This is a single part of a series of stories of 21 women leaders of Cambodia. Download the full publication here.
Give a short introduction about your life (family, education, marital status) and how has your experience been as a leader and what achievements are you most proud of?
I am Ms. Limsan Pong, an MIS and Software Solutions Expert. I was born in 1980 in a rural village of Kandal province, Cambodia. I married Mr. Socheat Bin in 2006 and I have one daughter and son. After more than 10 years of deep involvement in providing MIS’s IT solutions consultancy services to government agencies, the World Bank, ADB, NGOs and private companies, I have learned that Cambodia and its region is in need of more young females to engage and be involved in the field of software and technology to fulfil community needs and to make a greater impact. Then I started discussing the need with my husband and kids about my dream to drive this mission for Cambodia and its regional community. Finally, my dream was agreed to and strongly supported. I first founded the First Womentech Asia Co., LTD. (FWTA) as a female-oriented IT firm in May 2013. It was a freelance team with five team members, including me, and since its founding, FWTA has gradually grown and is now legally registered with the government’s Ministry of Commerce. My dream of founding FWTA was based on the aim to get more Cambodian youth and professional female IT engineers on board so that it would enable us to deliver the best possible IT Solutions and Innovation tools to all of our clients, especially to female and young entrepreneurs in the healthcare and medical fields to help them grow and succeed in their businesses.
As founder and Chief Executive Officer of FWTA, I play a central role by overseeing the day-to-day operations of the company, including: networking for business growth, and supporting the product design and the technical product development of the company to meet highest international standards of quality and safety. At the same time, I have made myself available to provide outsourced consulting services for a number of government projects funded by the World Bank, ADB, international donor agencies/ communities, and NGOs through the joint sharing of expertise with local and international consulting firms since 2010. From 2006 to 2010, I was the MIS Specialist and IT Manager for the US based firm, Agrifood Consulting International, Inc. (ACI) and the Australian based company, Agricultural Development International (ADI). With both companies, I was hired to take on the main role and duties for MIS design and development, database management and IT solutions management. Since I am a committed and hardworking person, the founders and managing directors of the companies fully trusted me and believed in my capacity. Each company gave me a great chance to build my additional soft and hard skills in financial management, cash flow, human resource management and office administration management. In response to their trust in me, I performed my assigned tasks to the best of my ability, thereby allowing me to join hands with the company as one team to successfully handle and deliver all projects to Cambodia’s government and other Asian governments’ projects funded by the World Bank, ADB as well as international donor communities/ agencies and NGOs.
I started my career as a Database Manager and Secretary Accountant with a Denmark-funded project for Cambodia’s Forestry Administration after I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree. My main role was to design, develop and administrate the database of the project.
I graduated with my Bachelor Degree in Computer Science and Engineering in 2003 from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) and earned my Master’s Degree from the same university with the same major in 2006. I completed a one-year diploma in Business Administration from the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE).
Being a female leader of a tech company, FWTA, in a country where there is limited acceptance of professional women, is a tough job. However, I have overcome these challenges and particular environments to move forward toward pursuing my dream. I began by gathering people around me: colleagues, workmates and business partners to believe in my visionary thought, capacity and knowledge. I saw all of us, including me, as good workmates, friends and supporters rather than me as their leader. I realized that our success could not be demonstrated with talk, but by real actions that demonstrated and ensured that I could succeed and we, women, can succeed in tech leadership jobs where many people culturally and traditionally have viewed and valued many leadership roles as a man’s job.
With family, I need to balance and manage my time for work and family but luckily enough, our family culture is very different from most traditional Cambodians’. We go to work in the morning and kids go to school from morning until afternoon. We have lunch outside and return home in the evening. My husband has a sense of gender equality and is willing to promote women so I have less barriers to my work and business to meet my dream.
In my professional career, I am proud of being a role model for females in tech development and for young Cambodian ladies who wish to start a business, especially in tech. Also, a part of my business is supporting and solving business problems and assisting the growth of businesses, particularly for female and young entrepreneurs with businesses in healthcare in Cambodia. That is in line with my dream.
Engineer your own working culture, and you’ll achieve your ultimate goal.
When you first started out with your career, what were your most significant challenges?
I started my career as a database officer while doing other administrative duties in July 2003 with a government project funded by the Danish government based in the coastal province Kampongsom of Cambodia. I had to relocate to work and live far from my family. This was my first challenge to convince my family, especially my mother, that I could do it. My mother did not want me to go and work there as she worried for me. I had to work with the project for nearly three years before I could move back to Phnom Penh. While there I learned a lot during my first experience in the professional working world. I have worked very hard and did a lot travelling from the province to Phnom Penh because I did my Master’s degree on weekends and needed to come to work in Phnom Penh often. Finally, I successfully overcame my challenges and completed my professional mission with the project and I successfully earned my Master’s Degree in Computer Science and Engineering.
