“A (Virtual) Place to Belong,” with Tod Yansomboon ’24
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Tod Yansomboon. He’s currently in his final quarter at SPU. He’s an international student from Thailand. Tod left his home at the age of 15 to attend high school in the U.S. in pursuit of his overarching goal to understand business and how business can help others. After four years of high school in four different U.S. states, Tod arrived on the SPU campus to study business administration and found his dreams all coming true ― until COVID hit. Forced to return home without much hope of returning to the U.S., Tod turned to social media for community and support. He is now a true influencer with over one million subscribers, and his videos have been viewed over 200 million times. Tod, thank you so much for joining us today.
Tod Yansomboon: Hi. Thank you so much, Amanda, for having me here today.
Amanda: Well, when we first met, I was blown away with your decision not to just attend high school in another country, but to attend four different high schools across the country. What made you take on this huge challenge?
Tod: It’s definitely that my parents have given me the opportunity and I want to take it to see where this will bring me. At first, I was, of course, concerned, like, “Oh, what if this is not working out?” But I did believe that my parents were going to support me always, so I took the decision to come to the U.S. And then the first year was just kind of a lot of adapting, having to deal with cultural shock, I would say, and then the language barrier. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda: And then what made you want to be in four different high schools?
Tod: Oh, the thing is, the first year in the U.S. I was in upstate New York in this city called Fabius. It’s a very small town in the countryside, five minutes next to this ski place, which tells how high up we are. Then that first year, I had to leave because it was an exchange program, so it was only one year and then I had to leave. Then that first year after that, I wanted to just go back to Thailand because it was kind of rough.
Tod: Because why did I have to deal with all of the changes and everything? But then my mom and my dad convinced me to go back to the U.S., like, “Hey, you should take all the opportunity,” which I did. So then I went to Minnesota. I wouldn’t say it was a bad choice, but.…
Tod: But it was very cold. I didn’t really have a great time there. I already kind of had negative thoughts because I didn’t want to go back, and also it seems like.… My experience was not good in terms of interacting with people. They weren’t too kind to me and such. Then I was kind of destined to a better place that I feel I more belong to, which is why I came to Seattle and then finished my high school in Seattle.
Amanda: I am just blown away by your courage and your stick-to-it-iveness. Instead of saying, “Okay, I tried this twice and it’s not going so well,” you’re like, “No, third time’s the charm. I’m going to keep working towards my goal.”
Tod: I always feel like whenever I fall down, I have to get up always. I don’t want to just lay down on the ground. Yeah. (laughs)
Amanda: Yeah, you’ve got to keep going, for sure. I feel like someone asked you to run a 5K, and you said, “Nope, marathon. I’m going to keep going.”
Amanda: So all your hard work was working for you, and you end up at SPU. Tell us what it’s like when you first came to SPU.
Tod: So when I had my first visit at SPU, I was still in high school at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, still in Washington. I really felt like, “Oh, this is something.” I loved the campus. I loved the surrounding atmosphere. I just visited the dorms, which included Ashton, Emerson, Hill, and also Arnett, I think. I was like, “Ooh, this is cool. I want to be in Arnett.” (laughs)
“So when I had my first visit at SPU, … I really felt like, ‘Oh, this is something.’ I loved the campus. I loved the surrounding atmosphere. I just visited the dorms, which included Ashton, Emerson, Hill, and also Arnett, I think. I was like, ‘Ooh, this is cool. I want to be in Arnett.'”
Tod: I ended up being in Ashton, which was fine. I loved Ashton. SPU offered me a scholarship, which other universities didn’t, so that’s kind of one of the main reasons why I chose SPU, so yeah.
Amanda: When you came and started college at SPU, was it everything you wanted? I mean, you had worked so hard to be able to attend a U.S. college and study business. Did it feel like you were getting what you were working for?
Tod: I honestly have questioned myself a lot of times when great things happen, like, “Do I deserve this?”
Tod: I just feel like, “Okay, I know that I have worked hard, but do I deserve this?” Which is kind of like, I don’t know. It just sometimes feels like this thing is so great that’s happening to me. Yeah, I still question that a lot.
Amanda: So you came to SPU. It was everything that you wanted.
Tod: Exactly, yeah.
Amanda: But you immediately began to say, “Wait, do I really deserve all these things to go well?”
Amanda: And of course, sometimes when you look at the world that way, then things can happen, and COVID happened.
