Empower At-Risk Girls in Cambodia

by Senhoa Foundation
Students from the Alchemy Project with Senhoa
Students from the Alchemy Project with Senhoa

Sydney Scherr is a a jeweler and jewelry design professor at Raffles College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A few years ago she started a project (the Alchemy Project) to teach sustainable jewelry design to victims of sex trafficking. She leads groups of students to instruct and create designs through simple techniques so that they can earn a living. In 2012, Sydney and a group of her students came to Siem Reap and taught our artisans at Senhoa new techniques and donated tools that they sourced locally. She and her students loved the experience and returned to teach another workshop in September 2015. This is her relfections from the week with our artisans.


Time has transformed Senhoa, and the young women associated with the program. In 2012 the emphasis was on working with women recently rescued from the bondage of human traffickers. This premise dovetailed perfectly with the intent of the Alchemy Project: to teach skills that create an economic alternative to what has been the hard reality of the young lives impacted at the hands of traffickers.


Returning to Senhoa in 2015 reignited the Alchemy Project. This was a joy and a gift. For Senhoa the new direction is one of looking at the future and not focusing on the past. The young women are thriving and clearly moving beyond their history. These women continue to be my heroes as they embody hope: it resonates from their warmth and their gracious laughter and wide open hearts.


Without a doubt the young women we went to Cambodia to teach taught each of my students and myself more of what it means to be grateful in our lives than we were able to teach them about jewellery. The women of Senhoa taught us about living with little and feeling abundance. My students and I found the Senhoa students eager to learn. And eager to laugh. The warmth that was expressed between all of us was genuine and full of acceptance. Through this we found we had common ground: there are few who come through life without a story that touches someone’s heart and we felt the thread that joined us in spirit.


Senhoa has made a remarkable difference in the lives that it touches. The women are paid employees, making beautiful beaded jewellery. They are appreciated and cared for. They are valued-the very sense of self-worth I hope the Alchemy Project can also bring to their experience, and to others who survive the unfathomable. It is the intent of the Alchemy Project to advance their jewellery making knowledge so that if they chose to venture out on their own, in their own business, they will be better able to realize that dream, with knowledge, tools and metal provided to them as a humble beginning.


The women of Senhoa, over the years, have taught me many lessons. That a bright future is rich and alive in the pulse of women and that being valued, and valuing ourselves, matters. That we can choose not to be victims of our history. Their young lives matter, and on a personal note: their lives have mattered to me unfailingly.


I learned where hope lives.

Hope lives in the eyes of the young women of Senhoa and The Alchemy Project.

Sinoun with our artisan students
Sinoun with our artisan students

The Senhoa Jewelry Social Enterprise strives to support its artisans beyond stable employment. With the help of our Education Supervisor, Sinoun, our artisans are also able to focus on personal development and basic education.

Most recently, Sinoun facilitated a goal-setting workshop with the artisans.  She wanted the artisans to set clear goals for both their work and personal lives. “Without goals, you’re only maintaining a life, a life with no direction,” said Sinoun. By setting goals for both their professional development and personal development, the artisans learn to take initiative. “They can come into work and be told what to do and go home. Or, they can come into work and understand that there is room to grow and excel within this social enterprise.” These goals were set with a detailed action plan to achieve within a certain time frame. They also discussed how to determine what goals are realistic within different constraints such as time.

To empower at Senhoa means to provide a supportive environment where an artisan is motivated to learn, make mistakes, and reach their goals – no matter how small or big. “There was one artisan who stood out from the others for me in this activity,” shared Sinoun. “Her goal was to completely learn the newest jewelry collection arriving the following week. For her action steps, she had in place that she would review her own pieces first before the quality check by her supervisor. She wants to take responsibility for her pieces and make sure it’s done well before receiving feedback from the leader. She’s learning to recognize her own mistakes and this way she can learn even faster than having someone else critique her.”

With each step taken to reach their goals, these artisans take more and more ownership of their lives towards whatever direction they desire.

Our 2013 Impact Report is now available, and we would like to share it with you as well as this letter from our Executive Director, Lisa TD Nguyen:

Thanks to increased funding by our coporate partner, Normerica, Inc., and its inspirational CEO, Mr. John Kimmel, we doubled service users in our early intervention program in 2013. A playground was added to our Lotus Kids' Club by the team at Solera, Inc., for the children to further build their motor skills. To prepare for the opening of a second LKC, we underwent monitoring and evaluation of our program model by partner agency This Life Cambodia.

2013 also saw the Senhoa jewelry program continuing to blossom. Senhoa jewelry graced the stages of Freedom and Fashion and Orange County Fashion Week. We ended the year with Senhoa jewelry receiving the prestigious SOURCE Award at the House of Lords in London conferred by the Ethical Fashion Forum, a global award for sustainable and ethical fashion.

