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2013 Lin's camera; 2nd trip to village 339Meet Sun Ley,  creator of our newest Red Dirt Road product: a versatile envelope purse made of 100% hand-loomed Cambodian silk!   This picture was taken just before I left the village yesterday, and literally minutes after the sample design was declared production ready.  Just-in-time design at its best.

I have been wanting to do an envelope-style iPad purse for more than a year.  We just couldn’t seem to get it right. Too small. Not wide enough. Straps mounted in the wrong place to hold the weight of an iPad without distorting the whole envelope look. Interfacing not right. The problems went on and on until l finally packed away a box full of failed samples in my closet where I didn’t have to look at them anymore. They have been hibernating in there for the better part of a year. But wait!  The latest fashion magazines declare that “envelope clutches are BIG this season!”   So the project was resurrected for one more try.

This time, we got it right!  Being here to work in-person with Ley,  a skilled seamstress and our sample creator made all the difference. The first sample was good, but not quite right.  With input from Lin, Sophal and me on structural changes and various details, Ley carefully constructed a second production sample. Time was running short.  I needed to leave the village yesterday with a good sample to carry home with me when I depart Camboida tonight.

The second trial produced a perfectly functional AND beautiful end product!  The Red Dirt Road shop erupted in excited shouts of “Wa Hoo!” amid laughter and dancing.  This one is a winner!

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I know, its upside down. I will fix this later.

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This one too.

Look past the amateur photography, I took these pictures with an iPhone this morning.

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Sophal suggested we include both an over-the-shoulder strap and a longer, cross-body strap, a great suggestion. The strap is removable, so the purse can also be used as a (7)

I am going to take orders which will be delivered in time for Christmas. Fun color combinations will be available, as well as single-color versions like this one.

The sunlight was fading as Lin, Sophal and I stuffed ourselves into the van for the two hour drive down the red dirt road and back to Phnom Penh.  All the women lined up to wave good-bye, and I had to hold back my tears as we pulled away. I am so proud of what the women of Red Dirt Road can accomplish, sewing with treadle machines and ironing with a coal heated irons.

Lin (the Energizer Bunny) will spend another week in Cambodia, and with the help of our Operations Manager, Sophal, will work with the women on new artistic techniques: silk painting and free-style doodle sewing. New skills. New products. New opportunities for the women of Red Dirt Road, Inc. NFP to earn money to feed their families and educate their children.  And we women in the U.S. get beautiful,  functional designs to enjoy, with the added bonus of knowing our purchases are changing the lives of women and children in this remote village in Cambodia.

2013 Lin's camera; 2nd trip to village 338

Ley is a very tiny women, which makes the iPad sized purse look huge on her. Trust me, its the right size!


One of the first things we did when Lin, Sophal and I arrived in Tramung Chrum this week was to check out the newly built latrine behind the Red Dirt Road sewing business.  Saly was all smiles as she lead us through the dirt to “Tony’s Toilet.”

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When Lin visited Tramung Chrum last year, she spent an evening by candlelight talking with Saly and her family about life in this remote
Cambodia village.  Lin had a desire to donate something tangible–a building or a well, or perhaps some solar panels– which would stand in honor of her late husband, Tony.  When asked what they needed most, Saly and her father answered in unison: a toilet! With no electricity or plumbing in the village, people use the bushes. And with eight Red Dirt Road sewers working out of Saly’s parents one-room house, the surrounding bushes were getting a lot of use.

So began a year-long journey to build a latrine. $700 was wired to Sophal, who enlisted the help of Yousos.  Yousos is  an employee of the Harpswell Foundation and organizes programs in the village.  Neither of them knew anything about building a latrine.  “So, figure it out!” we thought.   But nothing is simple in Cambodia.  One cannot Google “latrine builders” or refer to “Angie’s List” for recommended contractors.  And there is a certain reluctance here to engage with strangers on matters involving substantial amounts of money. So the project stalled.

