An Interview With Rachel Dodson: the Founder of a Jewelry Company Dedicated to Helping At-Risk Cambodian Women

One look at Penh Lenh jewelry and you know it’s something special. But for some, it’s more than a collection of colorful, vibrant jewelry, it’s a life-saver. Penh Lenh is a jewelry brand dedicated to funding opportunities in education and the work field for at-risk Cambodian women. 100% of all sales are returned immediately to the organization and help improve the lives of the artisans women who create the pieces. Affinity sat down with the founder of Penh Lenh, Rachel Dodson, to get a better understanding of how the company works and what people can do to help.

 

Affinity Magazine: What inspired you to create Penh Lenh for the at-risk women in Cambodia? How did you find these remarkable women?

Rachel Dodson: After several years of working as a modeling agent and owning my own agency in Nashville, I moved to NYC to work at an agency and climb up the proverbial ladder. I had been aware of the issue of sex trafficking and exploitation, however, once I moved to New York I spent time educating myself further on the issues. As I learned more about these issues and other prominent social justice issues, I also became aware of how the very industry I worked in not only participated in but perpetuated many of these issues. I reached a point where I simply 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 for producing change 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 company like this.

Currently, Penh Lenh works with a few NGOs in Cambodia to offer employment to their young women. We also have a great community outreach program within Penh Lenh. Together with our artisans, we serve the women working in the red light district and in the slums; offering care packages, hot meals and new clothes. This allows our team to meet young women in need organically and form real relationships.

 

Affinity: Why a jewelry company?

RD: From a program perspective, we knew that jewelry making could be very therapeutic. Stringing beads is often used as an activity for those recovering from trauma or addiction. Not to mention, it allows the girls to be creative and see value in something they made. Since our mission is to work with marginalized and at-risk young women, often times with a history of trauma, we loved the idea of working with a skill that could also be healing and restorative. Marginalized women who are at-risk to exploitation or vulnerable employment can escape these risks by obtaining a skill or vocation.

From a business perspective, we knew we always wanted to sell in the U.S. and in other markets, so jewelry would be small and easy to ship from Cambodia. Our aesthetic was also something totally unique and new to the Cambodian market. Not necessarily beading or jewelry making, but our designs and style. My philosophy in business has always been to find the thing no one else is doing, and do that!

 

Affinity: What does Penh Lenh mean and how does it emphasize the company mission?

RD: When I first came to Cambodia I learned that the local term used for a sex trafficking survivor is “broken girl.” When I heard this, my heart immediately broke. I knew right then and there that I wanted my business and program to be named something that would combat this notion. “Penh Lenh” in the Cambodian language of Khmer, means “whole.” This, to us, is the opposite of broken. We want to show that we are whole, we are complete, not lacking in any way, and everything we do will reflect this. We believe this represents the strength and beauty of the women creating and also wearing the jewelry.

 

Affinity: Talk a little about the process of making jewelry and how the proceeds are returned to the women in Cambodia.

RD: Each peace of our jewelry is handcrafted by one of our female artisans here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We use skills like wire-wrapping, beading and tassel making to creating our jewels. Each of our pieces can take anywhere from 30 minutes up to 4 hours to create. It is our mission to pour 100% of our profits back into reinvesting in our artisans. This is done through paying fair wages, home cooked daily meals that focus on health and nutrition, and a Penh Lenh subsidized health care plan. We also reinvest in educational opportunities for our artisans as well. Not only does Penh Lenh provide skill training, we offer courses that cover an array of topics ranging from English, professional skills, budgeting, health and nutrition, sexual education and female empowerment. Truly, when someone purchases a piece from Penh Lenh they are directly investing in the lives of our artisans.

 

Affinity: One of Penh Lenh’s big focuses is on equal educational opportunities for women, how do you believe education can change a life?  

RD: This is such an important question. I recently met with a 16-year-old Cambodian girl. She is a fierce feminist and I was so impressed and inspired by her. I asked her why education was important to her and how she felt empowered by being educated. She answered with an example from her life. She said in school here in Cambodia she was never taught about her menstrual cycle or reproductive hygiene, so when she first got her period her only option was to listen to what her peers said. According to them and what has been passed down for generations, girls who are on their period should not wash their hair (because you’ll get grey hair when you are older) or drink coconut water (because it makes your insides cold and will stop your period blood flow). She turned to Google to educate herself and find out what was true and real. She said that made her feel empowered to know about her own body.

