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Siem Reap, Cambodia – Asia’s Laboratory For Social Business?

by on September 5, 2012

in Cambodia, Inspiration

Siem Reap has a lot of exciting stuff going on from a social business point of view. I’ve never been somewhere so full of social businesses.

What’s a social business? To me, it’s a business that exists to benefit a cause, a community, or humanity instead of maximizing investment return for shareholders. Or, put another way, the shareholders in a social business are all of society. This was a particular interest of mine while in business school, so it was really exciting to see it taking place here.

In Siem Reap it seemed like I couldn’t walk more than a couple minutes without finding a social business.

Below are some of the social businesses I encountered.

Artisans Angkor

Artisans Angkor's Mission

Artisans Angkor’s Mission

Started in the late 90’s, Artisans Angkor is an organization that sought to link the rebuilding of the post Khmer Rouge economy with the surplus of rural youth without many opportunities with preserving Khmer culture.

They developed their own training and development program in accordance with Cambodian culture. The main workshop is in Siem Reap, but there are rural workshops in many underprivileged villages outside the city. The organization’s profits are used to develop more of these workshops in new villages.

Artisans Angkor has become a showcase of Khmer workmanship for its silk fabrics and garments, stone and wood carving, lacquer ware, polychrome products, silver plating and silk painting. And the employees are a part of the success as they are paid fair wages and together are 20% owners of the organization. Thus, they are not just employees – they are also part-owners and can have a say in the future of the organization.

Below are some pictures from my visit to the workshop and store.

Common Grounds

Common Grounds Cafe

Common Grounds Cafe

I found Common Grounds by accident. I saw a sign that said “Every Dollar we earn makes a difference in the life of a Cambodian.” I was intrigued, thirsty, and hot. Going inside seemed like the only natural thing to do.

I later had a meeting with someone working there and found out a bit more about the organization. The mother organization is called People For Care. They are “dedicated to serving the poor by helping children, widows and their communities worldwide reach their full potential by giving the poor a working chance.”

They set up the café in Siem Reap. Of course, it employs local people and gives them a way to support their families. They also teach English and do a variety of activities for the community. Oh, and of course the coffee is sourced locally via fair-trade through Three Corner Coffee.

But all the profits from the organization go to Build A City. Build A City is building a city from scratch for over 6000 displaced Cambodians near Phnom Penh. Apart from providing free housing (check it), they are also building schools for the youngsters, job training centers, medical clinics.. they are building a city from scratch!

But as you can see, they are building it with sustainability in mind so that after the organization leaves they are self-sustaining.

Common Grounds Mission

Common Grounds Mission

Common Grounds

Common Grounds

Massage By The Blind

Blind Massage

Blind Massage

These organizations have put the surplus of blind people to work by training them to be masseuses.

Why are there a surplus of blind people in Cambodia? Landmines.

So obviously, in a place with no disability assistance from the government, losing one’s sight can quickly take you from being a productive member of the family to being a huge burden. These organizations help restore their dignity and earning power by giving them gainful employment that helps the blind and their families.

Presumably, since they’ve lost their sense of sight their sense of touch is more attuned to the needs of the person being massaged.

Blind Massage

Blind Massage

Blind Massage

Blind Massage




This is another café I visited a few times while in Siem Reap. Their profits go toward a shelter for girls aged 9-19 who have had it rough and need to escape their varying realities – from being forced into child prostitution, abuse from family and neighbors, and other horrors.

The shelter provides food and shelter, but also vocational training, love, therapy (art therapy as well), English and computer classes, and more.

The goal is to help the girls get their dignity back and lead productive adult lives. According to a sign in the restaurant, they are the only sponsors of the shelter at the moment.


I could go on and on as Siem Reap was full of these businesses focused on people and society instead of return on shareholder investment.

I’m sure other cities have more organizations doing social business, but given how small Siem Reap is, it’s hard to ignore the impact these initiatives have on the local community – especially since Siem Reap province is one of the poorest in Cambodia despite the richness of the incredible Angkor Wat.

I feel like Siem Reap is a laboratory of sorts. They are putting social business to the test. Normal businesses are measured quarterly and expect consistently good returns. The problem with social businesses is that the time horizon is years, decades, and more.

One of those girls in the shelter NYDC is contributing to could be Cambodia’s prime minister someday. One of those Angkor Artisans could be the Pablo Picaso of Khmer arts and crafts. One of the children growing up in the Build A City ecosystem could become a civil engineer and revolutionize the science of low-cost housing.

You never know.

At a minimum there are no downsides to these social businesses. All contribute positively to their communities. But the multiplier effect, the effect of all these people being touched by the awesomeness and kindness of others.. That’s something you can’t measure. But being here, I can promise great things will come as a result of these initiatives – far beyond the wildest dreams of those involved today.

About Adam Pervez

In mid-2011 I left my cushy corporate job and took the plunge into a life incorporating my passions of traveling, writing, volunteering, learning, educating, and telling stories. I study what happiness means to others, offer what I can from my engineering/MBA background as a volunteer, and try to leave each place better than how I found it. Read more.

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