Interview: Maya Gilliss-Chapman, Founder of Cambodians in Tech

Here at Geeks in Cambodia we have a vested interest in highlighting Cambodian talents in the tech industry. We recently met Maya Gilliss-Chapman, a Cambodian American who had launched her Cambodians in Tech (CiT) initiative in efforts to increase the number of Cambodians in the tech industry.

Currently working at a healthtech startup, Maya has worked in the tech industry for several years. She now lives in Silicon Valley, a place where tech giants and innovative businesses congregate.

During her early years, Maya had escaped the reeducation camps in Cambodia before being adopted by an American family. Having spent many years working and studying in the United States, Maya aims to shed light on the Cambodian community and share the Khmer culture with the rest of the world.

We interviewed Maya to learn more about this initiative and what she hopes to achieve with CiT.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

Can you tell us a little more about yourself?

Sure! My name is Maya Gilliss-Chapman. I was born in Cambodia, but I currently reside in Silicon Valley, California. I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, I work at a healthtech startup in Palo Alto, CA. I am the founder of Cambodians in Tech and the current Cambodian delegate for the 2016 Miss Asian America and Miss Asian Global pageant.

Can you tell us more about the “Cambodians in Tech” initiative and its origins?

I founded Cambodians in Tech in 2014 out of curiosity.

While working at a startup in Silicon Valley, I often wondered if I was the only Cambodian in the tech industry, because I hadn’t seen any others. One day, I met Alex Meng, a Khmer software engineer, and we ended up talking about how surprised we were to have found another Cambodian in tech. This conversation happened two more times throughout the year with two other Cambodians. Nothing beats that feeling of finally finding another Cambodian in the industry.

However, I realized that as nice as that feeling was, it meant that there was a problem that needed to be solved. I made a private Facebook group and we all joined (four members total) and CiT was born!

Our current initiative is simple: Cambodians in Tech aims to increase the number of Khmer faces in the tech industry through community, education, and inspiration. 

What are the main achievements of the CiT initiative so far?

Cambodians in Tech remained at a small-but-mighty four members for about a year, but in the past six months, we’ve actually increased to 20 members! There have been a few other key victories in 2016 as well:

In January, 2016, Sokhna Vor joined Cambodians in Tech. This is the epitome of our Education initiative. Sokhna was my student in 2009 when I taught English in Pursat, Cambodia. To have Sokhna join CiT after seven years was a reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight, but when it does, it is very worth it.

In June, 2016, CiT member Mary Sam was awarded a prestigious software engineering internship with Microsoft which was not only an amazing step forward for Khmer women in tech, but for the Cambodian community as a whole. Furthermore, we already had a CiT chapter in Washington, so it was incredible to see them reach out to her and show her immediate support. I’m proud to say that CiT members really embody the Community initiative.

Additionally, we had a presence at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit. We’re definitely making noise!

What are some of the challenges you faced when you were starting this initiative? What are some of the challenges you are facing now, if any?

The initial challenge was simply that there weren’t many Cambodians in the tech industry, so it was hard to recruit members. I would Google articles about Cambodian-Americans and personally reach out if I found a Cambodian in tech. That’s how Sumat Lam and Sotheara Yem joined our community.

The current challenge right now is that while diversity in tech is a hot topic, Cambodians aren’t seen as being diverse enough. We are still marginalised in a classist society. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 53.4% of Cambodian-Americans over the age of 25 don’t even have a high school diploma and 29.3% of Cambodian-Americans live below the poverty line. Silicon Valley only recruits from the top universities so Cambodian-Americans, who are often refugees or sons and daughters of refugees, are inadvertently excluded from the tech industry because they don’t have access to the resources to enable them to meet Silicon Valley’s educational preference.

What are your views on the tech scene in Cambodia?

During my latest trip to Cambodia, I was able to learn (at a high-level) what the current tech landscape in Cambodia is. While I don’t think I’m quite fluent in the ongoings of Cambodia’s tech scene, a few key things stood out to me:

Firstly, there needs to be more Cambodian-led companies – education and inspiration are key to making this happen.

Secondly, there is no clear path to Silicon Valley – Silicon Valley has many resources that Cambodia doesn’t. It would be great if Silicon Valley mentors reached out to tech entrepreneurs in Cambodia or if a Cambodian startup was accepted into a Silicon Valley accelerator program.

I’m definitely aware of these issues and I hope that the CiT community can help to ameliorate them. 

What do you hope to achieve with CiT in the future?

Eventually, I’d like to raise money to implement educational programs for Cambodians in middle and high school. This money could also help to fund scholarships for Cambodians who intend to pursue a technical degree in college or go towards hosting hackathons in Cambodia. The most effective way to increase the number of Cambodians in tech is through education. Currently, I fund everything myself which means that our education and outreach programs are limited. I’m working hard to change that.

What advice you would give to Cambodians who want to join the tech industry?

You can do it! There is definitely a place for Cambodians in the tech industry – CiT is proof of that. Please reach out to Cambodians in Tech because we are dedicated to supporting you and helping you achieve your goals. You can reach us at cambodiansintech@gmail.com or through our website cambodiansintech.com.

With an increasing number of Cambodians being exposed to the tech industry, we look forward to seeing the Cambodians in Tech initiative grow as well. We wish Maya good luck for CiT and her 2016 Miss Asian America and Miss Asian Global pageant.