Cambodian Girls, in Silicon Valley, Inspire a New Generation of Tech Enthusiasts

Lorn Dara Soucheng, 12, (middle), team leader and other team members show the Cambodia Identity Product app that they have created at the Technovation Challenge World Pitch Summit girl mobile app competition at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA, Wednesday, August 09, 2017. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

A group of Cambodian girls have competed in the finals of a global mobile app competition at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, and despite not claiming the top prize, their success provides much-needed inspiration for other young Cambodians to consider entering Cambodia’s nascent tech sector.

Their pitch wasn’t a bid to be the next billion-dollar company, but rather to help craftspeople in Cambodia access international markets.

“Let’s fight poverty by using our app. Don’t find customers for your product, find products for your customers,” says Lom Dara Soucheng, 12 who led the team that created “Cambodia Identity Product”.

“We want to increase employment for Cambodians,” Chea Sopheata, 11, told the judges, “so there will be a reduction in Cambodians migrating to work in other countries, reducing poverty through making income and providing charity to local Cambodians.”

To make it to the August 7 - 11 Technovation competition, the girls had to build a mobile app, and create a business plan, that addressed at least one of the U.N. Development Goals.

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Cambodian Girl Coders Push Frontiers for Women in Tech

While Cambodia has seen strong economic growth, especially in the tourism industry, globalization has also arguably fueled economic inequality. These Cambodian girls think they can help be part of the solution.

“We want to promote our culture to people from all over the world,” Dara Soucheng says.

No-one would expect these girls to have all the answers, but their participation in the competition was itself the main goal of Technovation.

Tes Putthira, technical mentor for coding for train the “Cambodia Identity Product” girls team from the Liger Learning Center during a 12-weekend training at the Cambodia-Korea Cooperation Center. (Courtesy of Technovation Cambodia)

Across the world, the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions remains low, with only about 14 percent of students choosing to study information technology-related classes in 2010 - the last time comprehensive figures were made available. Some attribute this disparity to unequal access to education, information, and a lack of female role models in those professions.

Programs such as Technovation are aimed at reversing that trend.

Tara Chklovski, the founder and CEO of Iridescent, the non-profit that launched Technovation in 2010, says that for the first time, “technology can really help girls have a strong voice and help us have a society that has equality.”

The Cambodian team were all drawn from underprivileged backgrounds, but had the opportunity to gain a quality education by being selected for the Liger Learning Center’s (LLC) programs. LLC is a local NGO that is pioneering project-based and experiential learning techniques.​

FILE: Students work on creating a website during a class at the Liger Learning Center, a school in Phnom Penh that emphasizes courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Dene-Hern Chen for VOA News)

Moni Mau, a Cambodian-American software engineer who also has a young daughter, heard about the Cambodian entrants to Technovation and ran to the event, impressed with the young coders from his home country.

“Compared to a lot of kids in the U.S., who don’t know how to do this and a kid in Cambodia with the current situation, the current poverty over there...[they] can do this much, and they can get this far. I was impressed,” he said.

Pauline Seng, a Cambodian-American program manager at Google, was similarly surprised and impressed with the girls’ success.

“There’s going to be so many people who aspire to reach this stage and also inspire other people to get involved in technology,” she said.

The five Cambodian girls of the app team Cambodia Identity Product, right, stand next to other coders from India and Hong Kong before making a final pitch of their app to the judges during the Technovation Challenge World Pitch Summit competition at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Aug. 10, 2017. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Technovation’s grad prize this year went to entrants from Hong Kong. “I’m very happy that our team made it this far,” says Yos Serei Sabda, another of the Cambodian entrants.

Although the girls did not win the grand prize, they are proud to have made it here to Google and Silicon Valley.

Asked whether they believe that Google will one day be headed by a women, the girls replied in unison: “Yes!”