Rewriting the “Rules for Girls” for women entrepreneurs in Cambodia


SHE Investments is a social enterprise providing business training, mentoring and financing for women entrepreneurs in Cambodia. We spoke to Managing Director Celia Boyd to hear how SHE are supporting women-led businesses to thrive through Covid-19 as a delivery partner in YBI’s Rapid Response and Recovery Programme funded by Google.org. 

Hi, Celia. I can see from your background that you’re in the office! Does this mean you’re getting back to normal in Cambodia? 

Sort of! We have a workshop and some mentoring sessions going on in the office today. We’ve gone back to in-person workshops, which is good. Things are kind of back to normal in Cambodia after the initial hit of Covid-19, except of course for the economic situation which is still really dire. Lots of businesses have gone under. 

How has Covid-19 affected Cambodia? 

The impact on the healthcare system was actually quite minimal and we never went into lockdown, although we did have border closures. But the economic impact is obviously severe. The annual income from tourism and trade, particularly from tourists visiting Angkor Wat and the garment industry, makes up about 25% of the economy. That has almost disappeared overnight, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being out of work and many businesses failing. The majority of the economy is informal, and over 90% of businesses are not registered. Many of the people who have lost their jobs are unskilled workers, so it’s very hard for them to get another job. 

It sounds like the demand for SHE Investments’ work will have increased dramatically. Can you tell me more about what SHE is and does? 

SHE is a relatively young organisation. We started in early 2015, initially by doing a year of research into the gender gap in South East Asia between 2013 - 2014, which led us to Cambodia. We learned that over 60% of businesses in Cambodia are already run by women, but that the vast majority were micro-sized and informal. Only about 2% were formally registered and paying tax. We saw that if there was to be more investment into women-led SMEs, then first you needed to have investment-ready businesses enabled to scale above micro-sized and supported to move into the formal economy. 

There were already a lot of incubators and accelerators around, but many of them were delivered in English and tended to be cut-and-paste models from America or Australia, Silicon Valley style. But every country and every culture is very different. We designed the first incubator in Cambodia specifically designed for the majority of businesses which are women-led, micro-sized, and informal. Our incubator provides Cambodian women with training, mentoring and coaching delivered in their own language and tailored to their own culture. We’ve since started an accelerator programme to scale those businesses, and now we're introducing investment readiness support. 

What are some of the main hurdles that women entrepreneurs face in Cambodia? 

In Cambodia, there's something called the ‘Chbab Srey’, which literally means the ‘Rules for Girls’. It is a very traditional list of rules that up until about six or seven years ago was even taught as part of formal school curriculum. It essentially is a code of conduct or expected behaviour for women, with a focus on serving men. We are working with people who have been taught from an early age to believe that they should not be the boss. As most businesses are informal, family businesses, these household power dynamics often translate over to the business. We actually have sessions in our programs that are called ‘Paying myself a wage’, because so many women value themselves so little that they're essentially unpaid labour in their own businesses. 

Cambodia is not necessarily an enabling business environment either, and it's not easy to operate formally and to register and to get trade licenses and other necessities. There is a lot of training needed around business management, leadership, financial management, goal setting, and marketing. During Covid, we realised that there was a significant digital skills gap as well. 

What does this digital skills gap look like for women entrepreneurs in Cambodia, and how have you been supporting them to overcome it? 

When Covid-19 hit, we realised that the women we work with now needed us more than ever. We adapted as quickly as we could to transition online, but in doing that, we realised that most of the women had a real lack of basic digital skills. Many Cambodians have a smartphone and use Facebook, but very few, particularly in rural areas, have laptops or use the free platforms that can provide a lot of value to their businesses, like Google Drive or Google Docs, for example. Every time we introduced a new solution for women to access our programs, like a webinar or online workshop, we realised we had to create a tutorial in Khmer language on how to use Zoom first.

About 95% of the women didn’t have internet at home, so we also had to send phone credit to all our participants, so they could hotspot their phones. Our participants and our staff were out in the provinces, in their backyards, surrounded by chickens, using car batteries to charge their laptops and their phones just so that they could call into these classes. The women really needed the support, and it helped them to feel that they were part of a community all going through the same thing.

Can you tell me about the new activities that you've been able to run through the YBI and Google.org programme?

