Interview with Leo Jofeh: CoLAB & S.T.E.M Phnom Penh

For startups and every budding entrepreneur out there, I’m sure CoLAB would definitely ring a bell. Nested in a clever corner above a convenience mart, CoLAB has been a space for anyone to access for a great environment to work on something together or simply to get the resources they need. Leo Jofeh, one of the managing admins of the place, sat down with Geeks in Cambodia to share more about what CoLAB does as well as his very own personal initiative, STEM Phnom Penh.

The time spent with Leo was witty, inspirational and definitely provoking. Read the interview that we had to find out what I mean.

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The interview has been edited for flow and clarity. Details about CoLAB and STEM Phnom Penh will be given at the end.

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Hello Leo, perhaps we can start with you telling us more about what CoLAB is?

LEO: CoLAB is a co-working space geared specifically towards people in the tech fields, STEM fields. So, the people who work with us tend to be programmers, designers, people who work online. And they work for companies based in Cambodia, they co-work with people on software teams, stuff like that.

We also have people who do lots of things too, for example, Arky, it is hard to pin down what he does, ‘digital nomad’ he describes himself as. We get graphic artists, we’ve had comic book artists here, we’ve got sales people, people who consult for NGOs, but the commonalities are that people want to share their experiences and expertise and they want to help each other out.

So anyone who works here is keen to be sharing what they know with other people and they tend to organize workshops and tutorial days, to share their knowledge.

So what about STEM Phnom Penh?

LEO: STEM Phnom Penh is a project that I run, it’s a website and it’s also for a few different commercial services as well. We started earlier this year, and on the site, we like to host bilingual tutorials on how to do certain things, and that list is growing.

It has a lot of stuff: How to build hydraulics, how to design for 3D printing or what do you need to consider when designing for 3D printing. Or how to get started on hand soldering, what elements of the technique do you need to know to get good at it. So I try to put up videos, lists of parts that you need with the corresponding costs, or whether that stuff is available here or with partner organisations, or in Phnom Penh in general, how long it is going to take you, photos of the steps taken. So that’s all available for free.

The second part is the services that I offer, I tutor in electronics, machining and robotics, training for partner organisations, with members of staff who they would like to upskill in terms of soldering or PCB layout or design for 3D printing or for machining. So we can do training courses for them commercially.

And the third aspect is prototyping, so if a person or company has an idea – for a product or an idea just for a thing that they would like in their home, they come to us, ask us how to get it done, we can either design it for them or build it for them, or design and manufacture it for them.

It is basically a very custom service, which I don’t think is available anywhere outside of Phnom Penh.

One of the 3D printers that is owned by CoLAB and STEM Phnom Penh. Anyone is welcome to try the machine out and if requested, will even be taught on how to operate it! Photo Courtesy of Leo Jofeh

One of the 3D printers that is owned by CoLAB and STEM Phnom Penh. Anyone is welcome to try the machine out and if requested, will even be taught on how to operate it!
Photo Courtesy of Leo Jofeh

 

Why did you decide to start STEM Phnom Penh?

LEO: I wanted to collect the various things that I was doing everywhere into one location. And also I really wanted to make that information available in Khmer. Even Khmer people don’t know how to get stuff done in Phnom Penh.

It’s very hard to get some sort of central information source to know where to acquire things, how much things should cost, what materials are available, so if it’s all collected in one place, hopefully this will push people through that thought process: “Oh I’m interested in this STEM thing, through to how I upskill in this particular area, how do I improve my kid’s knowledge of this, how do I improve my business’s ability to do this thing and then also how do I produce products in Cambodia?”

That’s one thing: we are starting to see businesses producing products in Cambodia. But this is still very rare, things that are designed here are very rare to find, so I’m definitely keen to push that.

So why is STEM important? Why is it an important industry in Cambodia? 

LEO: There are a few reasons.