Eventually a builder was hired and the latrine completed–just in time for our arrival this week.  I suspect the fear of Lin’s wrath was a motivating factor in finally getting the project done.  What a difference it is to stay overnight in the village when there is a simple toilet next to a cistern of water.  And the room is large enough to stand and take a sponge bath before bed!  Considering that the villagers have lived without this luxury for their entire lives, I am reminded how physically easy our lives are in the developed world.

On my next trip,  I will remember to bring toilet tissue.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012—I arrived in Australia today for a business meeting with my new employer, a wonderful East Jordan, Michigan company called EJ. I flew in to Brisbane  from Cambodia, where I just spent a week working at my other job: a new social enterprise business called Red Dirt Road. I just realized that the transition from the business of silk fashion accessories made in a remote village by women with no electricity or running water… to the business of manufacturing and selling manhole covers and access ports…is surprisingly easy!

Both enterprises require the same business fundamentals: understand your customer’s needs, manufacture a good product, promote by appealing to what is meaningful to your targeted customers. Build a team of people who are passionate about what they are doing, reach for the sky with challenging but somehow achievable goals …and be sure to have fun along the way!

Tonight, during our EJ group dinner, I could detect the smell of the wood fire used for cooking in the village of Tramung Chrum coming from the green silk scarf I was wearing. I had packed the scarf in a suitcase with the many silk purses and other goods I am carrying home with me to sell in the U.S. for Red Dirt Road. Memories of a wonderful week in Cambodia are still fresh in my mind. Here are a few of those memories:

….meeting Sophal in person for the first time. Sophal is a recent university graduate in finance and banking, who I was fortunate enough to hire as a full-time employee of Red Dirt Road in September. Sophal manages the Cambodian side of the business, and we have been meeting weekly on Skype. She lives in Phnom Penh, speaks excellent English, and is highly self-motivated. What a blessing!

….traveling down the now-familiar Red Dirt Road leading to the village of Tramung Chrum.

…. the joy I felt when arriving in the village and reuniting with my friend and energetic colleague, Hab Saly, leader of the women sewers in the village.

….the thankfulness I continue to feel toward my friend, Lin Alessio from Interlochen, Michigan, who joined me on this trip. Lin served as photographer, art director, teacher and village entertainer. Tramung Chrum will never be the same!

….how pleased I felt on our first day in the village with the progress on designs and quality of the items produced in September and October for our holiday order. Sophal helped Saly to understand any quality concerns, and Saly quickly got her assistants busy fixing some minor issues.

….the fun we had getting Sophal and Saly to model the beautiful silk shawls made from handwoven  Cambodian silk. Perfect with a “little black dress” for holiday parties!

….Saly, poising with her parents and assistants, after I presented her with $560 in profits to share with her assistants. This represents more than 6 months salary for one woman working in the garment industry in Phnom Penh. The profits are in addition to the $4 per day the women receive for their labor (twice the garment industry rate). Look at that smile! It was an emotional moment for me.

….listening to the happy chatter of the women as they worked diligently on headbands, wallets and scarves. They are seated in the front area of Saly’s parent’s house,  home of the Red Dirt Road fashion accessories business.

It is late and I must get some sleep so I can be alert at my business meetings tomorrow here in Brisbane, Australia.  I can still smell the scent of the cooking fire on my scarf…..more about my visit to Cambodia later.

I am back in Cambodia, my third visit here in less than 18 months.  I am smitten with this country and its people, and committed to spreading the word about the important work being done by The Harpswell Foundation (  to “Empower the Next Generation of Women Leaders in Cambodia.”

Last weekend, I was privileged to host two executives from the Dow Corning Corporation, Suzanne and Scott Fuson, as they presented a leadership seminar to the 81 young women living at the Harpswell Dormatory and Leadership Centers in Phnom Penh.  Suzanne and Scott currently reside in Singapore, and early this year they committed to traveling to Cambodia to speak to the students.  The focus of their program was to talk to these smart and ambitious university students about how they were able to successfully combine two busy careers and raising two great kids, as well as share their wisdom on managing one’s own career.

