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“We have learnt a lot about resilience”: an entrepreneur-led mission to aid Cambodia

Last month, thirty Aussie entrepreneurs flew to Cambodia with social enterprise Project Gen Z to spend time teaching disadvantaged youths how to establish their own business ventures with a view to helping them out of the cycle of poverty.  While it was a chance to impart life-changing skills, the travelling business people found they had much to learn from their hosts. 

Between 5 and 14 October, the group, including serial entrepreneur and Project Gen Z board member Jo Schneider, conducted a ‘Dare to Dream’ workshop in Phnom Penh, which was attended by over 80 students aged 15 to 25 years.

In the lead up to the trip, Schneider and her fellow entrepreneurs together with Liz and Jesse Volpe, the founders of Project Gen Z, raised $130,000 for charity partner Sunrise Cambodia, which runs an English school in Phnom Penh plus a professional development program for teaching staff and community projects in surrounding areas.

Schneider, who is the founder of Animal Therapeutics Online and DVE Business Solutions, spoke to Dynamic Business about her involvement with Project Gen Z, the value of the skills taught to students and the lessons she and her cohort of entrepreneurs learned.

What is the project Gen Z origin story?

“Project Gen Z was started by a friend of mine, Liz Volpe. It spun out of her journey to Cambodia in 2011, where she learnt the horrific history of the country and met kids from all walks of lives, a number of whom had terrible backgrounds: some had been rescued from prostitution, begging circles and trafficking. Despite everything, they were so positive, bright and eager to learn – and this stuck with Liz. She realised that if these kids were given an opportunity to dream, plus the right skills and support, they had the potential to massively impact their society, break the cycle of poverty and become the generation that changes Cambodia.

“In 2015, Liz and her husband Jesse approached Geraldine Cox, the founder of Sunrise Cambodia, and they discussed their desire to provide youth in Phnom Penh and surrounding communities with the education, motivation and inspiration to ‘dare to dream’. This signified the beginning of the partnership with Sunrise Cambodia, the schools within their supported communities, and the opportunity to change the lives of many.”

How successful has Project Gen Z been?

“In October, last year, a team of 18 young entrepreneurs including myself, embarked on a journey to Cambodia as part of Project Gen Z’s inaugural ten-day Dare to Dream workshop. Prior to the trip, we raised $140k to help Sunrise Cambodia drive sustainable change in the country, which is very much dependent on the education and motivation of youth. The workshop provided 100 students with access to speakers, topics and opportunities they normally not have access to. We then ran an apprentice challenge where the students could apply their new found skills and learn by doing. The growth in confidence among participants was remarkable.

“Upon our return, this year, it was great to reconnect with students from the previous workshop and learn what skills they’d learned into practice. It was obvious that the initiative was changing their lives. Several students had actually started up their own businesses, which was an amazing achievement. Some of them were provided further mentoring to grow their businesses by this year’s group of entrepreneurs, which included Andrew Morello, Sheryl Thai and Tammy Barton (previously May).”

What skills did entrepreneurs impart to students?

“Starting a business in Cambodia requires low capital, which means making a living through entrepreneurial endeavours is extremely feasible. Unfortunately, concepts like goal setting, education, careers, and thinking outside of the world into which they were born, are foreign to many young Cambodians. It’s a different experience to Australia where many of us are fortunate to have support networks, schooling and encouragement to give things a go.

“For many participants, the ten-day Dare to Dream workshop will be the first time in their lives that they’ve been encouraged to dream. By taking an active interest in each participant, the entrepreneurs with Project Gen Z seek to build their sense of self-worth and foster a mindset that anything is possible. You can’t underestimate the power of telling someone you believe in them – it can change lives.

“Critically, the entrepreneurs focus on teaching transferable skills that will benefit participants regardless of the career path they choose. These include leadership and decision-making skills as well as sales, finance and marketing. We can’t change the past, and we can’t change Cambodia, but they can change the future. It’s important they understand they are the generation that can make a difference.

“A positive, albeit unplanned impact of the Dare to Dream workshop is, the fact that local teaching staff, like their students, gain access to knowledge, resources and materials provided by the Australian education system but which aren’t available in Cambodia. The teachers we’ve worked with are enthusiastic, caring and really want to make a difference but they face limitations arising from their own experiences.

“Prior to the first workshop, last year, the teaching staff were apprehensive and concerned their students couldn’t meet the challenges we’d planed. Within less than half a day, they’d undergone a transformation. Like the students, they ventured out of their comfort zones, surprising even themselves! They were excited, motivated and proud of what their students were accomplishing. It’s not always the students who required confidence and the self-belief to succeed. The value of teachers to society should never be underestimated and while the staff in Phnom Penh have a large job ahead of them, we know they are the right people for it. The can apply the skills they gained to help future classes learn.

“I work in the education sector every day through my business DVE Business Solutions. Being surrounded by the Australian institution that we know as education, we become disillusioned and unappreciative for what we have. Learning about Cambodia and its horrific past, talking to the leaders and teachers, and watching the students, the future of the country… it was suddenly so clear that education holds the power to change a generation, a country, the world. Change begets change. And change cannot occur without a mindset shift. Positive change in the world begins with us, and education is the foundation on which lasting and sustainable change is built. You head into an experience like this thinking how great it is going to be to teach so many people. What you don’t realise is how much they teach you. About gratitude, positivity, resilience and more than anything, about yourself.”

Is there a culture of philanthropy amongst Aussie SMBs?

“In my experience, most entrepreneurs don’t launch businesses to get rich. The primary driver is solving problems and making a positive change – be it for their customers, their staff, their families and the wider community. This attitude rarely exists solely within the boundaries of the business and values are translated to everyday life. So yes, in general business people have a ‘giving back’ attitude, which regularly translates to philanthropic activities.

“I think the biggest barrier to driving change in our and wider societies is first of all the clarity and awareness of the issue; and secondly, the avenue through which to effect change. I think that businesses like to help in the area that aligns with their work and skillset rather than just donating money. Perhaps, if more business owners were presented with these opportunities they would proceed with more of them.”

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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