I plan to share my experiences in Cambodia over the next two weeks with family and friends via this blog. I am “shadowing” Alan Lightman, founder of the Harpswell Foundation  (http://www.harpswellfoundation.org/)  during his stay in Phnom Penh to learn all I can about the work of his organization.  My intent is to discover ways I can I can use my business experience and contacts to assist the Harpswell foundation in its mission. 

For those of you who are not familiar with this organization:

“The mission of the Harpswell Foundation is to inspire a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia. Our strategy is to focus on a relatively small number of the brightest young women possessing leadership potential and to nourish that potential.”

In 2006, the foundation built a dormitory and leadership center in Phnom Penh that houses 36 college women, the first facility of its kind in the country. In 2009, it completed a second facility, housing 48 women.  I will spend time at the dormitories and hope to get to know some of the women, and will have the opportunity to speak to the entire group about my own experiences as a female leader in business in an international company. 

A little background on the situation in Cambodia is helpful in understanding the work of the Harpswell Foundation. I plagiarize Alan Lightman’s writing below (why reinvent the wheel, he is a best-selling author): 

The Situation in Cambodia

Cambodia is unique among impoverished developing countries in that its educated population was targeted and killed in the brutal Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Cambodia today, a country of 14 million people, still faces poverty, lack of education and health care and rampant sex trafficking. The best hope for rebuilding Cambodia lies in education and leadership. 

Why Women?  Studies by the World Bank and other international organizations have shown that the most effective way to help developing countries is to educate and empower their women. But in Cambodia, a critical obstacle blocks higher education for women: the universities do not provide housing for their students.  Male students can live in the Buddhist temples, but not females. Housing is the weak link in the chain for empowering women.

I love the concept of investing in women to improve society. The book “Half the Sky,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and listening to a talk by Kathy Calvin, CEO of the UN Foundation were my introductions to this concept which has captured my heart and imagination.  So, here I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, learning about an organization which does just that—and in a very strategic and potentially game changing manner for this developing nation.

I’ve had internet connection issues, so I am slow to get started on my blog.  Here is what I have to share so far.

 Day 1, Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Introduction to the Harpswell Students

Today we are to visit the two Harpswell Foundation dormitories. Alan has arranged to have his trusted “tuk-tuk” taxi driver, Mr. Keys, provide transportation for the entire day at a cost of $20.  A tuk-tuk is a kind of surrey with a shade cover and open sides, pulled by a motorbike. It is a wonderful way to get the feel of the city as we move through the tightly packed neighborhoods during our 20 minute ride. Every inch of road-side real estate is used to sell whatever the family living in the structure above it has to offer. Food. Clothing. Trinkets. Piles of garbage sit close to food stalls in the narrow roads, motorbikes are everywhere, and there are fewer cars on the road than I expected.

Mr. Keys and Alan Lightman next to the tuk-tuk

Mr. Keys drops us off at the first dormitory, and we pass through a large gate that closes behind us, part of the necessary security system for an all-girl dormitory in the city. The girls are very excited to see Alan, who greets them individually by name and inquires about their studies. Each girl smiles broadly at this personal recognition, and I am amazed at his memory—there are 33 girls living in this dorm! The mood is giddy and light-hearted, and reminds me of young women this age back home in Midland, Michigan.

Yet, these girls are not your average teenagers.  They made it into the Harpswell program against incredible odds. These girls finished the 12th grade, which in itself is unusual for females in Cambodia, and did so as top students in their classes. The majority of the girls finished in the top 5% on Cambodia’s National High School Examination, a standardized test similar to our ACT or SAT tests. These are the “crème de la crème” of high school students in the country, despite the fact that they come from incredibly poor rural Cambodia. Living in the dormitories is the first time they have had the luxury of electricity and running water. Now, that’s a home-to-university transition challenge my sons never had to experience!

