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Businesswomen Find a Friend in Facebook

Around six month ago, Lim Viriya had abandoned her products distribution business—twice. The 29-year-old businesswoman from Siem Reap province nearly closed down her tour company, as she faced tight competition and thin profit margins.

Facebook saved her businesses.

“In the past, I was defeated many times,” she told VOA Khmer recently. “But afterward, I read information posted on Facebook, talking about the commitment and persistence of a restaurant owner to pursue her business, despite being defeated many times. She advised that with any kind of business, no matter how little we earn, as long as we persist, we will not fail.”

The site’s Cambodia Women in Business page encouraged her to carry on with her ventures, she said, and, since December 2009, things have been looking up.

The Facebook page was the initiative of the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank, which thought social networking could help Cambodian women looking to start their own businesses.

Cambodian women face a number of challenges starting or expanding their businesses. With often lower educations, they must make sense of regulatory information, and they have an uphill struggle against family values that disapprove of women in business.

Now the page has more than 300 members, many of them owners of small- or medium-sized businesses. There are female students, employers and researchers. Men are not excluded.

The page includes photographs of various businesses run by women and discussions about the challenges they face, such as difficulties with registration. It has suggestions on ways women can gain the support of their husbands. It includes market research, product prices and business management strategies. Members post articles on national and international businesswomen.

The page does have limitations. It is run in English, on the Internet, excluding many Cambodian women who can’t read English or don’t have access to the Web.

Still, IFC project manager Lil Sisambat says she’s confident it is helping.

“Facebook creates energy and a lot of ideas about how to do more business, to do better business and to have a way to solve the problems women are facing,” she said. “If one woman who starts a business faces difficulties, other women can help her online. So I think it is a very good source of support to make the environment easy to do business.”

Seng Stephene, an employee of a private business in Phnom Penh who wants to open a communication company, only joined Facebook a month ago. With it, she said, she learned how to start her own business and how to study the market.

Women who already have successful businesses, meanwhile, share their experiences.

“The moment that women face harder problem in their businesses, it will make them become stronger and be successful,” said Heng Chenda, manager of KNN Handicraft. “So, please, all women, behave with a strong commitment.”

Women play an important role in economic growth, and private enterprise is the main driver of economic development in Cambodia. It accounts for 92 percent of total jobs in the country, according to a 2008 study by the IFC. In those, women accounted for 55 percent of all business owners, mainly with micro- or small-sized ventures.

With Cambodian men the primary owners of medium and large businesses, women do not fulfill their potential as job creators, nor as developers of human resources—nor as taxpayers.

A network site like Facebook can help them put their voices together, said Veronique Salze-Lozac’h, the regional director of economic programs for the Asia Foundation.

“If they can actually find enough women to say, ‘Yes, this is really a problem,’ then they can come together and try to contact to the government to improve their situation,” she said. “So Facebook can be a very useful tool for businesswomen to push for some reforms.”

However, because of its unofficial nature, Ty Makara Ravy, an active member of the sight, thinks the government may not take it seriously.

That may not be so. Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavy, after all, reads the page. She told VOA Khmer the concerns and challenges she finds there could help steer government policy.