Empower At-Risk Girls in Cambodia

by Senhoa Foundation
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.

My name is Sylvia. I work in Senhoa's Head Office in Huntington Beach, California but was given the privilege and opportunity to lead the jewelry program, in Cambodia for 6 months. I eagerly accepted and am forever grateful for the experience. Beyond living in a new place, being immersed in a new culture daily and seeing our work as it is on the ground (and not just through daily emails and Skype calls to the field team), the intimate interactions with our field staff and service users and what I learned from them will forever stay with me. 

Acclimating to Third World conditions amidst a growing tourist town was a lesser challenge; cultural differences--how different from what you are used to in the Western world is not necessary worse or needs improvement--was slightly more difficult to grasp. Above that was the delicate balance between catering to our artisans' needs, extending continual grace and being sensitive to their situations AND managing a productive and efficient business and teaching the girls to be good employees and not coddle or debilitate them by allowing irresponsibility or bad habits to develop.

Leading the girls was an amazing, fun and challenging experience and there were many lessons to be learned. Possibly the most important lesson was a reflection of the girls' own experiences: healing and moving on from the past and looking forward to the future.

In our descriptions of what Senhoa does, we had always written that we support survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. We said that we are in a fight against modern slavery. We use bold and dramatic language that get our point across. We know that donors and supporters, particularly in the West, need to feel connected to a cause; they want to hear about the brutal stories. They want to feel like they are helping bring change to a harrowing cause. In short, we needed these strong words to sell and market our cause, to bring awareness to our mission.

Being in Cambodia, I felt differently. Those strong, dramatic words, describing the "victims" that we worked with and their situations, however true, were not helping us move forward. They were holding us back, continually labeling and exploiting the girls (although not deliberately), reminding them that this is who they are and where they've been. It is ok to acknowledge the past, but we must make efforts to move forward and look to the future. We need to focus on the girls' accomplishments, how far they've come, the dreams they want to pursue going forward. We need to empower them.

More than that, the girls were beginning to be more involved in the business, helping with sales, talking to customers at a weekend market we started selling their jewelry at. Visitors were coming into the design studio to see their artwork, to see them working hard at their craft, watch these amazing jewelry pieces being created by these talented girls. How could we continue to use the language that we used in front of the girls, whom we were teaching English to?

In July we had a launch event in Siem Reap for Senhoa Jewelry. Our artisans were all there, dressed to the nines and beautiful, so excited to watch the first-ever live fashion show they've ever seen. Better yet, this show showcased their work, their art. It was an incomparable experience watching the pride and sparkle in their eyes as 250 people gathered for an event to celebrate their work and their accomplishments.

We needed to do a short presentation before the fashion show which included a speech on what the Senhoa jewelry program was all about. It sounds rather silly now, given all of the different challenges I've faced since being in Cambodia, but I remember thinking in that moment of preparing for the presentation, I felt that THIS was the hardest moment. Figuring out what to say about the girls and this program when they are right there in front of you. In the past we have many scripts prepared, all utilizing the descriptions that I've provided above. But now, what to say to describe what we do and who we work with, when the girls are watching and listening to you?

We decided to say the truth, we work with young women who have gone through many hardships and have had few opportunities growing up. We are here to provide them with the tools they need to move forward from their pasts and live independently and take care of themselves and their families. And more than that, to live out their dreams.

Dreams are difficult to live out when you constantly hear these words about yourself. We cannot shield them from the words we use to describe our programs. We are not in the business of keeping them in the dark. As we learned this, we are effectively making efforts to change the language on our website and marketing channels to reflect change and moving toward the future and less on victimization and labeling. We are not perfect and are constantly learning, but we strive to inspire growth and make our girls feel comfortable, safe, happy and free.


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Organization Information

Senhoa Foundation

Location: Artesia, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​senhoa.org
Project Leader:
Lisa T.D. Nguyen
Executive Director
Artesia, CA Cambodia

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