At Headquarters, 2013 was also a transformative year. We tightened our reporting and financial policies and procedures. TDL International Law Firm came on board as Senhoa's corporate counsel, and Harper & Harper Tax and Accounting Services was engaged to manage our bookkeeping. With the support of these two valuable partners, our goal at Senhoa Foundation is complete transparency and meticulous management of our supporters' donations.

The hard work of our staff, volunteers and donors was rewarded when the Girl Effect selected Senhoa as one of twelve fantastic girl-centered projects to support. Of the twelve organizations, Senhoa was chosen as one of three to receive the Crystal of Hope award and a share of the €100,000 endowment. This was presented in Vienna, Austria on May 25, 2013 at the Life Ball. The lavish ceremony took place in front of 40,000 people and was broadcasted live on television in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, as well as live-streamed on the Internet. I had the privilege of representing Senhoa Foundation to accept the award, which was presented by Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank and before notable guests such as Bill Clinton, Elton John, Fergie and Aishwarya Rai.

There were some amazing accolades in 2013, and we are humbled by the recognition. However, the challenges have also been the greatest that we have faced so far in the organization. I want to personaly take this opportunity to thank the people who have stood behind this organization and its mission during its highs and especially during its lows. I am grateful and indebted for your friendship and loyalty.

The girls practicing their art of Mehndi skills
The girls practicing their art of Mehndi skills




33 young Cambodian girls screamed these words over and over as a mantra to start a new day at our new “EmDidi” Vocational Training Program, to learn the art of threading and the art of Mehndi, becoming the first generation of trainees to provide both services in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Senhoa and Shinta Mani Foundation interviewed and recruited the girls--young women who have experienced exploitation or are vulnerable to exploitation—to see if they were fit for our new program and to be able to offer them the opportunity to have a safe and secure route to generate income and economic independence.

Ziba Beauty, one of the top academies in the world for threading and Mehndi training (body artistry with Henna), with the energetic impulse and admirable passion of the CEO Sumita Batra and her sister, Suman Patel, came to Cambodia with a team of experts to give the girls the opportunity to be trained to a U.S.-standard of beauty and customer service.

The results were marvelous! Scared and quiet faces were turned into friendly and professional attitudes. The trainers expressed enthusiasm every second, wanting to capture on every scene the hunger to learn from the girls while the trainees were absorbing every step of the courses, learning every level of these unique skills.

Of the recruitment process, most of the girls’ thoughts were “It looks so difficult, I’m not going to make it” and “…mmm… I… could… try…”… but what they didn’t realize is that every learning process happens slowly if your heart is in it, step by step. Suddenly, after five hard working days full of laugher, practice, extra courses of make-up, grooming, customer service, etc., they were agile on the techniques with the thread and the henna cones. From their own hands, amazing designs were created, touching other people’s lives. “Yes! We can!” the shouts echoed during our one big group hug on graduation day.

33 girls received not just their training certificates, but also a sister, a family, a support system. “Em” in Vietnamese means “young sister” and “Didi” in Hindi means “older sister.” Every girl chose their Em or their Didi in order to keep practicing, to help each other… to share skills and experience, which later on, they will share, passing down the knowledge to their sisters as Ziba did with them.

To start a new market in a country where these skills are unknown is not a piece of cake. It required a lot of preparation, logistics and understanding of the culture, addressed with loads of courage and passion from the three partners: Senhoa, Shinta Mani Foundation and Ziba Beauty. Mehndi designs were adapted to Khmer culture and a course was taught on the historical background of where these two artisanal skills came from and their meaning. The best part of the whole experience, however, was to encourage the girls to believe that they are able to learn, they are able to do it well and are able to start down a professional path on their own.

“Yes! We can!” was shouted with tears in their eyes and a big smile on their faces. “Yes! We can” was a declaration to the world to demonstrate that the art of beauty is not superficial; the art of beauty is a deep understanding of our own roots, how deep they will expand to find the water to keep growing. The art of beauty is embracing ourselves, transcending with long and strong branches. The art of beauty communicates your true soul.

To empower is the big challenge in Cambodia, especially in a conservative culture where a woman has to fight hard for her spot and own voice in her society. Senhoa is working every day to give them a chance to demonstrate how skillful they are and how brave they have become. We have continued to provide technical English courses, social work follow-ups, online trainings with Ziba’s team in California, advertising amongst local hotels and spas on their services and encouraging the daily practice of their skills, as well as acknowledge their inner strength.

We invite you to learn more about Senhoa’s new and exciting adventure and to support our mission to Employ, to Empower and to Emancipate young Cambodian girls in their new paths as entrepreneurs because “YES! WE CAN!”

Graduation Day: Yes, We Can!
Graduation Day: Yes, We Can!

