While growing up in Thailand, Pae Natwilai’s top priorities in selecting a career were good work-life balance and a decent salary. As was customary in Thai culture, she was encouraged to specialize in one field early on rather than pursuing a multidisciplinary education. Having excelled at science and mathematics as a child, she decided to become an engineer, although she was not yet sure what she wanted to build.
In 2011, Pae graduated near the top of her class at Chulalongkorn University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Afterwards, she worked as an engineer in Thailand’s oil and gas industry for several years. Though she was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to critical projects, the work quickly became repetitive, and she craved more opportunities to learn through her daily tasks.
“The more I did, the less I learned. I wanted to feel challenged by the projects I was working on.”
With support from her supervisors, Pae eventually took on a new project optimizing garbage disposal systems for the general public. In search of a user-friendly solution, she engaged directly with stakeholders to learn more about their bottlenecks and desired improvements to the system. Pae’s research led her to design a sliding mechanism to help move dumpsters in and out of facilities for easier collection, an achievement she credits with sparking her passion for applying design thinking to engineering.
“The project pushed me to talk to people and empathize with their frustrations. The fix ended up being just a small tweak to the original product, which highlighted the power of approaching engineering problems through user-centered design.”
Seeking further opportunities to learn about creative problem solving, Pae enrolled in the master’s degree program in Global Innovation Design at Imperial College London. While completing her degree, Pae created a “magic wand” prototype that could be pointed in the air to direct drones on where to fly. As she neared graduation, an Imperial College alumna who had been her mentor encouraged her to start her own company to commercialize drone software. Already entertaining a job offer from Microsoft Research, Pae was unsure whether a young female immigrant like herself could really make it as an entrepreneur in the U.K.
“I never pictured myself as a founder – how could someone like me, a student with no funding or industry contacts in the U.K., start my own company here?”
However, she remembers that alumna also telling her, “if you don’t believe in yourself, at least believe me when I tell you that you have what it takes.”
Today, Pae still lives in London and is Founder and CEO of Trik, a software company that uses drone imagery and artificial intelligence to create 3D models used for structural inspection. Her main clients include government agencies and utilities, whose responsibilities include repetitive inspection tasks that are more efficiently performed by robots and software. Though she spends a significant portion of her time speaking to partners and investors these days, she still uses her engineering background every day to present her product and answer related technical questions.
In 2018, Pae was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for European Industry. As 1 of only 8 women on the list, she encourages other women to take a chance on themselves, no matter how daunting the task before them may be.
“Women often diminish their accomplishments and assume that they need supervision, even if they are more than qualified to do things on their own. If I can start with nothing and build my own company from the ground up, anyone else can do it as well.”
Whatever the future holds for Trik, Pae’s proudest achievement is believing in herself enough to build not only a critical piece of software, but a company and a new life for herself in the U.K. Her story showcases the power of female mentorship, as well as the powerful effect that words of encouragement can have on a career.
Source: Forbes – Leadership