UNI alumna brings business skills to prime time

Half a world away in the tourist hot spot of Khao Lak, Thailand, you will find a bustling little bistro. Fizz Bistro-n-Bar hosts a score of raving reviews, fawning over everything from its fantastic service to its enchanting dishes, both local and international. While dining, you might even get a peek at a reality TV star.

Apprentice Asia
Apprentice Asia contestants work on a project during one of the early episodes.

Dussadee Oeawpanich, owner of the bistro, recently competed on AXN's "The Apprentice Asia." The show is the latest of more than 25 adaptations of the popular American show "The Apprentice," hosted by real estate billionaire Donald Trump. But, instead of competing for a position working under Trump, the 12 contestants vied for a six-figure salaried position under Tony Fernandes, CEO of the airline AirAsia.

But, long before her time on "The Apprentice Asia," or opening her hit restaurant, Oeawpanich spent her days in Cedar Falls, pursuing her degree at the University of Northern Iowa, an experience, she said, "was one of the best of my life."

After graduating with her bachelor's degree from Bangkok University, Oeawpanich wanted to study in the United States--something she had wanted to do since she first visited as an exchange student at the age of 15. While shopping around the different schools, she met Kristi Marchesani, assistant director of admissions/international relations, who eventually sold her on the idea of studying at UNI.

"UNI is lively, but it is different from what I expected from a U.S. campus," said Oeawpanich, who had originally been looking at schools on the coasts. But she fell in love with the campus anyway. She said the small size allowed her to focus on her studies, and her professors were some of the best. In fact, she still keeps in contact with some of her professors, including one who provided a reference that helped land her a spot on the show.

After graduating in 2002 with her M.A. in communication studies, Oeawpanich followed her ambitions south to New Orleans where she lived until Hurricane Katrina forced her to evacuate. Losing everything to the storm, she returned home to Thailand where her father, a shrimp-farm owner looking to diversify his income, had just opened a hotel in the new tourist destination of Khao Lak. She seized the opportunity, stepping in to help manage her father's business, where her knowledge and skill helped make the hotel a success. "Timing was everything," she said. "If it wasn't for the hurricane, I would still be in the states."

It was in Thailand where Oeawpanich saw advertisements for the upcoming show "The Apprentice Asia." A fan of the American version, admiring Fernandes and always looking for new opportunities and challenges, she decided to apply. Of the 30,000 applicants, Oeawpanich was asked to be one of 12 contestants on the show's debut season.

Apprentice Asia
The boardroom on Apprentice Asia - this is where contestants found out if they were safe or fired.

On the season premiere, Oeawpanich helped her team secure a victory using her knowledge of sales and the hospitality business. In the second episode, she stepped up to lead her team as the project manager, and again, claimed another victory. As the show progressed, however, tensions began to rise. "In real life, when I get stressed, I need time to be alone, just breathe and reflect on my day before starting again tomorrow," she said. But during the show she couldn't find such luxuries. "There was so much noise. There was no privacy at all, not even for a second."

Eventually, Oeawpanich made the difficult decision to resign. "I resigned from the show, not the competition," she said. "For me, it was more of a show than a business interview. I had to be an actor, and I'm not good at that."

Her resignation came as a shock to Fernandes, who immediately responded, "No, no, no, no! Why?" claiming she had the potential to go all the way. She explained the atmosphere of the show didn't fit her business style, citing the overly competitive nature and the contestants' disrespect for one another. Fernandes accepted and respected her decision and allowed her to leave the show.

"Before I went I wasn't 100 percent confident, but after seeing all these people and how hungry they were to work with Tony [Fernandes], well, I guess I'm a bit different. Now, I'm debating between peacefulness and success. After 'The Apprentice [Asia],' I know to have success in life you have to be competitive and fierce, but you don't have to step on each other."

Back at the bistro, Oeawpanich still watched the show, and is glad fellow contestant Jonathan Yabut claimed top spot at the season's end. As for her future, she said she is still seeking new ventures. "I still want more, but something I can enjoy every day of my life."

**All photos are courtesy of AXN and Apprentice Asia.