Young women from the rural provinces in Cambodia often leave home to work in the garment factories in Phnom Penh, providing income to help their families survive.  Some will leave home when they are just 13 or 14 years old, and many have little or no education. One-third of all females in Cambodia between the ages of 17 and 22 work in the factories, under very difficult conditions.  Often they burn out after a few years, and return to their villages with little hope for the future.

When parents in the village of Tramung Chrum asked Alan Lightman, founder of The Harpswell Foundation, to help them find alternatives for income generation by their young daughters which would enable them to remain at home, he supported the formation of a sewing school in the village. The plan was for the women to make clothes and sell them at the markets in and around Phnom Penh. The foundation purchased four trundle sewing machines and paid for 6 months of intensive sewing lessons in Phnom Penh for the school’s leader, Hab Saly, a former garment factory worker. Saly has since taught about twelve women how to sew.

Saly and her assistants, May 2011

As a result of a visit with Alan to Tramung Chrum last May (see June 2, 2011  post), I committed to creating a business plan for exporting and selling creations by Saly in the U.S. Although sales have begun,  progress has been slow.  A key goal for me on this trip is to expedite progress toward getting this business off the ground and, to put it in the words of my former business colleague Ron Fillmore, “see if this dog can hunt!”

It is the morning after my arrival in Cambodia, and plans are for Thida Kong and Saly to meet me in the lobby of my hotel at 10:00AM.  We are going to visit the various markets in the city where Saly has been buying her fabrics. I want to gain an understanding of the all the raw materials Saly has available to purchase locally. We will worry about direct sourcing later.

Thida Kong working at the Goldiana Hotel last May

Thilda is a 25 year old university student who Alan and I first met last May when she was working behind the reception desk at the Goldiana Hotel. Her English language skills are very good, and she asked many questions about the Harpswell Dormitory and Leadership Program for Women. While she was not eligible to enter the program, she was hired as a Harpswell employee last December to assist with the sewing business, while continuing her full-time university schedule.

Hab Saly in Phnom Penh

Thida is waiting for me in the lobby, and as I approach her phone rings. It is Saly, who has just arrived and asks Thida to come outside and walk with her into the hotel. She is uncomfortable entering the building on her own and I wonder if she has been inside a hotel before today. We greet each other warmly with smiles and brief hugs and sit down together on the large, ornate chairs in the lobby. I notice that Saly is dressed quite stylishly. The last time I saw her, she was wearing the traditional sarong skirt and Kroma head scarf of her Cham village.

Apsara dancing has been a component of Cambodian culture since the Ankor empire.  Apsaras were believed to be celestial beings, and represent feminine strength and beauty—which is why the image of an Apsara is the logo of The Harpswell Foundation. I explain that the marketing plan for the sewing business includes use of “Apsara” as the brand name, and a simplified image of an Apsara dancer’s curved hand as the brand logo.  Is there any reason why we should not use Apsara? Thida translates into Khmer for Saly and they both agree it is a good idea. Thida surprises me with her ability to curve her hand into the position of the Apsara dancer, which she learned as a child.  Note to Laura Wolak, volunteer Apsara Creative Director:  here is the hand image we have been looking for!

Thida's Apsara Hand

I explain to Saly that all profits from the business will go to her and her assistants, and eventually a portion will go to the village. There are many women and some men in the U.S. who want to help her be successful, and are volunteering their time and expertise to get the business started.  We women must stick together, the world over! Thida translates and we all laugh.  Time to hit the markets.

We visit the Phnom Penh’s Central market first, which has booth upon booth of silk fabrics. I cannot distinguish one vendor’s goods from the next. And after “negotiating” the best price, the vendors all seem to end up at the same place. We head to Saly’s trusted vendor and search through the stacks of silk. We have some tentative designs of purses in mind, and compare silk colors to the print-offs of the latest color trends I brought from home. We purchase samples of many different colors and types of silk. Three females shopping together—this is fun! I imagine trying to do this with my husband or three sons. No way.

We walk through the very narrow aisles to see what is offered in the rest of the tightly packed booths, each stacked to the ceiling with fabric. Saly knows the market well, and has an amazing memory for detail. She can point out the exact fabrics she purchased last October for one of our orders.  We see many possibilities for use in our spring and summer product line of purses, scarves, and headbands and I take lots of pictures for future reference.

There are vendors selling food cooked over open flames inside the market. Wow. I hope no sparks reach all that fabric!


We finish up at the Central market and call our trusted tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Key, and continue on to the Russian Market.  By the time we are done with our third market, I am exhausted. It is time to end our shopping. Thida needs to get to her three hours of classes in the evening.  Saly leaves on her two hour trip to Tramung Chrum, taking a combination of motorbike taxis and a bus to reach her home.  I have it
easy—I get to relax at the hotel.