Before their presentations, we had a pizza party. Pizza is always a hit with Harpswell girls!

On the top floor of the dormitory is The Hall of Great Women Leaders where we gathered to hear Scott and Suzanne speak. Each shared their career journey. Scott explained how their family had moved many times for Dow Corning, including stays in France, Belgium, and now Singapore. This gave them perspective on life outside the United States, a useful and increasingly critical leadership dimension in a global company.

Suzanne explained how, in her opinion, women lead differently than men. To help with translation, she held her arm out to the side in a “come with me” kind of motion while walking across the front of the room saying women tend to “lead from the side.”  She then turned and marched across the room while telling us that men often “lead from the front”—and expect people to follow them without the personal connection and encouragement so prevalent in women’s style of leadership.

As I listened from the back of the room to my former colleagues telling their story, I watched one young lady in the last row taking furious notes on advice from Suzanne projected on a screen in a PowerPoint slide. Advice such as “know your core values.” Take jobs which will force you to learn new skills, even if you are afraid of failing. Realize that no one cares as much about your career as you do—don’t rely on someone else to manage it. Be patient and find the right life partner—one who supports your career and is a partner in managing the family.

Suzanne then showed a slide which illustrated four quadrants of one’s life which need to be in balance: health and spirituality, family and relationships, career, and community involvement.  One piece of advice seemed especially heartfelt and meaningful to both she and Scott: of all the roles a woman takes on, there is only one role in which she cannot be replaced: her role as a wife and a mother. So pay attention to how much time you spend at work and don’t short-change the time you spend with your spouse and your children.  Scott stood up and interjected that this advice applies to men as husbands and fathers, not just to women. Thank you, Scott!

We closed the session with Scott leading the group in what he refers to as his “Yeah-Boo” exercise. It was a great way to demonstrate the importance of both positive and negative feedback when leading people. This part of the program required no interpretation, and the students were energetic participants!

On behalf of myself and The Harpswell Foundation, I would like to thank Suzanne and Scott for sharing their wisdom about both family and careers with this “next generation of women leaders in Cambodia!”

Armed with the list of items we put together at Saly’s workshop in Tramung Chrum yesterday, we are ready to hit the markets again.  It is a warm and clear morning, and Mr. Key is waiting outside the hotel with his tuk-tuk, ready to transport Saly, Thida and me around the city. Thida looks especially stylish this morning, and I snap a picture of her before we leave.  I am thankful to have someone with fashion sense, located in Phnom Penh,  involved in this project!

This is my last chance to see what is available locally for use in our spring/summer Apsara product line. We will be looking for cotton fabrics and sewing notions such as rivets, foam, batting, and interfacing for use in making our fashion accessories.  The plan is for me to go home with as much information and fabric samples as possible.  My goal is to have the product line defined within four weeks of my return. Is this possible? I have no idea, but I will find out.

We arrive at one of several markets we will visit. This particular market has many cotton fabrics, and I take numerous pictures of potential choices for use in the product line.    In one booth, a baby is sleeping peacefully in a swinging hammock while his mother stands nearby selling her goods. He is adorable, but I have to move on or risk getting separated from Thida and Saly in the crowded market.

Saly stops to buy new scissors, and I buy a pair as well. These are heavy iron scissors, and seem crudely made. I recall the rusty scissors she was using yesterday in the village, and had wondered how sharp they possibly could be. My mother, an avid sewer, always emphasized the value of a good pair of sharp scissors to be used for NOTHING but cutting fabric (her six daughters consistently ignored this scissor rule). I plan to give her the pair I just purchased as a tribute to her scissor fixation.

