October 2018

Aukrit Unahalekhaka: From RIS to Cornell, MIT & Beyond

Class of 2006 alumnus Aukrit Unahalekhaka speaks on his journey from RIS to leading Ricult, one of Thailand’s most successful venture-backed social enterprises, and offers advice to STEM Students. Written by Tatiana Kunwongse.

–Written by Tatiana Kunwongse–  

Today, Aukrit Unahalekhaka is the Co-Founder & CEO of Ricult (Thailand), one of the country’s most successful venture-backed social enterprises, combining technology and agriculture to lift farmers off of the poverty line. His academic resume boasts an impressive school list, including MIT, Cornell, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. A decade ago, however, he was a shy student whose life was divided by sports and textbooks.

“Back when I was at RIS, studying in high school, I wasn’t good at talking to people,” he says. “I thought just being good at math was enough.”

Aukrit recently spoke at a STEM career path panel hosted by Crimson Education. He was joined by Mike Phulsuksombati, who graduated from Stanford University, and Dr. Panuchart Bunyakiatit, who obtained his doctorate from University College London. All three professionals had a clear message to students planning to take on STEM: Work on your soft skills; they’ll take you a step farther than you can imagine. 

Aukrit Unahalekhaka, Class of '06, second to left, is CEO of Ricult, a successful social enterprise in Thailand

Like many top-tier entrepreneurs who work in finance or consulting, Aukrit knew that studying engineering would give him the hard skills—such as coding and analyzing—that would help him land a job in virtually any market. What he didn’t realize was how important skills such as interpersonal communication and public speaking would be. 

“At MIT, the classes were discussion-based. The professor would write how many times you spoke on the board, and he would rate the quality of your answers,” says Aukrit, who obtained his master of science degrees in System Engineering, Management, Entrepreneurship from the Institute. There, he quickly discovered that even though Asian students tended to have more in-depth training in the sciences, it was the American and European students who could explain concepts better so they were the ones who people tended to notice.

Aukrit speaks to a full house. The audience includes RIS families and high school students.

Luckily, Aukrit wasn’t unprepared. Although he describes himself as a “nerdy” student, it was his experience in high school extracurricular activities that helped him connect with his peers and gain the confidence to speak up in class. At RIS, he had played Varsity soccer and tennis, which allowed him to join sports clubs at the colleges he attended and make new friends. He was also President of the Math Club and the Chess Club.  

“The[se experiences] taught me leadership skills that help me lead my company and provided me with the fundamentals to [be successful] in real life,” he says. 

In his current leadership position, Aukrit often works with employees who are older than him, sometimes in their 40s and 50s. Gaining their initial respect and keeping them happy is a challenge he has to face as a millennial. And that means being able to empathize, listen, and communicate—skills not typically emphasized in STEM subjects. His advice? Pay attention in English class, audition for a Shakespearean play, or try your hand at public speaking or debate. 

“When I was at RIS, I didn’t care a lot about English. I didn’t enjoy reading because I thought, ‘I don’t have to read and write that well to be successful,’ but I was completely wrong,” says Aukrit. “It took me a while in college... to be able to talk to people well,” he added. 

Finally, for those who are gunning to be number one in their endeavors, Aukrit has this to say: “The more important thing about high school is making friends. I do a lot of business with a lot of my friends from RIS at the moment, even people older or younger than me. I think the most valuable thing about RIS is the network and connections.” 

It just goes to show—you never know who you may be working with in the future!