Touched down in Phnom Penh, 10:45pm on Saturday night. I felt an immediate sense of excitement.
On Sunday afternoon I was invited to speak at “Women of Hope”. WOH is a ministry that empowers garment workers, prevents them from sexual abuse and exploitation through support, life skills, and education. Most garment factory workers in Cambodia come from under-privileged families. The girls can be as young as 13 years old and are vulnerable to being trafficked into working as “Entertainers” at “Karaoke bars” at night. People in Cambodia aren’t concerned about the well-being of these girls as society has labelled them as low class citizens. Men also take advantage of them. Due to lack of education, and social stereotyping, the girls themselves don’t value their existence and their ability to find other employment. In other words, they are “stuck in one place”. They work long hours (10-12 hours a day) for low salary. Their base salary was just raised to $180 per month.
I’d been thinking a lot about what to say to these women. It’s not every day you get an opportunity to be able to do this. After thinking and praying, I decided to speak to them about going after their dreams, regardless of their past. I spoke from John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – that God put their desires on their heart for a reason. He wants to give them a better life than they ever imagined, because they are unconditionally loved.
At the end I had them repeat after me, “I’m amazing! I have a purpose! I have an incredible future! I’m loved! With God, all things are possible!” …I had goosebumps!
Monday morning rolled around, and I was invited to spend the day with some beautiful American women I met briefly the day prior. I had no idea what I was in for… I assumed we would be sightseeing or something… I was very wrong. In the Tuk Tuk on the way to the first location I learned that these women were Girl Bosses! All successful business women from America who came to Cambodia to empower the next generation in business and to help raise young leaders. The group was run by an incredible woman named Karen Robinson, who runs “Ravens Hope” an organization who take Cambodian women over to the US for leadership development. They’re doing amazing work! And what I loved about each one of these women, is the authority that they carried. They knew who they were, they were strong and confident and just went for it, with a crazy amount of love! It was inspiring.
They told me we were on our way to Cambodias largest plastic manufacturing company to have a tour and speak to their workers about business. It was then and there I immediately regretted wearing my Bonds T-shirt and denim shorts!
The factory was incredible… the amount of plastic being produced blew my mind. It made me more determined to sell more Society Active cups!
We met the CEO of the company, who started off in a poor family but has grown to be the Founder of CEO Master Club, and the Former CEO of Vision Fund. He was an incredible man.
We then went to our next destination, Zhong Ying International School. We sat on stage, introduced ourselves and Karen spoke to the kids. She spoke to them about going after their dreams. One by one, each of them stood up and said what they wanted to be when they grew up… my favorite was a particular young girl. She stood up and said she wanted to be in sales, we asked her what she wanted to sell… “Beer.” Love a girl who knows what she wants!
After the presentation, half of our group left, and 4 of us stayed back to have a meeting with the board members of the school, to talk about ways to improve their curriculum. I remember sitting there, with all these influential leaders, in my denim shorts thinking, “What the heck am I doing here?!”. I loved that I was given this opportunity, as I was also went to an International School growing up, so I understood the needs, and the problems they may face. They then presented each one of us with a Krama, (a traditional Cambodian scarf). The whole day just blew my mind.
Tuesday!! I had heaps of computer work to do, so I decided to go to a coffee shop and get it all done. In the Tuk Tuk on the way I prayed for another opportunity for God to use me. I went to the coffee shop, and the only available seat was next to a young Aussie girl named Tori. I started chatting to her, and she had just moved to Phnom Penh from Sydney to Volunteer for a Non Profit, with dreams of also starting her own Non Profit someday. We sat there for hours talking about it. I loved her courage! 20 years old! What a woman!
