Cambodia's Women Leaders - 21 Stories of Grit and Resilience
Give a short introduction about your life (family, education, marital status) and how your experience hasbeen as a leader and what achievements you are most proud of.
My name is Solinn and I am happily married with a 3-year old son named Jyarann. I now work for Oxfam and we live in Cambodia. Like many women of my generation, I was born and raised during wartime, poverty, and a patriarchal society. Like them, I faced many challenges on a personal and professional level. I was raised by strong women in my family: my grandmother Seng Kim, my mother Thavy, and my aunts; women who survived because they were spared by the murderous Khmer Rouges to raise me, and my brother and sisters, the next generation of ‘Angkar’. We were poor and we didn’t have anything. My grandmother fed me, a newborn baby, with redants broth instead of milk. My mother and aunts had to work in the rice fields – a skill that they, as city dwellers, had learned to master during the three years they spent in a labour concentration camp in Kampot province. These self-determined women are my role models. They worked very hard for our survival and future.
I was educated in Cambodia, all the way to university level. When I was in school, I took on many internships; and I took my first paid jobs (two paid jobs and one volunteer job simultaneously) when I started university at 17, because I was really hungry for knowledge and wanted to earn my independence, at least financially. I had always been a hyperactive kid, in the sense that I would get really bored if I didn’t work on several projects simultaneously. I wanted to earn money so I could support my family and afford higher education. Luckily, I was awarded scholarships to study overseas, and then I stayed on to work for international agencies around the world. I didn’t have to come back to Cambodia since I had the job security that I always dreamt of; but for some very personal reasons, I decided to go back to my roots.
I had my own struggles growing up as a young woman, feeling the pressure to make choices that were acceptable to my family and society. I had to refuse proposals to marry at an early age, and I had to fight various forms of prejudice to be able to choose a marriage and a partner for life that I wanted. At times it was really tough; but looking back I have no regrets and I am glad I did what I did. But I am very fortunate. I have a progressive husband and dear friends and family who are very supportive, and they all push me to achieve my full potential. When I faced serious life struggles, they all stood behind me and told me to follow my convictions. Without them I would be a lost soul.
Even as a young educated woman coming from a dominant ethnic group, Khmer, I have had to negotiate for my space every day and everywhere, from community to workplace; so I cannot begin to imagine the daily struggle of a lesbian girl from a discriminated ethnic minority group who was born with disabilities. Gender, race and religion are not natural; societies construct them. This is why I keep reminding myself every day of my privileges, and I am very grateful for where I am and what I have. More importantly, I want to do the best I can to contribute to improving the lives of underprivileged people, using my humble abilities. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to my roots, despite better career opportunities elsewhere.
Leaders representing marginalized workers from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, Siem Reap province. Photo: Oxfam
When you first started out with your career, what were your most significant challenges?
I faced many challenges when I entered the job market. I was lacking experience. I was judged by my age and my looks, which made me feel so nervous and self-conscious. In the workplace, most of my colleagues were much older men. One day, after I shared my opinions in a meeting, instead of responding to the content of my comments, people chose to joke about the sound of my nervous voice and my appearance, as a way to casually dismiss my point of view. As a young woman, you have to learn to take the unfair blows.
I felt as though I wasn’t heard at all; ironically, if an older man had repeated my point of view, he would have been applauded for his creativity. I had to figure out constantly how to get myself heard. I tried to work very hard to overcome my lack of experience, sometimes at the expense of my health, to compensate for some of the daunting challenges I had to handle at a young age. Let me give you two examples.
At age 22, I took on a job as the executive director of an international conservation NGO in Cambodia. My predecessor and mentor, who was an expat in her late 40s, was a very respectable and successful professional in the sector. The expectations were very high, and the NGO at that time had a unique role as it tried to negotiate sensitive policy issues with all influential stakeholders. Back then, public awareness and support was almost nonexistent. Environmental preservation was not the government’s priority and environmental violations were common. At first, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t accept the job as I thought it was beyond my capacity. But when a few concerned colleagues told me that ‘I was right not to accept the job because I was a young woman and that the job was too dangerous for me’, I resolved to prove them wrong. I went back to my boss and the board of directors and told them that I was ready to take on the challenge, but that I needed their counsel. I took that job for four years and I grew the organization fivefold financially, before moving on to my next challenge.
Another example is a personal challenge. While I struggled to build my career, I had to make hard choices about whether to marry and have children, something Cambodian society pressures you to do. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a mother, but I chose my career over marriage in my early twenties and gave myself all the time I needed to find Mr. Right and to one day be ready as a responsible mother. I decided not to let all the conservative and prejudicial noise affect my ability to pursue the life I wanted to lead, and I was lucky to have friends and family who stood by me all the way.
