Setting up and growing a business can be a challenge for many women in Cambodia.
Information is often hard to come by, access to credit can be limited, and societal and familial constraints can make it hard to network with peers, according to Véronique Salze-Lozac’h, regional director for economic programmes at the Asia Foundation.
But despite the challenges, female entrepreneurs throughout the Kingdom are running their own firms. According to research from the Asia Foundation and the International Finance Corporation carried out last year, 62 percent of businesses in Cambodia were owned by women.
“I think more and more it is recognised that women in Cambodia are playing a really important role,” said Véronique Salze-Lozac’h.
“I’m not saying that it’s all rosy and that women can do everything … but I don’t see any barriers that will really prevent women from being entrepreneurs and being more active in the economy.”
Women are increasingly using modern technology to meet each other and talk about the challenges they face.
A year ago, an energetic group of female entrepreneurs started using the popular social networking site Facebook to link up.
The Cambodia Women in Business group now has more than 600 members who use the site to share information, make business contacts and celebrate their successes.
Lili Sisombat, IFC project manager for the Government-Private Sector Forum, which links together the business community with officials, said: “They’re just trying to work hard and make it happen.”
The IFC helped set up the group after discovering only 10 percent of the businesspeople at forum events were women.
“When we started to get all the women together they said, ‘We are not a minority, we are not a bizarre species that needs special attention – actually we should celebrate success’,” said Lili Sisombat.
To this end, The Post met five unique female entrepreneurs who own businesses in Cambodia.
Sreat Mom Sophear, general manager of Sophiya Travel and Tours
FRESH out of university, Sreat Mom Sophear struggled to find a job that matched her skills. Undeterred, the 28-year-old decided to work her way up from the bottom until she had enough money to set up her own tourism business.
She launched Sophiya Travel and Tours five years ago with US$2,000 and a lot of determination. The effort paid off, and the company is now worth $100,000 with thousands of clients a year. She decided to start the company after becoming disillusioned with the entry-level jobs on offer for finance and banking graduates. The first few years were the most difficult, as she had to divide her time between the business and a second job as a flight attendant.
“It was very hard. Sometimes I woke up at 4am [to go to work].”
Investing profits back into the company had been crucial to growing the business. She relocated the company last year to a newly-renovated office in Phnom Penh’s upmarket Boeung Keng Kang district and opened a cosy café next door. She has also established a second branch of the travel agency in Siem Reap and invested in several properties.
“Sometimes families think the ladies should not be strong or independent – we should just stay at home or just be employees working for somewhere, or taking care of babies or children,” she said.
“That is one thing I want to share with the ladies – that not only men can do it, women can also.”
Sok Channda, president and chief executive of Angkor Data Communication Group
Sok Channda admits she is “a special case”. From her humble beginnings as a plastic flower vendor with no university education, she now runs several of Cambodia’s leading information technology companies.
She founded Anana Computers more than 15 years ago importing components from Vietnam one piece at a time, until the company had everything it needed to build its first computer.
“In the beginning we didn’t have a lot of money to increase business. We only bought one CPU, one hard disk, one motherboard, one monitor, one VGA card,” she said.
Over time, the company built relationships with key players overseas including Intel, Dell, Hewlett Packard and IBM. The business diversified in 2005 with the establishment of internet service providers MekongNet and AngkorNet, which together are the second biggest players in the market.
Although she had learned from experience in the job, she said education would be vital for the next generation of entrepreneurs. She meets regularly with other businesswomen to share knowledge, and offers discounts on internet services for schools. She also employs a number of women in senior management positions, including the group’s sales and marketing director.
“[If] you do good, somebody will look for you and follow,” she said.
Nguon Chantha, co-director of Mekong Blue and the Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre
FORMER nurse Nguon Chantha wanted to help impoverished women empower themselves – and became an accidental entrepreneur along the way.
Nine years ago, together with her husband, she founded the Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre at Sre Po village, in a remote part of Stung Treng province, to teach local women to read and write.
She soon realised the women wanted literacy skills to find employment, so she set up two looms where six of them could produce traditional silk products.
The enterprise has since grown to 35 looms and 77 employees, making it one of the largest employers in the province.
Nguon Chantha said it had been “really, really difficult” to get the business off the ground, with some people calling her crazy or stupid.
“I don’t know many women doing something like this,” she said.
Although she has no business background, she has already set up a shop in Phnom Penh called Mekong Blue, established an online store, and made distribution deals with top-end hotels in Siem Reap. Her aim is for the donor-supported centre to become completely self-sufficient, with sales of high-end silk supporting the centre’s numerous local social programmes.
“We realised if you don’t do business, you don’t make money, and that’s how we started the business. The more we sell, the more women get better jobs – that’s the whole idea.”
The centre started with a budget of US$3,000, but last year total sales reached $120,000 – the highest revenue since they began. She hoped to see more Cambodian-driven social enterprises like hers in the future, and for donors to offer greater support for marketing and distribution.
Isabelle Duzer, owner of Le Sauvignon wine bar and restaurant in Phnom Penh
PARIS-born Isabelle Duzer wouldn’t have dreamed of quitting her job to open a wine bar in her native France, but there was nothing stopping her in Cambodia.
The former human resources consultant had lived in Phnom Penh for several years before she decided to leave her job and open Le Sauvignon earlier this year.
Duzer said she had never started her own business before, but had relished the opportunity.
“It’s exciting to have your own business and to work on something you like,” she said.
Not one to take the back seat, Duzer has made decisions on every aspect of the business – from the décor in the newly-renovated Boeung Keng Kang restaurant, through to the wine list, which she selected herself from five suppliers.
“I wanted to have nice wine – not the wine you can find in every bar,” she said. “I’m not a professional, but I like good wines.”
She said it had been challenging to set up the business on her own, with marketing and communications proving particularly difficult. But she was coming up with new ways to attract customers, such as wine tastings, gourmet dinners, specialist tea tastings and afternoon teas with cakes and sandwiches.
She has also set up a website and used the social networking site Facebook to spread the word. But Duzer said she had found it no more difficult to start a business in Cambodia as a woman.
“Maybe it’s different if you’re Khmer or expatriate, I don’t know – but for myself I didn’t see any challenges because I’m a woman,” she said.
Anita Lam, owner of Dutch Croquette in Cambodia
FROM the plains of the Kalahari to the mountains of Nepal, Anita Lam has made Dutch bar snacks wherever she has lived.
Now she’s started a small business selling them in Phnom Penh.
Born in Rwanda, Lam later moved to the Netherlands with her Dutch husband, where she learned how to cook traditional croquettes from her mother-in-law. The snacks are made from a meat or vegetable ragout that is rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried. They are often served with mustard and bread as an accompaniment to beer.
Lam said she made the croquettes as a hobby wherever she and her husband lived, in countries as diverse as Botswana, Mali and Nepal.
“When I was in Botswana, in the middle of the Kalahari, I used to work with the bushmen, but later on when there was no more work I had nothing to do. So I
started making the croquettes and called all the Dutch neighbours to come to our home on a Saturday.”
Lam moved to Cambodia five years ago and recently decided to turn her hobby into a small business. She has been making croquettes in her kitchen and selling them to friends, families and a local German bakery for the last two months. She has even been making croquettes with a Cambodian twist. “Local people like it when I put in chilli and garlic,” she said.
The business is already making a small profit and Lam hopes it will continue to grow. Lam said networking with other businesswomen through the Women’s International Group had been encouraging. “They are very powerful, they know what they are talking about,” she said.