Sophiya Corporation, which started in 2005 with $2,000 seed capital, has grown into a multi-faceted business that is regarded as one of Cambodia’s success stories for women entrepreneurship. The Post’s Ayanna Runcie sat down with Sreat Mom Sophear, director and founder of Sophiya Corporation, to discuss the beginnings of her business, cultural and economic barriers for women entrepreneurs, and their steady rise in the country.
How did the Sophiya Corporation come about?
I worked as a flight attendant from 2002 to 2005 and then decided to begin my own company without even knowing how to start a business. I wanted to be the owner of my own business, so I set up Sophiya Travel and Tours.
In 2008, because we saw more demand, we expanded from two or three staff to 10. Then I decided to expand to another business which was U & Me Spa, which now has three outlets. In 2012, because of all of the construction activity, we set up another firm called Sophiya Home [which supplies furniture and appliances for hotels and homes]. Then we decided to make Sophiya Corporation and put all three companies under it. So now we have a corporate headquarters and staff that take care of administration and human resources at all three companies.
You’ve launched many businesses and you’ve expanded them. What has been the toughest part of this for you?
The most challenging part is to grow your business. More people, more problems. And you also experience more debt, because you invest your own money into products to sell, even though the client has not yet paid you. If you cannot balance your cash flow well, you will face bankruptcy. If you don’t know how to manage your company’s image, it will be a mess as well. Basically as your company gets bigger, you will spend more time, money, effort and energy.
What disadvantages do women entrepreneurs face in Cambodia when compared to their male counterparts?
There are cultural differences. When women go out to do work, people keep an eye on them and neighbours always think badly of you if you are a lady and you come home late. But men aren’t really affected by that and they believe that men can work more effectively than women in terms of the negotiations and travelling abroad for work.
Many women entrepreneurs complain that banks are reluctant to lend to businesswomen. Has this been your experience?
The banks always consider long-term business and they think that men are more competitive and will be better at building their company. They think that women might have babies and give up on their companies and they consider this a high risk. But nowadays, people are beginning to change their mindset and are seeing that women can be strong entrepreneurs and that we are more neutral and focused.
For myself, I didn’t have any bank loans when starting up business. But after five years, I took a loan from the bank with no problem because my business had good performance, so the bank trusted me.
Cambodia has no shortage of women entrepreneurs, but most manage microenterprises. What can help these women grow their businesses?
More than 70 per cent of small businesses are owned by women. I say that because as you can see, there a lot of houses that women live in, but they also do business out of. It is different from the US, where you need a licence to run a business. Here you can cook porridge and sell it for breakfast and survive through that income. This counts as a small business.The Cambodian Women Entrepreneurs Association was established in 2011 because we want to guide women in business, especially the small and medium enterprises. We have more than 300 women-owned businesses and 30 per cent of registered SMEs are owned by women, but we want to improve them and empower them.
What advice do you have for aspiring businesswomen?
No matter if the business is big or small, you need to be a legal business, pay taxes and comply with the law. This will help a lot. If you have passion to be an entrepreneur, you have to stop thinking and take action. Don’t be influenced by your husband or culture, think about how working will be good for us and our families. We can then support our children by affording a very good education for them so that the next generation in our country is filled with educated people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.