Over the years, what valuable lessons have you learned as a leader?
Listening to people attentively is the only way to truly understand people’s underlying interests. Oftentimes, we all are bound by a lack of time and patience; thus, we don’t really hear each other. Understanding who people are, where they came from and why they do what they do, helped me be more realistic in what I should seek from them and how to communicate my intent constructively. When I was younger, I was more result-oriented. As I told you, I was a somewhat hyperactive person, feeling that that there was no time to waste, and because of this impatience I lost some people along the way. Now I am more process-oriented and I try to be as inclusive as I can be when listening to what people need and want. I want to listen to people with my heart, and try to capture their true essence without judgment and with compassion.
Compassion is an important way to connect to people genuinely and it helps me to truly understand what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. This allows me to think of alternative agreements that can move everyone forward from an impasse – even if it’s just a tiny step. When I was younger, I was afraid of being perceived as a weak woman for displaying my emotions. I felt like I had to defend myself all the time to be perceived as strong. I have come a long way since then. In Cambodia’s social context, the boss has to be strong and you have to be on top of everything all the time. I recall that I was afraid of scrutiny and used to hide my vulnerability as I thought it was the best way to protect myself emotionally and hence professionally.
How often I fought back my tears in front of colleagues. Too often, when I was in public spaces and overheard gender-biased comments that stepped on everything I stood for, I held back my emotions and forced a professional smile, because I was taught that it was the right way to handle myself. Allowing myself to be emotional would only invite more attacks on me personally, and more importantly on everything I represented. But , that was wrong. I have now realised that being vulnerable and opening myself up to scrutiny is actually the best way to allow people and strangers to change their understanding at their own pace. I have had positive emotional breakdowns with colleagues and strangers in heated moments. To my surprise, those wonderful strangers showed me compassion and generously told me that I was being too hard on myself, saying that my honesty helped them better understand my passion and convictions. Since then I have allowed myself, every now and then, to be vulnerable, embrace scrutiny and stop being defensive. Being vulnerable allows others to connect to my genuine self.
Trust in organizational values and cultures that are above people and leaders is the key to collective success. I made mistakes by delaying some tough decisions when my gut feeling told me to go ahead. No
one wants to make tough and unpopular calls, but delaying those difficult decisions eventually causes more damage. By being bold and tackling those difficulties head-on, as managers we have the upper hand to minimize any negative impact. But of course, not everything is black or white, so I often had to guide my decision-making based on my core values and my responsibilities; and more importantly, I
had to be ready to be held accountable for those decisions.
I pride myself on being firm and fair in dealing with tough decisions. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me at all as long as they know in their hearts that the decision was fair. I also do not shy away from taking full responsibility for my failures. My motto is that we all live and learn. But an important point here is that a good decision is a well-informed one. And often, a good decision is not one that will benefit you, but that will benefit the group and the values you serve.
Ministry of Mines and Energy and Oxfam discussed about the potential of mining in Cambodia, Blue Media. Photo: Oxfam
What are your core values and how do you ensure your team is aligned with your values?
My core values are equality, justice, and integrity. One of the most important principles I value is equality; this goes back to my childhood, when I experienced unequal treatment because I was a girl, and poor, and I didn’t have access to the right people or networks. Societies construct gender and class. I believe in universal rights and equality for all, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, race, religious, political and gender backgrounds.
I strive to promote a just space for everyone, wherever I am. This might sound idealistic, but idealism rhymes with pragmatism. With the work I do at Oxfam, we serve the underserved and underprivileged, and help them seek redress with those with more power and resources. This connects to my second core belief and the notion of justice, which has shaped the person I am today. Ever since I was young, I have strongly felt that every child should be able to enjoy all basic needs equally.
Above all, I believe it is important to model my behavior and lifestyle to these core values on a daily basis. As they say, you need to walk the talk. I encourage colleagues and partners from all backgrounds,
ages and races to be part of their own solutions. I remind myself and all of my colleagues and friends of our privileges and biases and seek to hear from others – those who don’t believe, think or behave like “us” . We try every day together as a team to be inclusive.
The third value is integrity. I always preach the necessity of maintaining zero tolerance against any practices that undermine our individual and organizational integrity. It is equally important that I practice what I preach religiously. My team believes that if we don’t hold ourselves to the highest standard of integrity then we are defeating ourselves in the process, especially in our mission to fight the systemic challenges of poverty and injustice. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we are not yet where we want to be. We must not hide or cover up issues, hoping they will go away. We have to be prepared to deal with painful internal challenges if we are to succeed externally. We use external references to remind us of our core values and to be aware of our own weaknesses and strengths.