On Wednesday I jumped on a boat, and went to see Silk island. They went through the whole process of how silk’s made, and how they weave their silk products. To weave a simple silk scarf, it takes 10 days, roughly 80 hours of work. But to set up the pattern for that silk scarf, takes 2 months. 2 MONTHS! It blew my mind…
On Wednesday night I was introduced to a Singaporean man through BAM (Business as Missions). This man owned a bank in Cambodia, had connections with the prime minister, and worked closely with the Minister of Education to develop a new educational program for Cambodian schools called STEM. Cambodian education isn’t at the same standard as what we have in Australia. Their university graduates are at the same level as our High School graduates… just to paint a picture. So this is something we need to work on. The country was hit hard with the genocide in the 70’s with 2 million people being killed. It was a social engineering project by the Khmer Rouge, attempting to create a classless society and killing all the educated people. You can still see the effects of this today, although I’m so excited for Cambodia. There’s a new generation of young people and young leaders determined to see change, and working hard for it.
Back to the meeting… I spoke to this banker about it all. About education, finance, mirco loans for the poor, and ways we can help. We ate at this really incredible, fancy, French restaurant… which usually isn’t my jam. I’m so happy with a pub steak. There were so many forks and spoons and little bowls of liquid… I just had to keep watching him and copying what he did. I felt like I was on set of “My Fair Lady” ;)
From there, he introduced me to another man, who also helps with micro loans for the poor, and is the chairman for “Chab Dai”. Chab Dai is a coalition of diverse stakeholders committed to working together to abolish all forms of sexual abuse, human trafficking and exploitation. I met with him on Friday, and we spoke about the real issues of the Human Trafficking problem. I don’t want Sweet Society to just throw money at the problem… I really want to get to the roots, and core of the issue to help. So that’s what we were discussing. What that’s going to look like.
From there I went down south to meet Nari from “Women of Hope” again. We were doing home visits. It was exactly what it sounds like, we went to visit one of the young garment workers from WOH. To get there we had to walk through mud and rubbish, it was also pouring with rain. The building was quite old and run down. We had to walk up a large flight of narrow, steep stairs. The girls lived on the top. The room was probably 3m x 3m with a small toilet. They had a little portable stove top in the corner, and they slept on they floor.
We sat with them on the floor, and just talked about life. It was probably one of the highlights of my trip. The issues we talked about were quite personal, so I won’t go into that, but it just made me realize how lucky we have it. I’ve always known that with my head, but I think it really got me in the heart this trip. We’re so soo soooo incredibly lucky in the west. But you know, despite all that these young sisters had both been through, they sat there and smiled the whole time. They were so beautiful.
The main reason for this trip was to look into a new project for Sweet Society.
I’m going to be so open about the whole process, because I want to show how fast God can move, and how easily he can open doors.
I first came to Cambodia in October last year. I was supposed to meet Nari from Women of Hope during that time, but my week got so full and I wasn’t able to.
Fast forward to April this year, I went down to Melbourne for a Vineyard Conference. They announced that they had visitors from Cambodia there, and they introduced Nari, and her husband Sophorn. CLEARLY I was supposed to meet them. I sat down with Nari, and she opened up her heart to me, and told me all about her work with WOH. She works to give the garment workers a new start and education, but then the garment factory owners find out about them studying, and makes them work overtime so that they miss their classes. She said they need help in starting their own businesses so that they can still come to class.
I went away from the conference and couldn’t get this out of my head. I was thinking and praying about it for weeks. Then it hit me… These girls already know how to sew… why don’t we start our own ethical production factory… essentially poach the girls, manufacture Aussie brands ethically and give the girls a safe space to work and a fair wage.
I pitched the idea to Nari & Sophorn, and they said this has been a dream of theirs for years. To me, this was all systems are go!! We looked into rent… $300 a month. The more I’ve been researching, the more doors have been opening. The other night I made a post on a Facebook, Female Business page, basically pitching the idea. Hypothetically if this were to happen, how many brands would consider producing through us? …my inbox is overflowing. I haven’t even been about to get through all the messages yet. It was a hit!
Also, since then I’ve received 2 emails from 2 very influential people in the Fashion industry offering me their business mentorship.
It seems like this is happening! It’s scary, it’s overwhelming, but at the same time I have SO much peace about it and I’m so excited.
I’ve never done this before, I’m taking it one step at a time and praying each step of the way. I’ll continue to share the journey with you all, and be very transparent about it. I hope this story encourages you!