Penh Lenh is a Cambodian-based accessories line with a social mission to empower at-risk women in Cambodia. The owner, Rachel Dodson, started her career as a model booking agent in New York City, but after several years in the fast-paced industry, she was left feeling empty and unfulfilled. That’s when she took a trip to Cambodia and saw a huge need amongst the women there. (Cambodia is one of the poorest country in Southeast Asia forcing many women to turn to sex and drug industries to provide for their families). Many of them lived in severe poverty, had experienced extreme trauma and had no resources to help better their lives and break the cycle.

That’s when Rachel knew she had found her calling. Three weeks later, she quit her job, packed her bags and moved to Cambodia to start Penh Lenh. The name means “whole,” which her company strives to do by empowering women to become “whole” through education, employment and recognizing their worth.

Here’s what happened when I spoke to Rachel about her journey so far.

Describe what life was like for you pre-Penh Lenh

Before Penh Lenh, I was living in New York working as an agent for models and absolutely loved everything about life in New York.  I had dreamed of living in New York since I first visited when I was 18 and I felt as though I was made for the city.  I loved walking everywhere, riding the subway, all the coffee shops, people watching, the art and style and even all the smells of the city.  I had been working my whole life to get to this stage, to live in NYC and work as an agent.  And then, quite quickly, everything changed for me.

At what point did you realise that you were in the wrong career?

To be honest, it was a combination of several different things happening in my life at once.  First, I had always loved my career and had been passionate about the work I did.  But then I found myself absolutely dreading work each day.  I had worked so hard to get here, to be an agent in New York city, and imagined I would be so thrilled that I would be skipping into work each day.  What was wrong with me?  I began to self-reflect to hopefully find the reason for my discontentment.  I had simultaneously been learning more 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 and was forced to realize this was contributing to my unhappiness in my career.  Ultimately, I knew I had to leave the industry I had loved to be an advocate for change.

What inspired you to take the leap of faith and start your own organisation?

Everything leading up to me starting Penh Lenh was a process of learning and opening up my heart to really see the travesties of social justice issues around the world.  I had made plans for a business and had an idea of what sort of business I wanted to start, but what really inspired me to take the leap was my first trip to Cambodia.  I came for three weeks and met the women who actually needed help from a business like Penh Lenh.  Previously, the stories were just ideas on a page or computer screen, but they now had faces and names and real life stories.  I was forever changed and saw the hope and impact that a business like Penh Lenh could have on the women in Cambodia.  I came back to the US, quit my job, and moved to Cambodia to start Penh Lenh.

What were some of the first steps you took to bring your vision to life?

I moved to Cambodia with a business plan and program for the skill training.  Once I moved and began working with the women, I was diligent to ask questions about their lives and what they truly needed from a job and a training program.  I quickly found out the program I had designed had more to do with my own vision than it did with what these women really needed.  I then spent time re-doing everything.  I created a business plan and program curriculum designed to truly empower the young women we were working with to live self-sustaining lives.  In the beginning, I also spent a lot of time sourcing sustainable materials and working to develop our aesthetic as a brand.

What were some of the unexpected challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Navigating the laws and governmental rules and regulations is incredibly challenging here in Cambodia.  It was quite difficult to figure out what needed to be done to become a registered business in the beginning.  Often the rules seem arbitrary and contradictory and can change quite frequently.  It continues to be quite challenging.

Let’s talk about the summer collection. What inspired the designs?

So last year we made the decision to stop creating full “collections” and instead release new designs every month.  We felt the pressure of having to create an entire collection stunted our creativity and vision and at the same time we would have new ideas regularly and felt we had to put the designs on the back-burner until we launched a “collection.”  From a business perspective, we found a major lull in business between the launches of the collections and thought the model of regular releases would be more appealing to our customer base.  This summer we were really inspired by resort wear and beach feels.  We wanted bright colors and pieces that were effortless to wear but were stand-out pieces at the same time.

Do you have any ideas for the fall collection?

We are still working on the pieces we will be introducing for fall but you can definitely expect some very sophisticated yet flirty pieces.  There will be less tassels and more gold chain and druzy gemstones.  We are also preparing to launch our own “Women are Gold” t-shirt line which we are really excited about.

Where do you see the organisation in 5 years?

Our hope is that Penh Lenh would continue to grow so that we can give more educational and job opportunities to more and more young women.  Our next goal is to partner with a larger brand and ultimately we want Penh Lenh to be globally recognized not only as a high quality jewelry brand but for the impact we make in fighting for women’s rights.

What’s been your proudest achievement so far?

Although we have had many successful moments throughout the years in the business, what makes me the absolute proudest is seeing our artisans live full and self-sufficient lives.  Seeing them grow and learn to love and value themselves, have good relationships, love their job and succeed is most definitely the best achievement we could hope for.

If you could offer any advice to your younger self what would it be and why?

My first thought was that I would go back and tell myself to get a masters in social work.  I think it would have better prepared me to work with the demographic of young women at Penh Lenh.  However, I think each of my experiences uniquely prepared me to be exactly where I am at, doing exactly what I’m doing.  So, maybe I would just encourage myself that it’s ok to feel different and to follow my heart.

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