Saly asks the scissor vendor if he has a machine for sale which attaches rivets to fabric. He says no, but she doesn’t need one. She can just use a hammer to secure each rivet.  Hmm. This might work for the customers interested in “unique, handmade articles from around the world,” but certainly not the quality conscious “sophisticated buyers” of our other targeted market segment. We will keep looking.

We search through several booths before finding just the right cotton denim with a soft feel, containing no elastic fiber for use in one of the prototype purses Saly will make. After haggling over the price, one meter goes into Saly’s bag. Thida spots a booth with cotton plaids in 2012 trend colors hanging prominently out front. A meter of each goes into Saly’s bag, and I make a mental note to test plaids with teens back home before deciding if these fabrics will work for headbands. This is where having nieces interested in the project is very helpful.  I’ll need to get Katie and Carly to survey their LaGrange, Illinois friends again quickly.


We scour the second floor of the Orussei Market for appropriate rivets and machines to attach them, with no luck. Most of what is for sale have designer label names imprinted on the rivet. Not exactly what we had in mind for launching our new Apsara brand. I can buy a rivet gun at Jo Ann Fabrics back home, but getting it to Saly quickly will be difficult with no reliable postal system in the country. We strike out on batting and foam as well. I am going to have to figure out how to source from China sooner than I expected.

It is now well into the afternoon, and we have not stopped for a break. I suggest we go to a restaurant where we can eat and summarize everything we have agreed to do and make sure we are all on the same page. My treat! Mr. Key takes us to an air conditioned,  western-style place and we sit at a table with ample room to spread out our fabric samples and notes for our working lunch.

We each order a different dish to share, and everyone gets a chocolate milk shake. When the food arrives, we dive in, famished from our day of shopping. There is way too much food, but Saly and Thida make sure none is wasted.  “In Cambodia, since we have paid for it, we finish everything” explains Thida. We laugh at the amount of food Saly eats, given that she weighs all of 35 kilograms (77 pounds).

For more than two hours we concentrate on how each prototype should look. Saly will make the samples from the materials we have purchased. Thida writes notes in Khmer for Saly to refer to later. They go over this in great detail, and we draw pictures for clarity.  How should the tassels for the silk stole look, how should they be attached? The fill threads on the beautiful pink silk are actually bright orange—can we get more bright orange silk to use to make the tassels? These are only some of the details that must be considered to put together just one product. And we have many more products to define!

Earlier, I had indicated to Thida how much I will depend on her to ensure that Saly understands what we are asking for to avoid the problems encountered with the last order. Thida has taken this to heart, and insists that tomorrow, when we visit the village again, Saly make the orange and pink silk tassels we have been drawing so we can confirm she understands. And Saly should try sewing the very narrow hem we want to see on the silk scarves. This turns out to be an excellent suggestion.

Suddenly, Thida notices the time. Almost 4:00! Saly rushes out to catch a moto taxi back to the market before it closes so she can buy the orange silk.  Thida and I head back toward my hotel in Mr. Key’s tuk-tuk. She is anxious to get home so she can be prepared for her university classes at 6:30.  The three of us will meet early in the morning and travel the two hours to Tramung Chrum by car to finish our work,  and then enjoy the special Cham Charity Celebration in the village.  I feel good about our day, and I am impressed with the enthusiasm of Saly and Thida about making this business a success!

Narrow hem on silk? Can do!

Saly making prototype scarf tassels

Russian Market fabric vendors

.....and more fabric...

It is 7:00AM in Phnom Penh and I am excited and ready to go when Thida arrives at the hotel.  I have hired a car for the day which will take us to Saly’s village,  northwest of the city. Although it is just 50 kilometers away (30 miles), it will take us more than two hours to get there.  I remember how wonderful my first visit to Tramung Chrum was last May and I am expecting more of the same.  As it turns out, this day is even more amazing than my initial experience!

Around 30 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, past huge garment factories set back from the street, past the ever-present road-side markets, we turn west on a dirt road.  Rice fields, now dry and dormant and interspersed with copse of brush and trees stretch out on either side of the brown rural lane.

