This Transgender CEO Is Building a Thai Entertainment Empire

(Bloomberg) -- Gender identity isn’t typically a topic of conversation in C suites in Thailand. Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, though, says a willingness to discuss her transgender transition has helped her entertainment company attract attention, which has led to revenue growth.

Today, the chief executive officer of JKN Global Media Pcl is a celebrity. After several interviews on television programs and in magazines about her gender shift, her fame has “substantially” complemented the company’s business growth as potential customers and content suppliers are much more willing to meet a well-known CEO, she said.

This Transgender CEO Is Building a Thai Entertainment Empire

JKN -- which went public in November 2017 -- has more than tripled its revenue and net income since 2014. The connection Jakkaphong, 38, makes between her public revelation about a gender identity transition and the jump in revenue and net income is that it has afforded the company attention in a crowded market and also liberated her to focus on business development and expansion.

Without the transition, “JKN is unlikely to have such success and reputation in Thailand,” Jakkaphong said in an interview, noting that she is probably the only transgender CEO of a publicly traded company in the country and perhaps the region. “That reputation has greatly facilitated our cooperation talks with prospective clients and suppliers.”

JKN owns the distribution rights of movies and television programs in Thailand for companies including Walt Disney Co., CBS Corp. and Sony Corp. Its popular programs are “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”and “The Walking Dead” television series, whose major customers are free-to-air television networks and cable networks, according to its website.

She “has been colorful and unique in the Thai business community,” said Pornsook Amonvadekul, an analyst at Finansia Syrus Securities Pcl. “That helps raise the public profile” of the company.

Job Barriers

Transgender people in Thailand often encounter barriers to employment and exclusion from many jobs, especially in the civil service, according to 2015 research commissioned by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations labor agency. Many transgender people in Thailand end up in stereotyped jobs such as performers or make-up artists, or in cosmetic sales and public relations, it said.

Thailand, which is Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, has no laws that allow transgender people to change their gender on official documentation. The inability to change their documents to accurately reflect their gender identity remains among the most challenging issues for transgender people, according to a UN report in May.

Transgender people face discrimination and exclusion when they are required to use a National Identification Card, birth certificate, passport or other identity document that doesn’t match their gender identity or gender expression, the report said. This discrimination may involve threats to safety, or could mean transgender individuals are excluded from education, health services, employment and housing, or from receiving access to social assistance or to private banking, credit or mortgage facilities, it said.

This Transgender CEO Is Building a Thai Entertainment Empire

Jakkaphong, who has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Bond University of Australia, wants to make her company one of top distributors for licensed movies, television programs and other video entertainment content in Southeast Asia. After completing her overseas study, she helped in her family’s video-rental business.

Yet sales slumped as consumers turned away from videos. The family business’s financial troubles coincided with her desire to reveal her gender identity and transition to a woman.

Jakkaphong said before she became open about her gender identity, she kept a low profile and didn’t attend social events. She said she had almost no friends except her sister, who is now one of her top assistants at the company.

The extensive surgery created an experience of “near-death” pain with several months of rehabilitation, she said.

Future Growth

JKN targets more than 20 percent annual revenue growth on expectations of higher demand for television content, Jakkaphong said. The company’s full-year net income rose to 188 million baht ($5.7 million) in 2017 from 49 million baht in 2014 as revenue more than tripled to 1.16 billion baht last year from 304 million baht, according to the company’s website. Profit in the first half rose 66 percent from a year earlier to 139 million baht.

“JKN’s management has demonstrated an impressive record in strengthening its dominance in the business of media content,” said Siam Tiyanont, an analyst at Phillip Securities (Thailand) Pcl. “Demand for foreign programs will remain strong as most domestic television networks opt for cheaper external content over their own production.”

This Transgender CEO Is Building a Thai Entertainment Empire

JKN is jointly investing with partners in India to produce a television series based on an adapted Indian ancient epic “Ramayana,” Jakkaphong said. She owned about 52 percent of JKN as of March, according to the company’s website.

Jakkaphong has become an advocate for the transgender community, especially for greater employment opportunities. She has hired a transgender woman, she said, adding she actively pushes for other companies to be open to employing transgender people.

“Breaking the family and social barriers with gender transformation was the toughest decision in my life,” she said. "That provides me with decisiveness and determination in running the company."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.