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Looking for the local hero

Executives open learning center in Cambodia

On May 2, 2014, ten managers entered a yellow-painted building in Cambodia, about 10,000 kilometers from here: Düsseldorf, Germany. They were surrounded by hundreds of children, who also wanted to see the building from the inside, which resembles a library: long rows of shelves filled with books sorted by topic and language. What connected them was their curiosity to discover the recently opened learning center in the rural town of Tonloab, Cambodia.

Education is valuable, but unfortunately not very common in the rural areas of Cambodia. Bringing education to one of these areas has for nine months been the ultimate goal of the General Management Plus Program participants, and became reality this May with the support of social enterprise BOOKBRIDGE, which builds learning centers in Mongolia and Cambodia. In the first three modules of the program, the participants gained knowledge on strategy, leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship. With this knowledge they created a business plan, generating a learning center that would be self-sustainable within one year (Business Impact Project). The fourth and final module was about implementing this concept in real-life on-site.

During the first module in September 2013, Carsten Rübsaamen, founder of BOOKBRIDGE, gave a short introduction to Cambodian culture. This was the starting point for establishing conference calls on a regular basis to discuss the status of the Business Impact Project. “First, we split up into working groups that would focus on different topics”, Rebecca Stallbaumer says, who participated in the program. “It was necessary to find out what the community needed. One team looked for the ´Local Hero´, who would be responsible for the learning center in the future. Another team was responsible for finding a suitable building and the third team focused on marketing and communication.” Making time in the evening for the conference calls after a long day of work in their full-time jobs required discipline and organization from each participant. During the preparation period, the group experienced the ‘investor pitch’ as one of the highlights of the project, presenting their business plan successfully to their investor ´UBS Foundation´. Another highlight was the message coming from Cambodia three weeks before the opening, that they had won Vannak Pen, who is a small businessman from the area, as Local Hero for the learning center.

“It was quite a team challenge for us when we were in Cambodia”, Stallbaumer admits. The participants had only met and got to know each other during the modules on the Campus in Düsseldorf; one week together in Cambodia with oppressive and hot weather, different hygienic conditions, and a strenuous agenda would be something completely different. “Though, we worked together well as a team, because we knew each other’s strengths. For example, we had a designer and a civil engineer in our team, who then took on the job of planning structural modifications for the inside of the building” Stallbaumer says.

The learning center is located in a school building in Tonloab in the province Takeo and gives access to books in English and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and to computers that were donated by the company of a program participant. The local ministry of education helped the participants with finding an adequate location. Moreover, it was not always easy to cope with the different cultural values – the team was set up very informally: every team member had much autonomy in their respective area of responsibility. But when dealing with local contacts, hierarchy, and protocol often played a large role. “This became clearly visible during the opening ceremony”, tells Stallbaumer with a smile. “About 300 guests listened to the speakers, who were allowed to talk in a certain order, and there was a strict seating plan.”

The implementation of the Business Impact Project in an emerging economy and the trip to Cambodia was an unforgettable learning experience for the program participants, who come from South Africa, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil – not only for their personal lives but also for their future leadership tasks within companies. To conclude the project in full, the project team still has two tasks to complete: to hire a librarian and to arrange fundraising for scholarships for children and adolescents of socially deprived families, so they can enter classes given at the learning center.