Woah! A cow darts out of the brush and nearly hits our car before making an abrupt u-turn back into the brush. Close call.  For the most part, we are alone on the bumpy road but occasionally we have to pull over for traffic.

After another 10 kilometers, we turn south onto a road that is rutted, and our driver, San, must be careful to avoid the frequent pot holes.  Despite the bumpy ride, it is a pleasant and peaceful trip. My mind drifts into low gear and I feel relaxed and calm.

As we approach the village, a small mosque built with support from the Lightman family comes into view where this road ends.  We turn right and head down the  narrow and sandy main road of the village for about 100 yards, to a cluster of homes belonging Saly’s family.   Saly is in front of her house, waiting for us to arrive.  I have a long list of items to cover related to the sewing business, but this is not America. We do not get down to work for at least another hour. After all, what is the rush? We have all day.

Saly’s father and mother welcome us and Thida interprets what they say. Saly’s father expresses his hope that what we are doing will result in jobs for his daughter and the other daughters in the village. He is reserved, yet I feel his sincerity. Saly’s mother gives me a brief hug and smile.  Saly decides we must eat breakfast and begins to prepare noodles and boiled beef.  She cooks in an iron pot over an open fire as we stand around and chat with family members and neighbors who wander over.  The mood is relaxed and unhurried.

Cooking fire used to prepare our breakfast

The women in Saly’s family are busy making a very special bread for the village’s traditional “Charity Celebration” to be held in two days.  Children hang out on the steps of Saly’s grandmother’s house and I recognize their faces from my visit in May. There is a beauty about these kids which is unforgettable.  Like their parents, they appear very reserved and somber-faced when meeting new people. I have noticed that it takes a long time for them to smile at a stranger. Showing them how to use a digital camera turns out to be a good ice breaker.

After our meal, I ask Thida to take a picture of a special occassion: Saly receiving the first actual profit from the business, $134.  This money represents what is left over from revenues after paying back loans to Harpswell for wages of $3/day for Saly and her assistants, and for materials. It is a start!

Saly receiving first profit from the business: $134!

Now it is time to get down to business.  I have samples of purses I took from my closet at home to show Saly the quality of construction she must be able to deliver if we are to grow the business.  No seams showing, high quality lining materials, no cardboard used in assembly. I agree to leave these purses with her for reference.

I also have some Cambodian-made silk purses with me, purchased at a boutique targeted at expats near my hotel.  The owner told me she made these purses herself.  We deconstruct the purses to find out what materials were used by the seamstress-owner.  Saly uses her seam-ripper to open up the handle of one of the items, a gray rough-silk rather large bag.  We are surprised to see that handle has been cleverly constructed of clear rubber tubing, similar to the tubing I used to attach to the air pump on my childhood aquariums. The tubing is wrapped in a thin layer of high-density foam.  Saly says that she can get the tubing at the market, but she has never seen the foam anywhere.  Thida begins making a list of the items we will search for at the markets in Phnom Penh tomorrow.

Another purse from the boutique has a flat, thick handle.  When Saly opens the seams, we find the foam again, this time a double thickness. The purse uses metal rivets as both decor and as part of its structure.  Thida translates that Saly used to apply rivets using a machine when she worked in the garment factory, but she has no way to secure a rivet in her home shop.  Will will ask about this at the market, and rivets goes onto Thida’s list.

On my “to-do” list is to understand what Saly’s trundle sewing machines are capable of. Yes, she can sew through thick interfacing, no problem. She shows me how she uses an iron, filled with hot coals, to fuse the interfacing to the fabric.

Iron used to fuse interfacing

The thick foam of the purse handle might be too much, so Saly does some testing.  I video her as she attempts to sew through the thickness of the foam and silk. She powers the machine using the trundle, and the machine runs smoothly as she pumps with her feet. The first try is disappointing but Saly devises a way to keep her finger on the pressure foot to exert a downward force, and….success!

