus material into skateboards that were exhibited at CentralPlaza Udonthani in 2018.
According to Poa, the project underlined how problems can only be solved if you take action, and this mindset will set you on a right path to success.
Of course, the COVID-19 crisis had a dampening effect on some of these opportunities.
“People go into survival mode.”
Due to pandemic restrictions like social distancing, people were unable to meet and collaborate in person. Yet, with all the restrictions in place, Ma:D Esan found a way to reach out and contribute to the community in the Esan region.
Nonetheless, Poa admitted that as “people go into survival mode,” it was best to refocus on other priorities such as public health, which was top of mind during the pandemic crisis.
Despite the uncertainty and setbacks, the social entrepreneur is an incredibly positive person and that positivity is infectious.
“Just do it together.”
If there’s one message the Esan icon would like to get out: “Just do it together.”
According to Poa, we don’t need a big idea to get started in the social enterprise scene or a massive undertaking like founding a social innovation hub. Simply learning about and exploring social enterprises is a wonderful step in the right direction.
He suggests that if we’re hesitant to go out there and get our hands dirty, the words “social enterprise” aren’t as scary as we might think, and it shouldn’t stop us from achieving our goals.