There’s a huge number of people graduating in Cambodian universities and working in business and financial fields. A huge number. Too many in fact, according to the Ministry of Education. So they have launched a number of things recently, they have their own programme, in collaboration with the British Embassy, promoting STEM education, but the point is, Cambodia’s future economy depends on manufacturing and services.

They’ve got the services covered, but manufacturing is difficult. If you want to move beyond the basics of manufacturing and emulate an economy’s like Thailand’s, where they are capable of doing heavy industry, capable of producing electronics, appliances, that’s going to be a huge driver in Cambodia.

You have to have people who know how to do a little bit of electronics, a little bit of physics, a little “computer-ing” and design, so that’s why I think STEM is so important for Cambodia right now, in terms of kick-starting that economy.

Also because they are valuable subjects in their own right; I think it is a valuable thing to be inquisitive about the world around you, how it works and how to use the laws of physics to get cool things to happen. I like that particularly.

How exactly do you envision these organisations to help the community move forward to becoming more STEM involved?

LEO: I think they have two different complementary aims. My aim for STEM Phnom Penh, is that it provides an online resource that is free to access in the appropriate language for people to learn how to do things. Not to be a comprehensive resource, but kind of to kick-start the interest and to help others to develop their skills so ultimately they can construct their own learning later on.

Also, I need to make some money! So I make a little bit by doing prototypes for people, doing training courses for people, and also by doing tuition.

CoLAB is here mainly for the community; there is a big group of expats particularly in Cambodia who have a lot of tech skills but they tend to work in silos, they tend not to skill share, even among each other, let alone with local people. And I think it’s vitally important that they do skill share with each other and local people. So CoLAB is here as a community builder and also as a really nice place to work, for people who need this kind of atmosphere.

The front of CoLAB houses a library of books that ranges from teaching you how to code using HTML 5 to creating a 3D printing file. These are free resources that people can access if they visit CoLAB. The area is also wifi-equipped, free of charge by EZECOM.  Photo Courtesy of Leo Jofeh.

The front of CoLAB houses a library of books that ranges from teaching you how to code using HTML 5 to creating a 3D printing file. These are free resources that people can access if they visit CoLAB. The area is also wifi-equipped, free of charge by EZECOM.
Photo Courtesy of Leo Jofeh.

The backend of CoLAB has desks and power plugs for teams or budding entrepreneurs or anyone to utilise by paying for time for a great atmosphere to work in. If your eyes are sharp enough, you will also notice that the backend of the room has power tools, which Geeks in Cambodia will reveal in another article. Do you know what community it belongs to? Photo Courtesy of Leo Jofeh.

The backend of CoLAB has desks and power plugs for teams or budding entrepreneurs or anyone to utilise by paying for time for a great atmosphere to work in. If your eyes are sharp enough, you will also notice that the backend of the room has power tools, which Geeks in Cambodia will reveal in another article. Do you know what community it belongs to?
Photo Courtesy of Leo Jofeh.

 

With all these efforts, how do you think STEM will actually grow? How long will it take for the culture to grow in Cambodia?

LEO: I think it’s happening already, even in the last few years, we see a surge of people who are interested in it, and they express their interest in different ways. They attend festivals for instance, like Barcamp or the Cambodia Inno Tech festival (in March).

We see more and more people getting involved in CoLAB. More and more foreigners are moving to Cambodia to be a part of the tech industry here. It’s an attractive place to work for people who are usually based in Europe or the US and there are a number of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that Cambodia is going to get big soon in these fields, and it’s good to get in on the ground floor of that.

Other than all these organisations, what else do you think can be done to push the STEM movement? 

LEO: Well it requires a whole patchwork of different people to work together, to push it. The government has to be pro-active; they are, to a certain extent. But I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on high tech yet, in my opinion.

When you say manufacturing to somebody in the government, they typically think ‘garments’; they don’t think what Thailand is doing for instance, but Cambodia needs to get to that stage. So there’s the government requirement.