I go on a tour of the dormitory, built in 2006. It is spotless and well kept and Alan inspects it as if it is his own home. The girls sleep four to a room, he comments with concern that they need more desk space than the 12×12 foot rooms allow. We maneuver around racks of hand washed clothes drying in the sun. There are motorbikes parked in a neat row which serve as the primary mode of transportation for the students. Alan explained that he recently made a rule requiring that all students must wear helmets when on a motorbike—and later discovered he had to clarify that the rule includes those riding as passengers! I laugh at the need to be specific with such rules-just like with young people anywhere.

We climb back into Mr. Key’s tuk-tuk and travel to the second dormitory, about 30 minutes away on the west side of the city.  Again, Alan greets each student by name and the scene from the first dorm is repeated. There are big smiles all around!

That afternoon, all the girls from both dormitories gather in the large top floor meeting room for their twice-monthly Leadership Seminar.  It is hot and humid, and fans rotate back and forth to keep the air moving. This is called the Hall of Great Women Leaders, and there are pictures on the walls of numerous inspirational examples, including mother Theresa, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Somaly Mam, a famous Cambodian social activist.

Alan starts off by telling the girls they are talented, they are smart, and they should aim high and become leaders of NGOs, schools, businesses and government. It is a message he has repeated time and again. One of the girls translates into the local Khmer language (pronounced ka-my), mostly for the first year students who are still learning English. He is encouraging and supportive, and not the least bit subtle in telling the girls to set high expectations for themselves. He reminds them that he had each of their parents sign a letter at the end of last year agreeing not to remove them from school for the purpose of an arranged marriage (in the past, two girls were forced to leave school for this reason).  Alan tells the students how important it is to marry someone who will support them in their professional endeavors, someone who will not expect them to be a traditional Cambodian wife. He also tells them they are part of the Harpswell family, and always will be. Families stick together and support each other. There is a tangible sense of mutual support in the room, and I learn that the girls call each other sisters. Alan is clearly the patriarch of this family.

Alan introduces me as a successful business woman from the United States, who started out as a chemical engineer and eventually became an executive at an international company. He also tells them that I have three children and a husband who has fully supported me throughout my career.  I can’t help wondering what Mark would think of this idyllic description.

I stand up in front of these 80 amazing young women and take a deep breath. What can I tell them about my life that can be of any use to them? I feel humbled that they see me as a role model. I tell them my childhood was much easier than theirs.  But like many of them, my classes during college had few women in them, and in my early days at Dow Corning, there were few female engineers. I tell them about my first experience as a supervisor, when a man who worked for me was embarrassed to tell his wife that his boss was a woman. Yet, when he left the department a few years later, he told me I was the best boss he’d ever had. The translator pauses and asks quietly, “he said he loved you?” and I tell her “no, no, love is not the right word….just say he liked working for me once he got to know me as a person.”  We all laugh.

I talk about how things changed for women over my 30 year career, as more and more females came into the workforce and made valuable contributions to the company. With numbers and demonstrated performance came increased acceptance and opportunity. I also tell them that if you are interested in being in a leadership position in a company, it is very important to show that you can lead teams of people to produce outstanding, measurable results—that this is true for men or women, but for the early women, they needed to be even better than the men to get recognized.  I suspect this will be even more true for these women who do not have the affirmative action movement that existed in the US back in the 1970s and 1980s to hire females and minorities into professional roles.

The girls have many questions about being a female in a male-dominated work environment and about having a family and a career.  I tell them about my experiences, but I am not at all sure that their experiences will be similar.  I suspect they will have much higher cultural barriers to overcome at this point in Cambodia’s history, both at home and in the workplace. I say that that my in-laws did not think I should work while the kids were little. They laugh. I tell them that they should respectfully ignore their in-laws!  More laughter, but not as much. One girl asks, “How did your husband feel when you began to make more money than him?”  I tell them it was hard for him at first, but that he got used to it over time, and then he appreciated it.

In reality, the answers to these questions are complex and difficult to explain through a translator in simple terms.  But I try.

After the Leadership Seminar, the girls scatter to their rooms, the other dormitory, and some to the kitchen area on each floor where they share cooking responsibilities.  I visit one of the kitchens and try to learn the names of the vegetables in Khmer. Cucumber sounds something like “draw sock,” at least according to my ears. The girls laugh and chat as they work. This is a happy kitchen.