Tod: Yeah. So then that really kind of just hit me really hard with the COVID stuff. Things were so great, and suddenly I just felt like I just fell down the hill without knowing there was a hill. Then my life just suddenly was gone for a second, I would say. Yeah, I had to return home, as you mentioned. And then I had to attend class midnight to 3 a.m. due to the time difference. It was 14 hours difference. In Thailand, we are 14 hours ahead. So then, yeah, we would attend class late at night. And then I didn’t realize how much it affected my mental health, and also physically, until I attended for one quarter, and I just felt really bad. I couldn’t eat much. Then I just felt extremely stressed. My parents were unaware of what was going on until I actually couldn’t eat anymore. Of course, I was eating something, but very small portions, like a very concerning portion. Which is why they sent me to the hospital to get checked out. Nothing wrong. My body was fine. Kind of like, “Okay, if my body is normal, then maybe my mind is not.”
Tod: So I kind of took a hard turn on that, because it was like a self learning, and nobody was aware of it. I didn’t know what to do with it besides try to be less stressed.
Amanda: Right, right. But clinical depression, just saying to yourself, “Don’t be depressed,” is not always good enough, right?
Tod: Right, yeah.
Amanda: Yeah. You told me a story about your birthday.
Tod: Yeah. Oh, yeah. When we got sent home because SPU Spring Quarter got canceled, I went home and had to quarantine for 14 days. During that 14 days, one of the days was my birthday and I had to kind of celebrate myself on that birthday. I’m not sure how old I was. Maybe 20, I think.
Amanda: Yeah, your 20th birthday, back home, stuck in your room, all by yourself, all your dreams having come to a halt, falling down the hill like you said. Just a super low moment. I think we can all understand feeling that way and feeling like, what was the point of all these hard years that you put in? At that moment, what made you turn to social media?
Tod: I think it’s important to mention that I’ve been growing up enjoying watching YouTube stuff or just funny videos on YouTube.
Amanda: You’re not alone. (laughs)
Amanda: There’s a lot of people who grew up enjoying those things.
Tod: Yeah, and also my dream job was to become a YouTuber one day. It was like a childhood job, like, “Oh, I want to grow up and become a YouTuber.” Then I just realized every time I feel sad or feel down, I kind of come back to this screen and watch the videos for a long time, basically, which is not good for you. (laughs)
Tod: But if you limit yourself, then it’s fine.
Tod: So then I had a time at home in my room just watching videos, like, “Oh, this is really helpful to get me through the day.” When I was going through depression and stuff, I was like, “Okay, maybe I could do something similar to spread awareness of both mental health and also to help people who are going through similar things as me.” So this was when I decided, “Okay, let’s just try and post something.” Then I didn’t really do much besides just being myself. My first video that went viral was when I did a parody of a song. It was a Japanese song. It was a funny song. (laughs) I’d just kind of sing and made a parody of it and I posted. Then I went to bed, right? And I woke up with millions of views. It was like, “Oh gosh, what is this?” This was, like, again, “Do I deserve this?” Right? But I made millions of people happy. So then, maybe I do.
“My first video that went viral was when I did a parody of a song. It was a Japanese song. It was a funny song. (laughs) I’d just kind of sing and made a parody of it and I posted. Then I went to bed, right? And I woke up with millions of views. It was like, ‘Oh gosh, what is this?’ This was, like, again, ‘Do I deserve this?’ Right? But I made millions of people happy.”
Amanda: Maybe you do deserve it. Maybe you do deserve a million views, right? And being able to make other people happy. I think a lot of people spend time on social media and the effect is exclusionary, right? You get this feeling like everybody’s having more fun than you. Everybody has more friends than you. Everybody’s going on more trips than you. And yet here you were feeling alone and then all of a sudden you weren’t alone, right? You were sharing this time of your life with so many other people. Talk us through how that felt when the first video went viral and then the second and the third. How did that feel to a kid stuck alone in a room?
Tod: It honestly felt great. (laughs)
Amanda: Yeah. (laughs)
Tod: But it also kind of confirmed that being unique and being yourself is a good thing, because I questioned myself a lot growing up. I would be this kid who was kind of a little crazy and had this energy and then just went around saying hi to people or would just be talking about some true positive stuff, I would say. Then people would say, “Oh, be realistic,” kind of thing. But it was like, I don’t think it’s bad to be optimistic, right? So it kind of confirmed that being myself is great. And then it confirmed even more on the second video and the third video, the fourth video. It keeps coming up that the ideas I had were great. That was not what people had told me. It was like, “Oh, this is kind of cringe. I don’t think this is going to go anywhere.” But nowadays you don’t know what’s good or what’s bad in terms of content. There are so many people that have access to it, and you’re going to find your own audience either way.
Amanda: Right. So you had just spent these years in small towns, in high schools that — we all know high school kids can be very cruel if you’re different in any way, shape, or form. I know we’re all different so that doesn’t make sense. But so you’ve gone through all those trials and now all of a sudden, you’re not just getting rewarded, but you’re making a career out of being exactly who you are.
Tod: Yeah, which was honestly very … I’m so grateful and so fortunate to have all of this.