What are some of the behaviors or traits that you think are negatively impacting leadership?
I think because of cultural and intellectual biases, there is a widespread misconception of what a leader is and what makes a good leader. Some people claim that only those who are highly educated are great leaders, and that because of their “pedigree” they will have all the answers. I find this so arrogant! I know many inspirational leaders who barely finished primary school, and who have devoted themselves fully to people and society without needing any higher education.
Also, what is misleading is that some think that leaders are like ‘parents’, and therefore followers or ‘children’ should not question them because they should be above all norms. This attitude is naïve and complacent.
I believe in collaborative leadership, where each individual offers their leadership and no one is above a nation’s or an organization’s agreed code of conduct. Leaders shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers – and better yet, they should know how to bring together the best minds and hearts to find consensus and the solutions that are most sustainable. But if you insist on me picking the most negative trait of all for a leader, I think it would have to be leaders who are not able to accept criticism, and who let their hubris and personal interests take priority
over their duty.
What are you doing to continue to excel as a leader (leadership tips in doing business and promoting women’s economic empowerment or gender equality)?
I am not sure that I am excelling in anything. To be honest, I don’t consider myself a leader, but a catalyst who supports and enables those around me to achieve the best they can. I strongly believe in collaborative leadership. I strongly believe that everyone can lead and should lead from where they sit, irrespective of where they are within an organizational hierarchy. I continue to learn from everyone around me and to push myself to be more helpful to those around me -- be they our receptionists or drivers or managers. I try to create an equal and enabling space where leaders can enjoy their mission and achieve their best potential. I believe in supporting managers and leaders to devise their own solutions and realise their strengths, as well as be aware of their weaknesses. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to see people performing at their best.
What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken in your career and how did they turn out?
There are two things that come to mind now. After ten professional years in the environmental sector, I decided to go back to school, not knowing what would come next or whether I would find a job since my savings were limited and I had to continue to support my family. When I finished my second degree, I was offered a PhD scholarship and a junior job in a new sector at the same time. I decided to take the junior job for my own learning, and it turned out to be the right decision. It was the riskiest thing I did but it turned out alright in the end.
The other thing that happened was that at a time when I really enjoyed my job and was at the peak of my career, my husband had to relocate to another country. It was important for him. After much deliberation, I decided to choose my family and left my job and responsibilities. It was a tradeoff, but it was a moment in life I chose to prioritize family. As I told you, I started to work from a young age and I was always busy, so the prospect of leaving my high-flying job and looking for something else without any certainties was not pleasant. But I was happy with that choice.
What makes Cambodian culture unique and how do you think Cambodia can thrive in this age of entrepreneurship & dynamic leadership?
Cambodians value the wisdom of the elders who came before us. Cambodians, for better or worse, always think about whether everything we do today would mean greater preparation and more success for the next generation. I have seen the women who raised me and now I see this in myself as a mother. Cambodians are not laid back and are competitive. In this regard, the Cambodian culture that I know is proud of its own identity but selfless and hard working. With this, I am hopeful. I have always been a very optimistic person, and I believe in Cambodian youth in all spheres – be they entrepre neurs, civil servants or social workers. They will transform Cambodia and nothing can stop them. But for this to happen, my generation cannot be complacent. This their sacrifice in sweat and blood to get to where we are today. Thus it is our duty to further pave the way for the next generation to excel in the leadership of our nation.
What advice do you have for young Cambodian female entrepreneurs?
You can learn and lead at the same time. If anyone tells you that they were born to lead and that their leadership journey was smooth and that they never make mistakes; trust me, they are lying. Believe in yourself and create your own leadership journey. Don’t be overly upset with your own or others’ mistakes and if you feel that you can’t get to where you want immediately. Be generous with yourself (something I’ve started to do myself ). Adjust your milestones as you go along your beautiful life and career journey and try to enjoy them as much as you can and give yourself encouragement to keep going. Your journey is not an easy one.
You will doubt yourself and you may despair, but you must rise above those challenges and lift others up with you! As you go along this long-winding development and leadership journey, you may explore new things along the way and this could help you understand your real overarching goal in life and what it really means for you. And above all, don’t lose sight of that overall goal. I hope your goal is one that will contribute to the betterment of the people around you, especially other women and girls. That is the only way, I believe, for all of us women to contribute to building a more equal and just society, especially for those who are less privileged. Compassion is key. Combined with your self-determination, you can do anything. I mean it, anything!