The opportunity to work with YBI and Google.org was a very nice surprise, and a completely unexpected one. We had just gone through a few months of trying to provide digital resources and access to training, so we already knew what was needed to build up women’s digital skills. We saw the Google.org funding as an amazing opportunity to do that, while also benefiting as many people as possible and supporting the Cambodian economy, so we also involved several different Cambodian businesses, some of which were SHE graduates. We partnered with KOOMPI, which is the first laptop designed for Cambodians using the Khmer language. We engaged amazing Khmer female founders from tech companies (KokoPon and Think Plastic Cambodia) to teach other Khmer women digital literacy and social media basics. Even for the lunches for the workshops, we're bringing Khmer female-owned business Eleven One Kitchen to provide the catering, because hospitality is an industry that is really struggling at the moment.

We've only done two workshops so far, but already, the feedback we’re getting is fantastic. The participants are telling us how thankful they are to be in the program, how they really need these skills; some have never had a laptop before. Other women are now asking us: “Why can't I do this, too?” It's been an amazing collaborative effort, which is really encouraging because it shows we can do so much more together in the future. At SHE, I think we have learned more in the past six months than we have in like the past six years, in terms of how we can adapt to the real needs of the women we're working with, and how we have to respond to those needs when it's needed the most.

What are women entrepreneurs learning as part of the Google.org programme?

There are two main aspects of the Google programme. We're working with two groups of 20 women, so 40 women in total, and they're going through a series of six days of workshops over about 12 weeks. Those workshops are focused on digital literacy: everything from how to create an email address, how to use your smartphone, and how to use Facebook for your business. They also teach basic financial literacy during a crisis, like how to create a cashflow, how to use Excel and Word and free resources like Google Drive. It is designed to help them to do what they can within their means, within their capacity.

Then we look at how to pivot your business model, how to look for opportunities that are coming out of Covid, how to sell your products online, and how to reach more customers using digital resources. For every session that we're delivering in person, we're also creating a video tutorial with 606 Digital, another Khmer women-led business, so that we can then put them onto an online platform. So women all around Cambodia will be able to access the training for free, even if they don't get into the in-person program. Of the 74 female-led businesses that applied for the programme, the loss of revenue just within a three-month period was just over 50%.

What are some of the typical situations faced by the businesses in the Google.org programme?

Some businesses relied on foreigners, like Khmer Lesson, who teach Khmer language to expats. During Covid they lost most of their customers, and are now transitioning to online classes. Other businesses are suffering because they rely on trade. Village Works makes handicraft products that are sold all over the world, and they employ over 80% women with disabilities. They've now transitioned to making face masks as a new product. Other businesses, who rely on Cambodian markets, are also suffering because people aren’t spending so much money, like wedding boutique businesses for example. It almost doesn't matter what industry they're in – unless they’re an online delivery service, their business is very likely to be affected.

Can you tell me a little about yourself, and how you came to set up SHE?

SHE was co-founded by three people. I was one, and my background is in international development. But I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the role that I played as a white woman in development, and increasingly aware that women were more than capable of providing for their families and sending their own kids to school. They didn't need me to do that for them. Another one of the three was James, another Australian, who has since become my husband. His background is in business, and he saw business as an opportunity to provide an alternative to some forms of international aid, by investing in building enterprises that can create sustainable social and economic impact through revenue growth and job creation. Our third co-founder is a Cambodian woman called Lida who is a facilitator. When I first met her, she told me she wanted to be the best facilitator in Cambodia. She is the most confident, ambitious, amazing young woman. Our three combined backgrounds are in development, business and training, which really sums up everything that SHE does.

What are your hopes and aspirations for SHE’s future?

We're now just about to launch our new investment readiness program. We hope to finally have an end of the pipeline where we're connecting women to finance that enables them to significantly scale and create many more jobs. We're also growing to deliver programs across the country and partnering with a lot of different organisations. We’re developing a bookkeeping app in Khmer language designed specifically for informal businesses, which was Lida’s idea. We’ve realised that there's a real need for the training we’ve been providing as part of the YBI and Google.org programme, so we're going to make sure we can deliver it across at least five provinces in Cambodia in 2021. Finally, we hope to be able to support more partners, both within Cambodia and across the region, to utilise our core programs and tailor them to be delivered within their own contexts and communities.

Learn more about SHE Investments’ work at www.sheinvestments.com

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