Digital Divide Data: Cultivating Human Capital in Cambodia and Laos : Mai Siriphongphanh, Digital Divide Data

Digital Divide Data is the product of the collaborative entrepreneurial efforts of Mai Siriphongphanh and Jeremy Hockenstein. Though from dramatically different backgrounds, Mai and Jeremy are united in their passion for effecting social change through DDD.

Growing up as a young Laotian woman in a traditional family, Mai challenged the status quo all her life. She survived the country’s oppressive communist regime of the 70s and 80s, and pursued education defying her father. Later on, she moved to Australia to attend business school, hoping to cultivate skills that she could bring back to Laos to alleviate its poverty. In business school, she encountered the theory of social enterprise, and identified the model as what Laos needed to jumpstart its economy.

Upon her return to Vientiane, Mai sought out Jeremy and DDD, then in its embryonic stages in Cambodia and looking to open an office in Laos. Mai recognised this nascent model as the perfect platform through which to effect the change she knew was needed.

Jeremy too shared the same inspiration: he saw the potential for social enterprise as a tool to cultivate the human capital in Cambodia and Laos. From his childhood in Montreal as the son of a Holocaust survivor, through his education at Harvard and MIT Sloan and his work with McKinsey, Jeremy looked for a way to apply his business management skills to a meaningful cause. On a vacation to Angkor Wat, he was struck by the juxtaposition of internet cafes and English schools with the devastating poverty on the streets. With the eye of a business analyst, he recognised that the region had the same surplus of inexpensive labour that made India and China outsourcing stars, but none of their access to the global market. Jeremy felt that this work could be the heart of a social enterprise which would help southeast Asians break their cycle of poverty.

Taking a significant risk, Jeremy left a lucrative career as a consultant to establish DDD in 2001.When Mai joined Jeremy at DDD, she took this spirit of leadership even further by strengthening DDD’s social mission to focus on human development. She refined DDD’s social enterprise model, re-innovating it as a mechanism for training a new corps of leaders. By weaving personal development and leadership training into DDD’s mission, Mai and Jeremy have created a sustainable social enterprise that serves as a vehicle for human resource development.

In an interview with Digital Learning, Mai traces the vision of DDD, its activities and how it is successfully bringing about a transformation among the youth in Cambodia and Laos.

Please introduce us to the core idea of Digital Divide Data. What was the vision and objective behind its establishment?

Digital Divide Data (DDD) bridges the divide that separates young people from opportunity in Cambodia and Laos by providing disadvantaged youth with the education and training they need to deliver world-class, competitively priced IT services to global clients and acquire the essential business skills that help them break the cycle of poverty.  We are an innovative, internationally acclaimed non-profit organisation that operates with a strong business model and has already generated more than US$ 2.5 million in revenues. Our focus on economic sustainability allows us to reinvest our profits in social and economic programmes that deliver lasting change for our employees and their communities. Over the past seven years, we have trained more than 1000 people with marketable skills, and more than 200 of our staff have graduated from entry-level jobs to employment opportunities that earn them six times the average income in Cambodia.

What challenges did DDD initially encounter in the days following its set-up?

Our most challenges are how to move away from commodity work such as basic double entry to a higher-value work with high quality but can still be done by low-skilled people and how to develop and upgrade our local managers’ skills and knowledge to support our ongoing success and expansion.

The other challenge is how to set up sustainable sales function in the US and Europe.

In the last seven years since DDD started functioning, what are the changes that it has brought about in the lives of people associated or working with it?

In the past seven years DDD has been delivering the essential education, an invaluable first-job experience in the global economy, essential income, and management training that equips our staff with marketable skills.  The most important element of the DDD model – the empowerment of individuals and the shaping of leaders – is the hardest to quantify. What we have instead are stories: Naleak came to DDD’s Phnom Penh office disheartened; born disabled. She had only two fingers on each hand, barring her from better-paying office jobs. At DDD, she learned to challenge what others told her about the confines of her disability. She received the same training and attention as each of her peers, and within months became the fastest typist in the Phnom Penh office.

Heng grew up in relatives’ homes in Phnom Penh. Her father, a cigarette smuggler, was shot and paralysed when she was only 13, forcing her to skip school in order to sell bread in the market. Unable to afford university tuition, Heng sold rice to support her family until a friend told her about DDD. She worked at DDD for two years, developing technical skills and simultaneously earning her bachelor’s degree in computer science, one of the only women in her field. She now works as a master trainer of teachers in Cambodia, passing on her expertise to others. Every one of our employees has a story like these. While DDD’s figures point to our success, it’s in these private triumphs that we take the most pride.

Apart from employment, what kind of training is provided to these youths?

DDD recruits disadvantaged and disabled youth in Cambodia and Laos lacking educational or employment opportunities. By focusing on young, ambitious individuals from the poorest and most underserved segments of the population – orphans, rural migrants, formerly trafficked women and the disabled – DDD aims to maximise its social impact. Prior to their employment at DDD, young disadvantaged group join the DDD programme for 3-8 months to develop basic computer and English skills; they improve their typing speed and accuracy, are schooled in commonly applicable software, develop problem-solving skills, and practice their skills on closely simulated DDD jobs. Upon completion of the training period, students who meet DDD’s standards are hired to join the organisation as entry-level employees.

These employees split their days between on-site training and further education. They work six hours a day on actual client projects, closely mentored by experienced managers. To simultaneously foster these individuals’ broader potential as leaders, all employees are required to attend regular internal training workshops that focus on personal development and career management. Employees spend the rest of their days at school, earning their degrees in three to four years. This educati

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