When Treng Kuy Chheng looks back at her past, she wonders what she would be doing, had she not met Digital Divide Data (DDD), a non-profit organization whose goal is to empower Cambodia’s youth through digital training and employment.
Being Disabled in Cambodia
Chheng was born into poverty, and to make things worse she had polio when she was two. She survived but her illness left her with physical impairment and bleak prospects for the future.
Being disabled in Cambodia is often perceived as a tragedy and, among the estimated 700,000 Cambodians who are afflicted with disabilities, it is true that the majority do not fully enjoy their fundamental rights, and they often do not have equal opportunities for education or employment.
Chheng was rather lucky as her parents did not treat her differently from her siblings. In the morning she would sell vegetables at the family’s food stall; and in the afternoon she would go to school. However hard it may have been, it made Chheng believe in herself and her abilities. And the more the neighbors would stigmatize, pity or even discourage her, the more determined she was to succeed in life and not be a burden to her relatives.
This determination gave her the strength to look for employment after she graduated from high school. At the time, the economy was beginning to recover slowly, and landing the first job was very hard for everyone. For a disabled girl like Chheng, it was even more difficult, and, while she was searching for a professional opportunity, she experienced stigma, rejection, and discrimination. Before she started losing hope, she had the chance to meet with Digital Divide Data, which had been co-founded two years earlier by Jeremy Hockenstein.
In 2000, this young American traveled to Cambodia as a tourist. During his stay, he was not only struck by the level of poverty in the country; he was also impressed by the eagerness of the youth to learn and struggle to build up a better life. They would take computer and English lessons but in the end there was no job for them and they kept being trapped in an endless cycle of poverty.
In the meanwhile, the world was going global, and international companies started outsourcing low-skilled IT jobs to India. Hockenstein was a business consultant at McKinsey, and it did not take him long to figure out that he could replicate this model in Cambodia and use it to promote employment and empowerment for the disadvantaged youth.
A Study-Work Program
When she joined Digital Divide Data in 2003, Chheng had hardly seen a computer in her life. She had to learn everything from scratch, but she worked hard and soon she knew how to turn a computer on, enter data and master fast typing. She was also trained in English and soft skills (e.g., team work, self-confidence, management). After six months, she was fully operational and became one of DDD’s data operators.
For four years, she worked six hours a day to transform physical documents into searchable and digitalized archives for publishers, libraries, and companies all around the world. For her work she was paid a fair wage but she was also granted a scholarship to study at Pannasastra University, one of Phnom Penh’s best universities.
A Stepping Stone to a Brighter Future
With 400 employees, Digital Divide Data is today the largest technology employer in Cambodia, and in the past 13 years its impact sourcing model has had a transformative effect on nearly 2,000 underprivileged young adults, 10 percent of them being disabled.
Working at DDD is always a stepping stone to a brighter future. After they complete the program, graduates are either hired by the organization or they move on to other companies, where they earn more than four times Cambodian average salary. With this money, they can support their parents and enable their youngest siblings to get a proper education. In the long run they break the cycle of poverty that has trapped their family for generations.
As for Chheng, she has managed to make all her dreams come true. She wanted to study; she now holds a Bachelor’s degree in accounting and an executive MBA. She wanted to have a job; she started as an accountant at DDD and for the past year she has served as the finance and administration manager of a large electronic company. She wanted to see the world; in 2013, she went to Canada to participate in the Global Change Leaders program.
At 29, this highly successful woman keeps having new dreams! Today she wants to change the public’s attitude towards persons with disabilities and create real job opportunities for them. She believes they have the ability; they just do it in a different way. Just like her.
Daniele Adler is a consultant in communications strategy in Cambodia