Remarks by Ambassador William Heidt at “WE Next” Women’s Entrepreneurship Event

U.S. Ambassador Heidt at the launch of a project that will support women entrepreneurs in Cambodia.

Raintree, Phnom Penh
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you for that very kind introduction, Kate.  And it’s good to be working together again, Sovan.

Thank you all for coming out tonight for what I hope will be an interesting – and very practical – discussion of the opportunities and challenges facing business women and women entrepreneurs.

I’m particularly happy to see many talented business women and entrepreneurs and representatives of a number of the organizations working hard to support entrepreneurship and women’s entrepreneurship in Cambodia.

[I’m also delighted to welcome our Cambodian Government counterparts who take seriously their mission to create a supportive framework for budding entrepreneurs and have some very interesting plans to achieve that goal.]

And I’m always happy to share the stage with the American Chamber of Commerce as well as our development partners.  Thank you all for coming.

Let me start by answering a key question—why are we calling this event “WE Next?”   It’s very simple.  The WE, of course, stands for “Women’s Entrepreneurship.”  And the word “Next” reflects our believe that now is the time to move from a general discussion of the importance of supporting business women – which we all share – to a more action oriented collaboration aimed at improving conditions for women entrepreneurs on the ground.

A few developments over the past year have convinced us that now is the right time to try to take our discussion up a notch.

First, just last month, the government released an important prakas—Subdecree 124.  This prakas aims to streamline Cambodia’s business registration process, reduce the tax burden on SMEs in key sectors, and in general reduce the high costs of formalization that currently prevent many women-owned businesses from succeeding and growing into larger enterprises.

This is a very important development, because it sends a signal of the government’s commitment to improving doing business conditions for SMEs.

The Embassy and our partners have been helping too by linking Cambodian women entrepreneurs into global networks.  Last November, we sent a delegation of seven Cambodian business women to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Hyderabad, India, the world’s preeminent annual entrepreneurship gathering.

I am particularly proud that Cambodia’s team was the largest and the only all-female delegation from the entire East Asia region.

In January this year, we were happy to witness the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) and the Cambodian Women Entrepreneurs Association (CWEA), meant to expand support for women entrepreneurs.  AmCham’s collaboration on this event tonight falls directly under that MOU.

And in September, we were proud to sponsor a group of twelve Cambodian business women and female government officials to visit the United States to learn how cities, states, and the federal government support women entrepreneurs.

The group met with policy makers, entrepreneurship organizations and successful businesswomen in Washington D.C., Des Moines, Iowa, and Seattle, Washington.  They came back with a ton of good ideas about programs and initiatives in the United States that might work here.

The purpose of tonight’s event is to build on these accomplishments, tie them together, and start a practical conversation about practical next steps for making Cambodia a truly welcoming place for women entrepreneurs.

As part of this, we are going to introduce you to two new programs sponsored by the United States.  One is a new USAID project, called PECCEC,  which aims to accelerate the growth of micro and small enterprise development with mentorship, training, technical assistance and financing.

The other is a $30 million loan facility for women-owned SMEs funded by the United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) in partnership with the ACLEDA bank.  This facility is part of the “Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility,” a joint initiative of the International Finance Corporation and Goldmann Sach’s 10,000 Women Program.   It is an effort to respond to one of the most persistent obstacle faced by women entrepreneurs—access to finance.

You’ll hear pitches from both of these programs shortly.  This is supposed to be an interactive discussion, so I hope all of you will offer up your suggestions on how to make these and other programs as effective as possible.  You can do that during the panel discussion or the networking session.

One of the most significant and positive changes in Cambodia the last 20 years has been the bridging of what was once a very wide gender gap.  With help from its international partners, the government has reduced significantly the gap in school enrollment between girls and boys.  And today, there are more women enrolled in universities then men.

This movement towards gender parity has paid big dividends for Cambodia’s development as women have become major contributors to the economy.  As we all know, women now own and manage the majority of Cambodian businesses.

But of course, the vast majority of these businesses are small, and most are informal.  So the next key steps are to get these young, female high school and university students the help they need to become successful entrepreneurs, and to help current women entrepreneurs overcome barriers to expansion and become medium or large entrepreneurs.

So we hope that tonight we can build on this promise and together create momentum.  I would love to see us agree on a few, concrete initiatives we could work on in the months ahead, perhaps even an informal action plan.

Some of you may know that I’ll be leaving Cambodia soon to join my wife and son back in Washington.  In fact, this may wind up being my last public event in Cambodia.

This is by design.  Of all the issues I’ve worked on in Cambodia, this is one that makes me feel very hopeful.  I have been impressed with Cambodia’s entrepreneurship organizations, the strong culture of mentorship among Cambodia’s business women, the government’s spirit of collaboration, and the willingness of Cambodia’s development partners to pitch in.

And most of all I’ve been impressed by Cambodia’s young women, who are fiercely determined to make their mark on Cambodia and the world.

So I think our goal should be simple—in line with the goals of prakas 124, and SDGs 5 and 8, to work together to make Cambodia the most welcoming and supportive country in Southeast Asia for business women and women entrepreneurs.

This sounds ambitious, but if you think about it, it is actually quite achievable.  Cambodia is a smaller country with a rapidly growing economy, a good social policy, a strong cadre of business women, good entrepreneurship organizations, and lots of committed international partners.  Somebody has to be number one—why can’t it be Cambodia?

So I’m very grateful and excited to be able to end my tour by hosting an event on an issue I care so deeply about, an issue so important for Cambodia’s future.

I will now give the floor over to the panel discussion, but before I do that, I want to emphasize that you can count on the Embassy – and me and Sotie as well – as long-term partners, even though, for now, I’ll be watching from afar.

Thank you very much.