This is just one small example of a larger picture. The opportunity for equal education is the most empowering and impactful thing we could offer a person. I believe when we see women given the opportunity to be educated equally, globally, we will begin to see true change. One in three women across the globe will experience violence against them in their lifetime and gender inequality is understood to be the root cause of violence against women. If more women have access to equal education, we will see increase economic participation, more women in leadership positions, and in political positions as well.

 

Affinity: How do we, as a society, better address the issues of women inequality, especially when it’s happening overseas? What can young people do to make a difference?

RD: This is a topic I have been thinking so much about recently and trying to read as many articles on the subject as I can. This subject can feel especially daunting in a place like Cambodia, where 1 in 5 men have admitted to committing at least one rape and where a woman head of household is likely to earn 55% less than a male head of household.  Gender equality by definition is, “the state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.” If we are to achieve this, first, we have to work toward removing gender bias. Second, women need equal education opportunity, including higher education. Third, women need to be given equal job opportunities. According to UNICEF, women reinvest 80% of their income into their families, while men invest only 30-40%. We know that when women are give equal opportunities to work, not only do they thrive, but their families and economies thrive as well. Just this week, a report by McKinsey Global Institute estimated that economies in the Asia-Pacific region could boost their collective GDP by $4.5 trillion if they improve gender equality. Can you imagine? Lastly, women have to be a collective voice and stand together, lifting one another up.

Young people are critical and essential to create change! What we are seeing now is a new generation standing up and recognizing that women’s rights are human rights and its a social justice issue that should be taken seriously. Not only are they recognizing the issues, but actually following it up with action and creating real change. Here in Cambodia, we are just starting to see young women begin to talk about Feminism and Women’s Rights. There are vloggers, empowered women musicians, students and business owners alike using their platforms to empower the women of Cambodia. Even here at Penh Lenh, we are doing what we can to be a voice for change. There is an old Cambodian proverb that says, “Men are gold, women are a white cloth,” which implies men are strong and cannot be stained or lose their value. While women, like a white cloth, once dirty, are stained forever. We created a collection entitled, “Women are Gold” which was designed to challenge this thinking and be a voice for equality in Cambodia.

 

Affinity: How do you see Penh Lenh expanding? Do you have any long-term goals to take the company to more places in need?

RD: Our goal is to continue to grow the business and expand sales through larger international partnerships in the U.S. and beyond so we will have the resources to employ more women. Our philosophy has always been quality over quantity. Not only with our jewelry but with the young women we serve as well. We really want to do life with these young women and give them our best each and every day. We are so committed to seeing true impact through the work we are doing here in Cambodia.

 

Affinity: Can you share a success story of one of your artisan women?

RD: All of the artisans I work with are so special in unique in their own way. Since moving here to Cambodia, I have learned the local language, Khmer. This has enabled me to develop much deeper and closer relationships with the women I work with. It has been cool to see how special each relationship is and yet how different each relationship is. One of the artisans who I have developed a really cool bond with is called Stella. She has been working with Penh Lenh for nearly three years now. Three years ago when I was interviewing Stella for the job, I asked her what her strengths were. At that time, she couldn’t give an answer. She said no one had ever asked her before; she had never thought of it.. I then asked her what she thought might be challenging about the job and she told me that everyone she lived with called her lazy so it would be difficult to have a job. Obviously, not a great interview. However, luckily we do not hire on credentials, but rather the spirit of a person and their willingness to work to change their lives for the better. She had a spark in her and more than anything, I wanted to prove to her that every negative thing they had said about her was wrong.

Fast forward one year and we met for her annual appraisal. I asked Stella if she remembered what she told me about being “lazy.” I told her my hope was that through the last year she had been able to see her true self and potential and how the word “lazy” now has no power or definition in regards to her life. Her eyes welled up as she told me she had forgotten the word altogether.

Not only does Stella have this incredibly distinctive way to her artisanship and create uniquely efficient ways of doing her job, but she has grown into this powerful and confident young woman. She stands up for herself and others, is a fearless leader, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her love for Justin Bieber.

 

Affinity: What more can people do if they want to donate or become more involved?

RD: Shop here and tell your friends, family, strangers! And spread the word on social media. We are 100% funded by the sales of our product, so your purchases mean everything.

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Dodson

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