John Deere economist Kanlaya Barr brings global perspective to global company
Kanlaya Barr is a typical Midwestern girl - except that she isn’t at all. Sure, she went to college in Iowa. Sure, she met her future husband in a class while there.
Sure, she started a family and went to work for John Deere.
But Kanlaya’s story is anything but typically Midwestern.
Kanlaya is director of corporate economics for Deere & Company, which represents a long journey, not just in miles, but also in culture. Though she grew up in Thailand, her heritage is Chinese.
“All four of my grandparents were Chinese immigrants,” she said. “My grandparents migrated from China to Thailand in the 1940s, so my parents were second generation Chinese in Thailand, and I am the third.”
Kanlaya's grandparents fled widespread starvation in China, caused by the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese diaspora, which sent immigrants throughout southeast Asia, created a significant minority among Thailand’s population of 70 million.
“My grandparents were manual laborers who emigrated to a rural part of Thailand,” Kanlaya says. They settled in Ubon, and that’s pretty much rice country. So I was born in a remote town in the midst of jasmine rice paddies.”
Her first move away from those paddies was to another small town, but this one was not far from Branson. Branson, Missouri. About 9,000 miles from her home in Thailand.
College: A family first
Kanlaya was the first in her immediate family to attend college. Kanlaya left Ubon to move to Bangkok, a sprawling city with more than 8 million inhabitants. To save money, Kanlaya moved into her grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Bangkok.
“I have an uncle who was an economist,” she said, “and he has his own small business. I thought he was very successful, so I wanted to be like him. I thought that having an economics degree could be very beneficial.”
Economics plays a role in other disciplines - notably social science, finance, psychology, international trade, and of course agriculture - so the choice of degree was prescient. And so was her decision to pursue a graduate degree in economics.
Go west, young woman
“I spent a couple years working at the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi in Bangkok to save some money and to get a little experience,” says Kanlaya. “And then I applied to grad school.”
She applied to a few schools - all in the U.S. - including Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, which offered a “really good agriculture-economics program,” she said. “The school also had a very good graduate assistantship program, which included a stipend. And that's how I landed at Iowa State.”
Which was a bit of a shock - the farming was different from anything she’d seen growing up in Thailand.
“Before I left Thailand in 2002, I spent one last week in Ubon, where I saw a few walk-behind tractors,” Kanlaya recalls. “The majority of the farm work was done by water buffalo. So going from there to Iowa, where I saw huge combines harvesting corn, was a big shock.”
She adapted, though. “We had a very good support system,” says Kanlaya. “We had a Thai Student Association that really was helpful, teaching us how to shop for groceries, how to drive, how to find an apartment, how to find roommates, and things like that.
During her stay at the university from 2002 - 2009, she collected three advanced degrees — a masters in accounting, a masters in economics, and a doctorate in economics.
After graduate school, she took a job as a derivatives analyst for Aviva Investors in Des Moines, Iowa. In 2011, she joined her husband, Barrett, whom she met at Iowa State, in Kansas City where she started her career with John Deere as an economist.
Since then, Kanlaya has taken on roles of increasing responsibility, most recently as director of corporate economics.
Appreciating the journey
What’s it like going from a child in a small village in Thailand to a director of corporate economy for a company with operations on six continents?
“I could not have done it without my family’s support,” Kanlaya says. “We did not have much, but my mother always put education first. There are failures along the way, but my grandparents never gave up when they left China, and I wouldn’t either.”
The journey, she says, has been beyond anything she ever imagined. “The company has provided me with challenging opportunities for over a decade,” says Kanlaya, “and I get to work with people from various backgrounds and different countries.”