From that big kick-start experience, I have developed myself to a higher level as an IT professional. When I returned to Phnom Penh, I joined private consulting firms for nearly 4 years as an MIS expert providing consulting services to government projects funded by the World Bank, ADB, International donor agencies/ communities and NGOs. Prior to the founding of FWTA in 2013 and after that time, I was an MIS Consultant for various government agencies through joint collaboration and outsourcing with local and international consulting firms.
In my professional career as leader of a tech company and MIS professional, I faced challenges:
- Building a belief in people that I as a woman could also succeed in jobs considered men’s jobs.
- Convincing team members to believe in the value of the vision and ideas for company development and to join and contribute to make greater impacts on their community and their daily working life.
- Building trust with all business partners that women are able to lead a tech company and develop quality tech products to solve their business problems.
- Other challenges include differentiating between family and work, and childcare. As women, we have more work to do at home than men, even though we may have husbands who are aware of and sensitive to gender roles and gender inequality and who support more women taking roles in society.
- Cash flow management gave me a good learning experience on how to manage and ensure the survival of FWTA as we started and established the company with only US$5000.00 and a small loan from my sister. We did not have a big reserve fund to cover loss. I had a master plan for the business product and was able to provide input for product design and development, and I oversaw all product development. At the same time, I needed to go out to do some sales work and to do consultancy jobs to get money for the development of the company.
- Accessing sources of funding in order for companies to survive in their early stages as well as to support scaling of a company at the growth stage is a struggle for many businesses in Cambodia, including my company.
Over the years, what valuable lessons have you learned as a leader?
In my role as Chief Executive Officer of FWTA, I have learned great lessons from my daily job. As leaders, we need to have clear visions of the goals and mission of the of the business as the core strategies to lead the team to move forward together with us.
In the early stage of founding the firm, we have to be engineers and architects to design and to create a working culture, team-building and a working system rather than assigning someone else to do this work for us. But this has to be delegated to responsible people later on after the working culture has been well-cultivated and grown, thus allowing the system of work to strengthen and run smoothly without our guardianship.
Setting up the leadership team with the right mindset and faith in the mission and vision of the company is the core strategy to put the company on the path to growth. Accountability and the integrity of the leadership team are very critical areas where I need to pay attention as they are the core values for the success of FWTA.
An experienced leadership team with good soft and hard skills is very important for a company to grow. Any company without a well-established leadership team will find it hard to meet both a company’s vision and mission because leadership-oriented members are the inspiration of all staff to achieve the goals of the company.
A leader has to build a network as the network is the way to bring our mission, vision and products or services to clients and consumers, building trust with potential and present clients.
What are your core values and how do you ensure your team is aligned with your values?
The core values of FWTA are professionalism, quality and growth together. As leaders of the firm, we often discuss our mission, vision and core values with our employees to remind them of how to adhere to principles in their daily work as service providers to clients and in their private lives as well. As a tech company, we are very serious and strict about data security, data safety and the privacy of clients and clients of our clients. If they do not have good professionalism in their daily work, they will not care for product quality or the services they handle daily. Unprofessionalism will lead to negative impacts and destroy the reputation of the company and its clients.
To ensure that our team is aligned with our values, we need to be role models first and then make sure that our leadership teams are well aware of our core values and ensure that their team members under their leadership and supervision recognize and accept the core values as their own values, with pride in the office and in private life.
What are some of the behaviors or traits that you think are negatively impacting leadership?
It may be easy to say we are good leaders, but actually being a good leader in the real working world is easier said than done. I cannot lead FWTA to grow unless I have a good team behind me. From my personal experience as a tech firm leader, my biggest challenges are to work with people who are not accountable to jobs to which they are assigned and people with poor commitment and poor integrity at the workplace.
I have worked with many people in my professional life and I experienced working with different types of people from different offices. I have experienced working with irresponsible people and this makes my leadership weak and makes me feel exhausted because the assigned tasks cannot be completed by set deadlines, the quality of the work is very poor and the numerous problems cannot be solved on time.
In view of this experience, I often lead the organization with delegation. With delegation leadership, I need to groom leadership team members with a winning mindset, and hold them accountable to the assigned job, while maintaining the integrity to the mission, vision and core values of FWTA. This creates many challenges well before I can apply delegation successfully. I need to learn to spend time creating and setting in place a winning leadership team.
The environment can create a negative impact on our leadership, too. I myself tried my best to rise out from a social environment where women were not believed to be capable of leading modern tech firms. Many people believe that tech firms and programming leadership roles should only be for men.
In my leadership, the flow of information is very important. A good flow of information can help to enable the smooth running of the firm.
Working culture and environment often influence my leadership as well. If the working environment has no clear procedure and leadership, it will result in negative impacts on our job so I am very serious about the working culture, and systems to support the functioning of the jobs. These require having certain policies and guidelines to direct good leadership and management of the organization. These are often centrally applied at FWTA under my leadership.
What are you doing to continue to excel as a leader (leadership tips in doing business and promoting women’s economic empowerment or gender equality)?