Secondly, schools and universities need to be offering more courses in STEM, more subjects related to STEM. There are a few universities that do offer electronics courses, physics and physical science courses, things like that.

The government recently stopped handing out new licenses to teach business and finance courses, because there’s such a huge surplus of these opportunities. So universities in particular need to be acquiring staff who know how to teach STEM courses and how to promote them.

More than that, community groups. So there’s a group of people who have been organizing this new Cambodia Inno-Tech festival in March. Another festival that is well established is Barcamp, which is very valuable for promoting STEM. Also the Cambodia science and engineering festival.

They are always completely packed with companies that are doing STEM stuff. Full of discussion groups about how it benefits the Cambodian economy, young people in particular. You can promote a culture where people share what they know, where they are willing to talk to each other, and don’t work in silos and they don’t narrow their horizons to thinking:

  1. “Oh manufacturing, that means garments”
  2. “Oh STEM, that must mean web design”

STEM doesn’t mean web design, it means an entire field. So if you can encourage a community like that, I think that’s particularly valuable.

Finally, it’s down to individuals; there is the same percentage of Cambodian young people as the percentage of American young people who are very gifted in STEM fields. The difference is that the US and Europe are better at finding these people and helping them to create products or get the right education or start the right businesses.

There is the same statistical percentage of people who are naturally talented in these things, and the same statistical percentage of people who are willing to work very hard to acquire these skills, it’s a matter of finding these people who have the talent and promoting them and giving them opportunities at least.

And finally, there’s too much brain drain, I can probably name 20 people off the top of my head who are Cambodians, fantastically talented and have gone to the US. With scholarships, with job offers, people who’s ambition has been since they were 3 or 4, to get out to the US or go to Europe to find these opportunities. It’s terrible because they could be here doing that, and making a demonstrable significant impact in Cambodia.

So there are a few people who have come back very recently, having had their scholarship and their education and are now contributing to Cambodian companies and schools and things like that. There’s a lot of brain drain, and it’s not just STEM fields, it’s all sorts of fields. People who are really talented tend not to stay. So we’ve got to find a solution, even though I don’t know what that one is. I guess someone who is higher up than me and is paid more than me can figure that one out.

I think there are a lot of reasons for that, it’s the recognition, the salary, the opportunities, and I think many young people have this representation of the education and the jobs abroad as being more valuable than local ones; it’s a matter of representation.

I think it’s an issue with ‘self de-valuement’ as well. It’s evident in the way certain people treat each other, compared to the way they may treat foreigners, especially in Phnom Penh. It’s the idea that a Cambodian job is less valuable than a foreign job, just because a foreign person may have access to a higher standard of education. It’s a dangerous pathological mindset I think, to de-value each other. People need to give themselves more credit! I’d like to see certain Cambodian people giving more value to other Cambodians.

I think there is another issue that I have noticed, in some schools, especially where you have to pay a lot. The teachers emphasise to the students that they are the elite and the next generation of leaders. But the content of the education that they receive is not necessarily very strong. And once they graduate, they risk ending up with a very strong ego but not a very strong understanding.

If you want to get into pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept), we can talk about the style of teaching in many Cambodian state schools but also in many independent schools in Cambodia.

Learning by repeating things, learning the words in the order on the page, and not understanding the concept behind it. There is a huge focus on that.

“Learn page 36 by heart, go do it”, “repeat the words to me in this order”, “you can do that, you pass the test”.

There’s very little focus on understanding the concept behind these things. But STEM promotes that kind of understanding, in STEM fields, you have to understand the concept behind it, you can’t just get away with repeating it.

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If you have thoughts about the above topics that were discussed, feel free to start a chat below! :)

Here are more details about CoLAB and STEM Phnom Penh:

CoLAB

  • Facebook Page
  • Website
  • Address: St 163, #263, 2nd Floor (entrance on the side door), Phnom Penh, Cambodia

STEM Phnom Penh: