Q&A with Female Entrepreneur Rachel Dodson of Penh Lenh

Rachel Dodson

Can you tell our readers about your background?

In my last semester of college, I snagged an internship at the top modeling and acting agency in Nashville, TN.  Three months into my internship, I was hired as a booking agent and six months after that, I was asked to take over the agency.  Yep, you read that right.

In only nine months of working there, I was asked to run the entire agency….like buy it out. I was in my last semester of college and I’ll never know why, but my parents thought it would be a good investment for my future so they decided to help me take out a business loan and purchase the agency.  

I would wake up at 5:00am to drive an hour to school, be in class from 6:00am to 8:30am and then go to run the agency from 9:00am to often 9:00pm. I was raised to believe that hard work was the only thing that would create success. I believed it and was definitely not afraid to work for what I wanted.

Fast forward a few years.  I sell the agency and I make my dreams happen of being an agent in New York City. As I began my new job and new life in New York, I also began learning about social justice issues. I learned of the atrocities of human and sex trafficking, exploitation, gender and race inequalities, extreme poverty, and more. I also began to have my eyes opened to how the very industry I was working in could often not only be conducive but further promoting these issues.  The more I knew and learned, the more conflicted I felt. Ultimately, I knew I had to leave the industry I had loved to be an advocate for change.

I moved to Cambodia in 2013 to start Penh Lenh and have been living here, doing what I absolutely love, ever since.  

What inspired you to start your business?

As I learned more about social justice issues and the lack of opportunities for marginalized and at-risk young women, specifically in Cambodia, I literally hit a point where I had to do something.  In college I studied business and marketing, so the idea of creating a social business was something that made sense to me and felt more sustainable in the long term. Penh Lenh truly became a reality and necessity after I travelled to Cambodia and felt the weight of the need for a business like Penh Lenh.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

First, I came to Cambodia for a short research trip to learn more about the culture and the potential and need for a business like Penh Lenh.  After deciding I would actually start Penh Lenh, I spent several month creating a business plan and training curriculum. All of which drastically changed once I actually came to Cambodia.  Starting a business in another country is so vastly different than starting one in the US. The first thing I had to do was humble myself and realize I knew a lot less than I thought I did. Next, I immediately started taking language classes to learn the local language, Khmer.  I then began to meet with anyone and everyone I could to learn about the local culture, customs, and the market. I met with any other businesses doing similar things, drove all over the city and went to other cities to get a feel for where the market was in terms of pricing, product offering, and styles.  Most importantly, I talked with our first artisans about what they needed and wanted from a job and training program. Listening was probably the most important key to our success in the beginning.

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?  

For the Cambodia market, the most effective way of raising awareness has been through word of mouth, participating in local events (like markets and fashion events), and partnering with local influencers to target the local market.  Oh and we’ve seen decent success with placing graffiti art around the city!

For the US and abroad, I feel like we are continuously figuring out what works and doesn’t work. We have found that securing larger brand partnerships has been essential in raising awareness.  Doing interviews (like this one) is always effective because not only does it raise awareness, but it helps educate the consumer on a deeper level. Word of mouth is always going to be huge anywhere.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

My biggest challenge at first was learning the local language, Khmer.  I was always so terrible at languages in school and I honestly think it was by the grace of God that I was able to learn Khmer so quickly.  Next, even though I have a Cambodian business partner here, it was still overwhelmingly challenging to navigate the system and figure out what needed to be done to become a registered business with the government.  Often the rules seem arbitrary and contradictory. It continues to be quite challenging.

How do you stay focused?

I consider coffee to be my not so secret super power.  Just kidding (kind of). To be honest, we all have those days where motivation is lacking or we just want to stay home and watch netflix.  But then I look around at my staff. I work with these incredible young women who have already overcome so much in their young lives. I know that my motivation and focussed attention to keep this business a success is what helps sustain them.  The simple fact that these young women rely on me and my company for their financial income, medical benefits, education and more is enough to keep me focussed and determined. On super practical terms, however, I always have to keep a to-do list.  It seems obvious, but writing out what needs to be done is a really helpful way to focus and prioritize.

How do you differentiate your business from the competition?

I believe our competitive advantage has always been the aesthetic of combining two cultures, both American and Cambodian.  Srey Mao, our Lead Designer and Production Director, and I design everything together. From the beginning it was our vision to create a product that was well designed, used the best materials, and was incredibly high quality.  

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

The way we market and promote locally here in Cambodia is very different than how we do it in the US and abroad.  What has been most effective here in Cambodia are monthly sales events in our shop and using paid facebook ads to promote them, leave behinds in local coffee shops and hotels, and tuk-tuk ads.  Tuk-tuks are a very common form of transportation here and we methodically place our ads on tuk-tuks across the city. We have also had decent success in targeting tourists on instagram through tagged locations and messaging them to stop by the store.

For the US market, instagram is our biggest tool along with instagram stories.  Any press features is always huge as well. We want to work with some influencers to see what the conversion rate looks like.  

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

Write down you goal, purpose and/or passion for the business you want to create.  I’m not talking about the business plan mission statement. I mean, deep down, what drives you to want to start your business.  I guarantee there will be a time in the future when you are so busy, stressed, or overwhelmed that you might lose sight of why you started the business in the first place.  Then, you can pull out that piece of paper and remind yourself of your purpose and your passion.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

I just recently downloaded the app “Think Dirty” which is an app that educated consumers on how toxic or clean personal care products are.  It is legit so cool. You can scan products right from the app and get an easy to understand rating and explanation of why the product is toxic or clean.  Such a good app for anyone trying to live a cleaner lifestyle. I also just finished reading Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness - The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone.  In a time where everything in our culture seems so divisive, it was refreshing to read about true belonging and connection.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

I use Siri all the time to set reminders about meetings, Skype calls, email follow-ups, etc.  It is such an easy tool to use and then you’ll get a reminder pop-up on your phone!

Who is your business role model? Why?

Jessica Alba is a big role model as a female entrepreneur.  I’m always inspired by people who see a hole in the market and find a way to go after it and fill the need themselves, especially when there is a mission or ethical component to the idea or business.  I also really admire The Little Market’s Lauren Conrad and Hannah Skvarla. Penh Lenh has the pleasure of partnering with The Little Market and I really respect how they run their business and are empowering women artisans around the world through economic opportunities.  

What do you have planned for the next six months?

We are working as hard as we can to secure larger brand partnerships in the US.  In the next six months we will also be designing pieces for fall. Something really exciting is we will be launching our own line of t-shirts under our “Women are Gold” collection.  We just purchased the fabric this week and are so stoked!

How can our readers connect with you?

Shop the collection www.penhlenh.com.

Connect with us on social media - instagram and facebook @penhlenhdesigns.

Email us info@penhlenh.com.