I dedicated this summer, between quitting my job and starting business school, to expanding my global perspective. Five countries in two and a half months was Southeast Asia 101. Luckily I’m just getting warmed up. I plan to continue my global education with the Anderson Center for Global Management, making global management one of my MBA specializations.
During this summer’s adventure, I took a special, personal interest in Cambodia. While it is rich in natural resources and now offers cheaper labor than China, the recent and horrific chapter of Khmer Rouge has created a distinct business environment, both economically and culturally.
On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot rode through the streets of Phnom Penh as the new dictator of Cambodia and leader of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party of Kampuchea. He was only in power for four years, but managed to kill one fourth of the country’s population, roughly 2 million people, in a societal experiment gone terribly wrong. I feel a unique connection to this genocide – my father's best friend in high school was one of only six Americans captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge during their reign. Chris Delance was a sailor in the wrong place at the wrong time off the coast of Cambodia in late 1978. He was taken to the infamous S-21 prison, tortured, and killed shortly before the Vietnamese liberation in 1979.
When I arrived in Phnom Penh just over 39 years later, I had no idea what to expect from Cambodia. I found a vibrant country eager but struggling to offer a quality of life comparable to its Lao, Vietnamese, and Thai neighbors. To get a better sense of its economy and people, I had the priveledge to sit down with the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia, William Todd. We discussed economic opportunities and if Cambodia is ready for outside investment. The conclusion? Now is the time. There is too much instability and uncertainty for public companies to make large investments in Cambodia, but now is the time for entrepreneurs and private companies. Other places in Southeast Asia, like Singapore or Hong Kong, have extremely overinflated prices. Investment capital will go much farther in Cambodia because of the accessibility to inexpensive land and natural resources. However, investors should be prepared for a "rough and tumble" way of conducting business. Many deals are made off the books and paid with cash.
We also discussed mobile technology (an industy I am passionate about) and how it is changing Cambodia. Since the government heavily regulates all national media, people now turn to the Internet for a more unbiased news source. Facebook and other social media in the palm of one's hand is becoming a powerful tool for organizing on both sides of the political spectrum.
I left Cambodia feeling hopeful. It is up to the future generation of global business leaders to help Cambodia develop in a sustainable and prosperous way. After gaining a solid global foundation from Anderson, I look forward to being part of that solution.
Right Photo: S-21 photo of Chris Delance taken in 1978. (Documentation Center of Cambodia)
Below Photo: Ambassador William Todd and I at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia.