By Jade Sacker
On a recent Thursday afternoon, while school buses make circuitous routes through the grid of Phnom Penh, weaving through standstill traffic, five middle school girls are huddled together over an Android phone, grinning and laughing at one end of a long worktable in the USAID building.
It’s a large, open classroom on the second story, overlooking a cavernous reception area below. The building is all antiseptic white walls and luminous glass, a bright and modern layout not afraid to depart from tradition.
The classroom holds special significance for Soucheng, 12, Soucheata, 11, Mariya, 11, Leza, 12, and Sabda, 12. They have spent countless afternoons here over the past twelve weeks, developing the idea that took them all the way to San Francisco, California for Technovation’s annual World Summit.
On August 9, they pitched their ambitious startup to technology leaders at the forefront of the industry’s evolving landscape. It is an idea that has the potential to change Cambodia’s access to the global market. One of only twelve teams chosen from around the world, they contended for the chance to win $15,000.
Technovation is a nonprofit entrepreneurship program that supports young women interested in pursuing careers in ICT and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The largest organisation of its kind, Technovation facilitates its program in more than a hundred countries, providing course structure, materials, mentorship, and financial support. Since its conception eight years ago, 15,000 girls around the world have founded startups that impact health, education, environmental protection, and poverty in their communities. Supported by UNESCO, Peace Corps, USAID, and UN Women, Technovation has helped young creators start businesses that aim to effect positive change in their countries, and ultimately the world.
This year, out of 1,100 teams participating globally, Technovation’s Cambodia division mentored 150 girls, aged 10-18, in 23 teams. Over the duration of the rigorous program, students invested their time and efforts to learn coding, graphic design, market analysis, business planning, and pitch development. Soucheng, Soucheate, Mariya, Leza, and Sabda advanced to the final stage of the competition with their app, Cambodia Identity Product. Designed to help Cambodian craftsmen transcend poverty, the app connects artists with international buyers, enabling them to disseminate their work for wide distribution.
With ICT and STEM industries rapidly progressing, the market for technology-oriented jobs is brimming with opportunities for youth. Conventional notions of what jobs are appropriate for women are consistently being challenged and dispelled as organisations such as Technovation, STEM Cambodia, and Microsoft Student Partners foster an environment where girls can explore their aspirations, express intellectual curiosity, and cultivate innovative ideas. Their mission to change perceptions is paving the way for young women to contribute to industries currently dominated by men.
Allen Dodgson Tan, the Founder and Director of STEM Cambodia, and advisor to the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport, said the youth of Cambodia were doing some amazing work.
“They’re a volunteer culture, they’re a culture of can do, want to do, want to try, want to make it better. I think this is what gives Cambodia a huge competitive advantage globally…I’m extremely optimistic about Cambodia’s future, and in particular, about its tech future.”
Tan served as a judge Technovation’s semi-final competition. Elaborating on the program’s success, he stated, “It goes beyond the individual in those programs. It’s the role models that they become and how many people that affects, and how that changes perception…For the students, it’s about creating an app. For the country, it’s about having those students be that role model and sharing that experience publically.”
The girls behind Cambodia Identity Product knew they were going to impress at the World Summit. Technovation has instilled confidence in their ability; an invaluable gift that will contribute to their success as they navigate future schooling and careers.
Sitting down with the creators behind the Cambodia Identity Product, they smile broadly while explaining their business plan. Given the work and commitment it takes to produce a technology product from scratch, the young team chime in together to express their gratitude at the opportunities Technovation has created.
“Technovation is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it is a rare opportunity. I love technology, especially coding, so why not? We want the whole world to know that Cambodian girls can do technology too,” the girls said.