Next on my list is to understand why some items in the order I received in January were very different that what I had described in my e-mail order and had carefully reviewed, over Skype, with the young man who was acting as our translator at the time. Saly simply says:  I thought that is what you said you wanted.

Some tenets of business are the same, no matter where you are in the world: communication is key!  Thida’s involvement is going to make a huge difference, as she understands the  subtilties  of the designs and the importance of fabric selection in terms of weight, drape and the overall “feeling” of the look. This is something that was impossible to describe to the male assistant, in English, over Skype!

Before leaving on this trip, my friend Nancy Barker introduced me to two women associated with Northwood University with expertise in textiles.  Mia Dvornic has a PhD in textiles and runs the Northwood Gallery in downtown Midland, and Jill Ouellette is associate professor and chair of the Fashion Marketing Program.  In the back room of Mia’s gallery, they showed me how to burn a fiber to tell if it is natural or synthetic, how to look for small hairs on cotton fibers, and pointed out the smooth mono-filament of a strand of silk.  After that meeting, I went home and burned fibers in the flame of a candle set on my kitchen counter for several hours. The house stunk, but I got the hang of it.  Mark and Kevin were happy when I was finished with THAT experiment!

I pull out the candle I brought with me and show Saly and Thida the technique. Natural fibers tend to self-extinguish and smell like burning hair, synthetic will sustain a flame as it melts.  We have some fun burning fibers as a few villagers and Saly’s mother and aunt look on.

We talk about the need to use high quality materials, even if they cost more, for one group of customers we refer to as the “sophisticated buyers.”  They will pay for quality and will not buy something if it looks like it will only last for a season.   But there is another group of customers who will buy interesting, unique items at lower prices, and don’t expect them to last a long time.  Thida translates and we make it simple on paper:  high ($$$ ), medium ($$), and low ($) customers.  Saly gets it. She is very perceptive and has a great memory, which helps to compensate for the fact that her reading skills are elementary and she never learned how to write. The school built by The Harpswell Foundation in the village was built in 2005 and Saly is 28 years old.  All her notes are in her head!

It is time for lunch, and we stand and stretch. We have been sitting on the floor for more than three hours and the time has flown by. Saly starts to cook over the fire again, this time we will have rice with pieces of boiled beef, carrots, and onions.   As we sit down to eat,  Saly’s mother appears with a section of a cow, slaughtered last night,  she has just purchased from a neighbor.  The hoof is still attached to the leg and and she sets it down on the platform used to prepare food.

Beef from cow slaughtered last evening

During the meal we compare ages of those in attendance. Saly’s mother is 53, I am 55, so I am her elder. We laugh. Although we cannot speak the same language, I feel a bond of trust developing between us.  After lunch we take time for some fun with the cow leg, and I video Saly’s mother making the cow jump.

We get back to business and for two more hours we work with the fabrics, discuss possible designs, and agree on some pieces Saly will make in the interim while I go back to the U.S. and gather forces to define the spring and summer product line.  We need  a designer but we won’t have one for this season, we are already very late in the fashion cycle.  The plan is for me to send designs and instructions within a month to Thida, who will work with Saly to understand the details of the plan and go to the markets with her to help choose the fabrics.  Laura Wolak, volunteer Apsara Creative Director: HELP!

It is time to depart for the two hour drive back to Phnom Penh.  Saly joins Thida and me in the car.  The three of us will go to the markets again tomorrow to look for items on the list Thida has been assembling. It has been a long day, but I feel good about what we have accomplished.  We are starting to feel like a team! We say our goodbyes and agree to come back to the village on Thursday to join in the  Cham “Charity Celebration,” which takes place once per year and apparently is a very special holiday.  It will no doubt be a very interesting experience!

Saly's grandmother's house where Saly sleeps

Saly's workshop at the front of her parent's home

Saly and her father

Marie with new friend, Saly's mother