A few months ago, I would not have believed that I was going to spend my day-to-day with a group of young girls who are real examples of success, the real lotus flowers. Four months ago, I landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia, without knowing what to expect: in my head, the words “management,” “evaluation,” “finance,” “artisans” and “monitoring” were circling around and around, always thinking in terms of numbers, challenges, aims, results, results, results… then, 12 young girls - the amazingly talented jewelry artisans – turned my thoughts into “hope,” “dreams,” “team,” “thrive,” “future” and “yes, we can!” I am Allin Delgado, Country Director of Senhoa in Cambodia, a Mexican learning every day from 12 beautiful lotus flowers and the most passionate and committed staff ever!

I started working with Senhoa in July 2014 and was lucky to be witness to one of the Jewelry Program’s biggest milestones yet in Cambodia: our launching event of the Senhoa Jewelry Brand in Siem Reap. Since 2010, and through many challenges, we have transitioned from being an NGO with a Vocational Training Program for at-risk Cambodian and Vietnamese women, into a social enterprise. The main goal for many non-profits, we have achieved it.

Throughout the past 4 years we have provided our artisans guidance for personal and professional development, opportunities and tools to reconstruct their self-confidence. Senhoa has been working hand-in-hand with each one of the girls not just teaching the most advanced skills in jewelry making, but seeking to revive “that” spark in their eyes when they dream about the future and they express “It is possible.”

Senhoa, as a whole organization, has been a role model for the girls as well: changes are always for the better, changes lead us on our way, changes represent development and a clear path to walk on. Thanks to an amazing team in California, our partners and supporters - like Global Giving - that have been working very hard to fundraise for the Jewelry Program, Senhoa in Cambodia has a new office with a spectacular showroom displaying every piece of our collections and the artisans’ original jewelry line called “OOH - Our Own Hands.”

Also, the artisans are working in their new design studio since August – upstairs from Senhoa’s office – with a beautiful view to the Siem Reap River, a workshop that is a safe haven where they can share their dreams, where they can break the barriers of dreaming higher, where they can trust that Senhoa is not “just an employer” but an organization that will push its own limits to give them the quality of life, support and life and professional skills that they need to become empowered women and, why not, young entrepreneurs, jewelry or fashion designers, their own brand.

Khmer society, as I perceive, is a little bit reluctant to changes, maybe due to the heartbreaking history. During this moving process, plus a new Country Director, production on our new EM Collection, the day-to-day challenges of any start-up, and a new Production Coordinator - who, by the way, was one of the artisans! -, the girls and the staff were confused of what was happening. It has been a constant learning process for all of us to cope with the changes and understanding that those changes symbolize Senhoa’s development. But like the lotus flowers they are, they emerged successfully from changes and realized that all this means: “maybe I can learn sales and improve my creativity for new designs…” or “look! That is my piece that is being sold!”

Now the artisans have a small Sales Team composed of artisans who are interested in learning sales skills, customer service and practicing English with visitors and clients. The Designers Team is encouraged every day to draw, imagine, research on internet and create their own designs and teach the rest of the girls. With the help of Dara, our Social Worker, the girls have daily counseling. Senhoa wants the best of the best for the artisans, and we are on our way.

The girls achieve small goals every day without them even noticing; just 2 days ago, the quietest girls, always afraid to speak, introduced themselves to a visitor – in English! –laughing and without hesitation. These small achievements are the whole reason why Senhoa keeps growing, including them in Senhoa’s self-development: they haven’t pictured that, what comes from their own hands, is an astounding and glamorous product in which - we believe - belongs to the high fashion industry and runways around the world.

Now, they are in the process of believing it: they are skilled, they are capable, they are dreaming, and Senhoa trusts in their capacity. Small steps are leading them to learn more new skills, like *Sara*, who has become a Production Coordinator since September; She is now creating reports, Excel spreadsheets, emails in English, etc. all that combined with studies preparing for University next year!; or like *Tanya* who was a very bright but rebellious girl, recently became a Supervisor. She checks quality control and teaches the girls the more intricate techniques. Her compassionate manner and her leadership skills are blooming. She is becoming a wonderful team leader and extremely responsible!

We are committed to improving these wonderful 12 lotus flowers’ lives and, hopefully, more in the following years. What I have found during these past 4 months is that Senhoa’s Jewelry Program is not just a Vocational Training Program, but a whole package of resources, tools and support guiding these young ladies to believe in their capacities, to believe that they are beautiful inside and outside, to believe that they are already on the way to empowerment, and to believe that all Senhoa’s team believe in them.

*Names were changed.

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Organization Information

Senhoa Foundation

Location: Huntington Beach, CA - USA
Website: http://www.senhoafoundation.org
Project Leader:
Lisa T.D. Nguyen
Executive Director
Artesia, CA Cambodia
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