As the leader of the company, we cannot do business for money only, because we are part of society. Doing business is for making a profit, but business practices must have ethics and we should never forget to address the social issues of the community where we live and do business.
I am dedicated to my dream, and the mission and goals of FWTA so that I can inspire my workmates and colleagues to believe in my vision and mission as well as to contribute their efforts as a joint force to actualize our dream.
We need to do what we love and care most about. If we don’t, our dream will soon vanish, demonstrating that we were not truly passionate from the beginning.
We have to be unique and creative in the business we do and it has to be innovative in the blue area. Successful businesses not only care about their products and leadership , but must also focus on cash flow management since networking is an important part in making your services and products reach your target audience.
No one is perfect and all challenges and failures should be seen as valuable lessons and opportunities to learn.
While doing business, keep learning and set long term visions because they are an inspiration for yourself, your team and your business strategies.
What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken in your career and how did they turn out?
I am not alone. Many entrepreneurs take risks similar to those I have taken so far. I started doing business while yet in debt and I acquired a loan from my sister to start my business. I also took a loan from the bank to buy a home at the same time. My husband and I worked hard to make enough money to pay our bills, interest on the money we borrowed, and family expenses. Sometimes we faced financial hardships when our sales declined and failed to meet our targets. Those were tough times for us as we struggled to keep our company alive and growing.
However, this period of challenges is nearly over and we are surviving at the moment because our loan obligations are almost satisfied. Fortunately, we have good products to deliver to our clients in the market. Now, we need to enrich our product features and enhance them to be unique and as comprehensive as possible to take advantage of the competitive market.
FWTA has survived for nearly 6 years and now we have 4 primary products in healthcare and hospital operating management. We expanded FWTA from a team of 5 people, including me, to a team of nearly 30 with the support of more than 200 clients from previous and current projects.
Another learning experience we underwent resulted from the fact that my husband and I decided to give up our secure, paid jobs to start our non-paying jobs at our own business. Sometimes this resulted in fights because of the financial hardship. At the same time we found solutions to many of the issues and problems we faced.
Due to love, commitment and passion to our dream, we confronted our challenges and continued learning from all the issues in our business. These are some of the lessons I learned and how we turned those lessons into opportunities.
What makes Cambodian culture unique and how do you think Cambodia can thrive in this age of entrepreneurship & dynamic leadership?
Cambodia is ranked as poor nation in the region but it is unique in many ways. Cambodia’s population is more than 6 million, and it is a beautiful county with nature and historic temples. Today, Cambodia can truly be considered a young country because it has a large young population. And these young people can be a driving force in Cambodia and help it develop onward. The world is becoming more global and technology is now driving today’s economy locally, regionally and worldwide. Therefore, Cambodia needs to prepare her young population and provide it with skills to meet the market’s demands in this global, digital era.
Cambodia should consider focusing more on developing a well-functioning entrepreneurship support system to assist the creative and innovative business startups of the younger generation, especially young female entrepreneurs so that they can leverage their concepts and businesses to make significant impacts on their community. Much of the younger population in the kingdom at moment is eager to apply concepts and ideas to bring about positive impacts but faces challenges in getting intellectual and financial support from private and government funding to test ideas and concepts.
While Cambodia is known as an agrarian nation, it has to invent new ways of doing business through tech integration in order to develop and meet the demands of global technology.
To adapt to this digital economy as outlined in the strategic plan of the government, Cambodia needs to focus and invest in its human resources through education and health because education and health are the fundamental needs to glorify and to transform itself from the least developed nation to an industrialized nation in the short and long term. For example, South Korea, India, and Singapore have lifted their people from poverty today by of investing in their people over the last 50 years.
What advice do you have for young Cambodian female entrepreneurs?
From my personal experience as a female entrepreneur, I would like to share some advice as follows:
- Doing business is not about the money only. While it must include making a profit, business must also address the social issues/ causes of your community and the world.
- All young females should have big dreams for their future. They should dare to make important decisions and know and manage their own destiny rather than giving in to someone else — be it mother, father or husband. While it is important to consult with them young females should make their own decisions. You have to be yourself with your own dream.
- From my failures and successes I learned that it is very important to become deeply involved, and important to create a working culture and system to ensure that you can let your firm run to meet your ultimate dream. If you are not the first engineer of your destiny and you let someone else engineer your working culture, you will fail to meet your ultimate goal.
- Setting up a winning team for your business has to be done in advance before your business begins and you have to get involved in all of the processes to ensure that they are in line with the mission, goals and core values of the company.
- You have to do cash flow analysis and be able to manage your finances. If you are not able to manage them, you need to find someone who is capable of helping you manage them for you.
- All successful operations of any organization are not about one person – you must create a team. As in a good play, one actor cannot play all characters; there must be different actors for the different character roles but one actor can fit maybe two characters if you wish to save expenses.
What I have shared here are lessons learned only. At present, I cannot consider myself a successful entrepreneur yet because I have a long way to go to meet my ultimate goal.
© Copyright 2019
This is a joint publication by Woomentum and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Download the full publication here.