From the buzz of construction to the coffee-shop chatter, it’s impossible to miss that Cambodia’s economy is growing up. With a median age of just 24, its population is maturing too; and it’s the children born during the country’s post-war stabilisation period that are beginning to shape the economic changes. But what direction are these rising young stars in the business field taking? And what is driving the nation’s young workforce, which is rapidly expanding as more and more Cambodians come of age?
Born in Siem Reap in 1976, Phloeun Prim moved to Canada aged three. He returned to his birth country in 1998 with a degree in International Management, and was one of the founders of the traditional crafts company Artisans D’Angkor. After making the company one of the country’s most successful social enterprises, he went on to become the executive director of Cambodian Living Arts.
“When I came back from Canada, there was opportunity in every sector and so much to do here. I really enjoyed the challenge of transforming and sustaining a vision,” he says of those times. With his years of experience expanding his portfolio and a team that includes many young recruits, Phloeun is one businessman who is very familiar with the challenges facing the generation of entrepreneurs that will follow him.
A generation of Cambodians with raw ambition
According to Phloeun, enthusiasm is not lacking in Cambodia. “Entrepreneurship is great – Cambodia is almost the El Dorado of entrepreneurs! It’s actually hard to preserve good staff as they all want to leave to start their own businesses. In the blood of every Cambodian is an entrepreneurial spirit.”
What is it that drives the youth’s go-getting spirit? Phloeun believes that it is simply “ambition – looking at what the country and their parents went through. Lots of people have come out of nothing to become very successful. The fast growing economy allowed that to happen.”
Nonetheless, he worries that this desire to better themselves may not benefit society as a whole.
“The young generation are very ambitious. The challenge for them is not just about defining success with wealth – but also defining success as thinking how you can give back to society, and how much you are also educating more people.”
Building skills and education to meet the market
In terms of the younger workforce’s skill set, Phloeun has found a mixed bag. “They’re very savvy in terms of information technology. Cambodia went through an online revolution driven by social media – people get so much information this way.”
At the same time, he is wary of the drawbacks of learning from the Internet’s throwaway culture. “I think one of the questions in this fast growing development is: How much depth and understanding do young people acquire? We had such a huge population peak from the early ’90s baby boom, yet there wasn’t a solid foundation to support this growth, as the generation before was busy rebuilding the country. The education system was weak. This young generation could do with really enriching themselves in terms of education and outlook.”
In his own business ventures, Phloeun has experienced these skill shortages first hand. “There’s lots of artistic skill here, but what’s lacking is [skill in] organisational roles in the arts field.”
Young professionals are changing the face of business
At the same time, he has also witnessed a recent burgeoning of ingenuity.
“Young people are beginning to look for a new model: new ideas, new visions, and a new creativity. A good example is the tourism sector. When I first arrived in Cambodia, everyone was very traditional or else copied international brands, but what I see now is plenty of boutique hotels driven by young Cambodian entrepreneurs who have brought their own tastes, a mix of traditional and modern elements. They’re setting up their own style, and soon we’ll start to see a whole new aesthetic.”
For those who’ve not yet been set alight by Cambodia’s creative fields, it’s exciting stuff. And this creative vision is beginning to be felt in the business sector.
“We’re looking for a new model of leadership – in society, politics and business. Local companies like Lucky and Brown are catering towards the younger growing middle class and have been able to position themselves very well, giving a modern experience to shopping and eating.”
His advice to people starting out is simple. “There’s a transformation going on – you want to be part of this wave of change. But we have to have a conscience in how we deal with business – not just the success of wealth, but achieving social change. If you can combine that together, that’s where your success as a young Cambodian entrepreneur will be.”
Text by Eve Watling | Photographs by Dylan Maddux & Conor Wall