What it means to be a social entrepreneur for six months

Students looking interestingly at our Takeo Learning Center flyer
Cambodian students looking interestingly at our Takeo Learning Center flyer

Delphine Ziarovski was participant of the 2nd Capability Program that led to the reopening of our learning center in Takeo, Cambodia. In this post, she describes her impressions and feelings during the six-months programm.

It all started in October 2012: I travelled to the newly opened campus of the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Düsseldorf, being very excited to meet my future team colleagues from England and Scotland. Together with them, I would spend the next six months working on what would become one of my most memorable experiences – setting up a social business in an emerging economy.

This experience would not have been possible without the social enterprise BOOKBRIDGE. It offers a unique and innovative leadership program that assigns its participants the task to conceptualize and implement a learning centre as a social business in a real-life environment for a community in Cambodia. The specific challenge: it should be self-sustainable within one year whilst creating a sustainable and long-lasting impact on the community people’s future lives.

Highly motivated after the first workshop meeting
After our first workshop meeting, we were highly motivated to engage into our social business project!

About more than two years ago, I started to get involved with the topics of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. At the same time, the idea of engaging in a project beside work where I could contribute to create a positive impact – even very little – had been going through my mind. There is no coincidence in life: when I heard about BOOKBRIDGE’s program last year, I instantly decided to take part in this extraordinary experience and to step into the shoes of a social entrepreneur for six months beside my work at PwC.

What is a social entrepreneur? Probably one of the most famous social entrepreneurs is Muhammad Yunus who founded one of the first microfinance institutions, the Grameen Bank, and gave a clear definition of it. Social entrepreneurs drive social innovation and transformation in various fields such as education, health and environment with entrepreneurial zeal, business methods and the courage to innovate and overcome traditional practices. A social entrepreneur, similar to a business entrepreneur, builds strong and sustainable organizations, which are set up as a social business.

Delphine during the set-up of the project plan for our project and the presentation to the team
Delphine during the set-up of the project plan for our project and the presentation to the team

After the team got to know one another in October and introduced itself to the entrepreneurial BOOKBRIDGE team, the local Country Manager and our two business coaches who would follow us throughout the entire project, the challenging startup journey could start!

Our learning center was to be set up in Takeo, a very rural area of Cambodia which lies approximately 80 km southwest of the capital Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, education was dealt a severe setback in Cambodia, and since then access to quality education is still very limited. Our local market research has shown that young Cambodians also lack guidance in deciding what to do after school and do not know much about the employment possibilities in their own country.

Facilitating the on-site workshop to define next step after project implementation in Takeo
Facilitating the on-site workshop to define next step after project implementation in Takeo

Based on that and on the fact that education is not only about reading and writing but also about the skills every person needs to live her life in a self-determined way, we developed the idea of combining course offerings in English with the teaching of life skills in the areas of work and career. Thereby we would not only have a USP compared to our competitors but the ultimate goal in doing so was to contribute to improving people’s life chances and empowering them to take responsibility for themselves and their community. No sooner said than done: we shaped and re-shaped our business model several times and created the business plan including the financial planning, which rapidly convinced our local stakeholders – the BOOKBRIDGE Country Manager and the Provincial Department of Education – and our investors during the pitch.

Next to our business plan, we also designed a training program for our future learning centre staff and developed ideas for additional services that the learning center could offer in the future to generate further revenues and expand its impact such as mobile learning for instance, as it already exists in other emerging economies such as Brazil. We finally covered the human resources function, dealing with the recruitment of and training of the new staff members, and also the marketing activities to promote our newly offered activities to the local community. All this was developed over a few onsite workshops and many conference calls in a virtual teamwork setting due to the very international set-up, which was also challenging but very instructive. I personally found myself being responsible for the project management and finance stream: I elaborated the business plan and conducted the investor pitch together with one of my colleagues and was chosen by the team to act as a team leader during the on-site project phase in Cambodia.

Painting a world map on one of the classrooms’ walls
Painting a world map on one of the classrooms’ walls turned out to be one of the best ideas for the students to learn about the world!

The highlight of the program was definitively our trip to Takeo in February 2013. The difference we made there in a short lapse of time is nothing short of amazing. We renovated and set-up the whole classrooms, met with our partner, the Provincial Department of Education, conducted several interviews to recruit our ‘change manager’, the Head of the learning center, that we were very lucky to find, and the part-time teacher, initiated first marketing actions and organized the opening ceremony. Sreydiep, a local university student, acted thereby as our guide and interpreter when conducting business and meetings with the local people.

During our stay in Takeo, we had the chance to be thereby fully immerged into Cambodian rural culture. We experienced a total change of scenery which for some of our team members was synonymous with real adventure. We lived with a homestay family, traveled with the Tuk Tuk every morning and evening to and from the learning centre, and experienced the most authentic situations of Cambodian everyday life. Anyone who has already seen a whole family on one moped will know what I mean!

A team photo shot at the end of opening ceremony
A team photo shot at the end of opening ceremony – we were happy with what we have achieved

What has this program brought to me?
The BOOKBRIDGE Capability Program has been an unique experience in my life so far that I can definitively recommend. More than that, it was a transformational experience and definitively left a mark on me. Of course I was able to experience entrepreneurship in a real international business environment, and I can transpose the skills I learned during those six months into my daily work. But above all it enabled me to create a positive and sustainable impact and to realize that everyone has the extraordinary potential to make things change positively. And the best of course was to get there, to Takeo, to really understand the impact we have been creating there. Many pictures of Takeo will always remain in my memories – the smiling faces, the eyes full of gratitude and the words of happiness expressed by all the Cambodian people I met at the Learning Centre.

Congratulations after opening ceremony
After the opening ceremony the team gathered together and wished our newly recruited manager and part-time teacher a good start!

But also many situations will remain in my mind, as that little Cambodian boy who, after the opening ceremony was over and we were about to pack, arrived in the learning center and took a book from the shelves and started to read it in front of us. Once he had finished, he closed the book, and I asked him: “What’s your name?” “Sokhom”, he said, and added “This means happy in English”. I had to smile. Then I asked him: ”And are you happy to be here in the learning centre?” He said: “Yes” and smiled now. “In our town there is no other place to come to read or borrow books, and I am happy to be able to come here”. I felt joy in my heart after all this work. This is what it is to be a social entrepreneur! Thank you to the BOOKBRIDGE team for making me experience it!

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