Amanda: Yeah. Well, a lot of people want to study business, and maybe they even want to change the world somehow with their business. But your goal, to me, seems very unique. It’s to use business to help others. Can you talk about what that means?
Tod: Yeah, so I grew up with this problem where I have low self-esteem because people do judge and people said mean things. It was like, “Oh, maybe I should just try to just be normal.” That’s what they said, “Try to be normal.” And then I was like, “Huh, normal is kind of boring.” (laughs)
Tod: The word “normal” is kind of boring, so I want to create a business that doesn’t try to make you fit the society, but rather brings the best out of yourself and be who you are. Because I feel like when you become who you are, you can do that longer and you would do it for the best, which would eventually, I believe, benefit the society. So if I can come up with this platform, kind of like coursing platform, but then use AI technology to very, very get to know this person and find the best way to bring the best of them out to the world, that would be awesome.
“The word ‘normal’ is kind of boring, so I want to create a business that doesn’t try to make you fit the society, but rather brings the best out of yourself and be who you are. Because I feel like when you become who you are, you can do that longer and you would do it for the best, which would eventually, I believe, benefit the society.”
Amanda: So help people create their business based around who they are, uniquely themselves.
Tod: Or I would say not technically business, but just kind of be who they want to be. And after that, they can decide what they want to do.
Amanda: Okay, yeah, I like that. I like that, that you know who you are first, and then you decide what to do about it.
Tod: Right, right.
Amanda: Instead of, like so many young people coming to college, you have to decide what you want to do and then you try and fit yourself into that mold.
Tod: Exactly, exactly. I just feel like that shouldn’t be how the world should be.
Amanda: Well, I feel like 20 years from now we’re going to be interviewing you again after you’ve won some huge award because you’re changing the world with your platform and how people look at their choices, right? How they choose what to do. But you have already received some accolades. You were recently a speaker at the Distinguished University of Washington 2023 Biz-Tech Forum. Tell us, what was the message that you brought to those aspiring business leaders?
Tod: I’m not going to lie, it was quite an exciting moment of my life to go to that university — that’s a very prestigious university — to give some of my own story. I basically went there and talked through my journey since COVID happened to now. What I gave them is kind of basically what I told you today, that being yourself is great and this is the result of me being myself and this happened, right? I felt like a lot of people were looking up to me because a lot of people were around my age. There wasn’t just like me, who was a single speaker. But there were, I think, seven in my section and thirty in total. I felt like students were really touched. They were like, “Oh, maybe I should just be myself and see how this will go.”
Amanda: Right, which in a way, in the long run, is a little bit trickier, right? Because it’s also easy for people to look at you and say, “I want to do what Tod did. I want to have 200 million views, so I’m going to be like Tod,” when your message is actually, “Don’t be like Tod.” (laughs)
Amanda: “Be you.”
Tod: Right, right, right, exactly.
Amanda: What’s next for you? What’s the big dream, besides 400 million views? (laughs)
Tod: (laughs) Well, the big dream is definitely to stay in the U.S. for longer, as I will graduate next month, November 2023. I have one year to work as an international student, so I will do that, find a job, and then kind of have this work experience in the U.S. and hopefully gain some insights about the business world in the U.S. After one year of work, I want to go for my master’s in entrepreneurship. Hopefully that will bring the coursing platform that I was talking about to become true. And after that, hopefully it can help a lot of people.
Amanda: That sounds like an amazing dream to me. Well, if you’re listening to this and you have a business where you need someone unique and creative, you should give Tod a call and hire him for the next year.
Tod: (laughs) Definitely. Definitely.
Amanda: What kind of business would you like to work for?
Tod: Honestly, I just want to work, just to gain some experience at this point. But it has to be related to business for sure. So maybe something in the supply-chain world where I know where things are from and how it gets to the customer’s hand. That would be highly beneficial to me. Or have some role that I could know how to operate a business. I’m not really sure what the roles are called, but something that I can have an entrepreneurship mind in it.
Amanda: All right, so if you have a young entrepreneurial company and you want to hire Tod, give us a call. (laughs)
Amanda: Well, Tod, you are an inspiration to so many, and I know you are going to do great things. I am just sure that, like I said, we’ll be back again someday learning about a huge award that you’ve won and all the people that you’ve helped. So let’s ask you our famous last question that all of our guests answer. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Tod: Be yourself. Right? I think that’s the only message, that if you get that message out from this podcast, that’s all I want for you to know today, honestly. Just be yourself.
Amanda: Be yourself.
Amanda: Amen. All right. We’ll get some bumper stickers printed up and we’ll see how many people we can get thinking that way.
Tod: (laughs) Yeah.
Amanda: Tod, thank you so much for coming.
Tod: Of course.
Amanda: And congratulations, and the best to you as you look for that first job.
Tod: Thank you. Thank you for having me here today, Amanda.