There are hundreds (update: thousands) of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in Cambodia. They provide legal aid, do sanitation projects, improve healthcare for children, support human rights issues, work to eliminate domestic violence, help impoverished kids go to school….all of these NGOs are doing admirable work.

What excites me about the Harpswell Foundation, and what sets it apart from most other NGOs, is that it is taking a strategic approach to creating change from within Cambodia, by Cambodians. It is building, over time, a population of highly intelligent, empowered women who have the critical thinking skills and vision to help lift Cambodia out of poverty in a sustainable way.  Its graduates will be instruments of change for the country.

On Friday, I tag along with Alan Lightman, founder of Harpswell, to visit the office of Brad Gordon & Associates. Brad is a lawyer here in Phnom Penh and a member of the Harpswell board. In 2010 he hired seven women, fresh out the universities, from the very first class of students of the Harpswell program.  They have a variety of degrees which include law, accounting, biology and economics

excuse the hand-some guys have to be in all the pictures

Harpswell graduates working at Gordon & Associates

Alan is beaming with fatherly pride as we stand in the office and listen to the young women tell us about their jobs.  They are working on a variety of projects, from market research into setting up a mango business to conducting due diligence on a potential merger and acquisition for a client firm.  I realize as they talk that this is not your typical law firm. It is more like a business consulting firm with a focus on new business opportunities. What fantastic experience the women are gaining on their first jobs! I find myself wanting to join one of their project teams and get right down to work. Maybe they can investigate the market opportunities for silicones in Cambodia—a project I will further investigate upon my return!

Competition to get into the Harpswell program is understandably fierce.  For a great many of the students, being accepted into the program freed them from working in the garment industry in Phnom Penh in order to support their families back home in their rural villages.

The garment industry employs about 320,000 people in Camboida, and 90% are female.  Here is a shocking statistic: roughly one-third of the females in Cambodia between the ages of 17 and 22 are working in the garment factories.  Working conditions, although better than some Asian countries, are deplorable by U.S. standards.

living quarters for female garment workers

We drive past the living quarters of the female garment workers each time we visit one of the student dormitories.  It is disturbing to realize that many of the bright, energetic, engaging young women I have been spending time with during the week would be living here today if they had not been accepted into the Harpswell Foundation program.  Unbelievable.

The newest of the two Harpswell dormitories

The proud, confident young women professionals at Gordon and Associates were able to avoid the garment industry and attend university because they were able to live in the only female housing available to students in Phnom Penh. And they are not your average graduates–they learned critical thinking skills not taught in the universities and honed their English in programs integral to living in the dormitories–more about that later!

 The Admissions Process

I was able to sit through a meeting with Alan and Varony, the senior manager over both Harpswell dormitories, regarding her role in the admissions process for the coming school year. It is clear that Alan takes this process very seriously. He spent 12 years on the faculty of Harvard and has been teaching at MIT since 1989.  He is passionate about education and knows from his own experience that educating the best and the brightest a country has to offer produces graduates who are the seeds of great change in the world. Finding the best students, both academically and with strong leadership potential is a fundamental strategy of the Harpswell program.  It is where it all starts.

Alan carefully goes over the application form with Varony, and they agree on some upgrades from last year.  Then they review the interview questions and talk about the underlying themes to be investigated. How motivated is the student? What are her ambitions, what does she want to do with her life after graduation from university? Does she have a vision that is broader than providing an income for her own family? Does she express a desire to improve Cambodia? Alan notes that he has turned down students who were in the top 99 percentile on the national exam because, although very intelligent, they did not exhibit strong leadership potential. To have made it to the interview should mean that she is one of the top four female students in the class—but Alan warns Varony to ask to see student’s transcripts and class ranking. It is common for school directors to recommend their relatives over other more qualified students.

This year, interviews will take place with the top 4 female students at 35 village schools across most of Cambodia’s 24 provinces. After a month of interviewing, Varony will narrow down the list to 40 students. Alan will personally review the qualifications of those on the short list and make the final decision on each admission.

It is a disciplined, well thought out approach to finding the best and the brightest young women with the most potential to help Cambodia help itself.  I feel a sense of excitement about the possibilities for improving lives in this developing nation, and I lay awake at night thinking about ways a retired business woman from the U.S. can help these young women achieve their dreams, for themselves and for Cambodia. I have many ideas, and much to learn!