The IVLP Experience with Kounila Keo, Managing Director of Mekhala Radiant Communications

Back in November, we heard from Codingate’s Co-Founder and CEO, Sopheakmonkol Sok not only about his future plans and startup business, but also all about his 3-week IVLP trip in the USA. Together with 4 other prominent tech players in the Kingdom, the team learnt a wealth of knowledge and information that can be applied to Cambodia’s tech market to make it flourish even more.

IVLP, which also stands for International Visitor Leadership Programme, is a prestigious programme for professional exchanges spearheaded the U.S. Department of State. This gives foreign nationals a chance to meet and confer with American businesses and professionals firsthand to exchange knowledge and experiences. Furthermore, since 1994, the U.S. Embassy has sent over 205 visitors from Cambodia to participate in this program; ranging from distinguished guests from the parliament, potential leaders in the government, educators, journalists, economists, human right activists and NGO leaders.

In our second instalment of ‘The IVLP Experience’, we hear from Kounila Keo, Managing Director of REDHILL Asia (Cambodia and Indochina), on her acquired insights during her 3-week stay in the USA and future plans after her trip there!

The following interview has been edited for clarity, length and flow.

What encouraged you to apply for this IVLP trip in the first place?

 Kounila (K): I was approached by the U.S. State Department and was told about this IVLP opportunity to tour around the US for about three weeks. Furthermore, this trip would coincide with my trip to South America (for Bogota’s One Young World Summit) and the Forbes Conference in Boston in early October; so yes, it was just right timing and planning as well.

Can you give us a brief summary of what you have experienced during this programme so far?

 K: I loved every moment of IVLP experience. At the beginning of this trip, we landed in Washington DC, where we were given a historical tour during the first day. The organization that was tasked with designing the whole program believed that IVLP participants should also understand some historical facts about each place we’d visit, so that it would help us understand America’s history a bit more and help us better understand the objective of our trip. We were also taken to different government agencies, schools, institutions, and non-profits, as well as private incubators in DC, where we spoke with the people there to understand their respective roles and the ecosystem of startups and SMEs better.

After DC, we travelled to North Carolina (NC) and the three cities within the state; such as Durham, Chapel Hills and Raleigh. The research triangle, which was called triangle because it is comprised by these 3 areas, is very famous for its strong technology and science research. A lot of big companies are based out of NC, so that they can have access to a great research and development reservoir. From startups to government business agencies to private incubators and institutions that help provide advisory support to businesses and startups, we were all amazed by NC’s strength and love for research into science and technology. North Carolina is also strong because of its famous universities such as Duke University, which is ranked top in the US and the University of North Carolina, as well as several others that uphold the quality of academic research and technology in the US.

In Cleveland, Ohio, we met with software and tech business owners, high schools, institutions, and government agencies that try to attract talents to come to Cleveland; which is a pretty small town compared with Columbus, the capital city of Ohio. We were also taken to Akron, a much smaller town, but the spirit and love for tech startups and science is so vibrant that we feel that Phnom Penh (Cambodia) can learn from Akron too. This is also the part where Cambodia can be inspired by what Akron, as well as Cleveland are trying to achieve. The last trip took us to the unicorn of the US – Silicon Valley/San Francisco. There, our minds were blown away by how tech companies have so much impact on our daily lives and not just in the US, but also around the world. We visited Google, Facebook, Rocket, where big companies such as Uber, Spotify and many more were conceived, and many others with the last few days we had in the US.

 What else have you learnt during the entire trip?

 K: I cannot emphasize enough how much trip has shaped my next steps in business development. I have learnt the importance of the strong and unwavering cooperation between multiple stakeholders such as the government agencies, private sectors (which include small, medium and big business owners), non-profit groups, and academic institutions as well as individuals that can work together to make a major difference in our daily lives. REDHILL Cambodia wants to play a role in helping boost the growth of SMEs as well as (tech) startups in Cambodia because I believe that when we work together, something good will happen, not just to ourselves, but also to the whole society that can potentially benefit from our cooperation.

 What was your favourite and the most impactful part of the trip?

 K: Every city we travelled to had an impact on me in different ways. I am so thankful to have experienced the diversities in each area, and for me, there’s isn’t a single place during my trip I could completely call my favourite. However, the most impactful part of the trip was meeting the amazing people. Their passion in helping business owners is so contagious!

Relating it back to your own business, can you elaborate on ways you have been inspired to improve your innovation or work processes for the future?

 K: REDHILL Cambodia incorporates tech and innovation into our daily operations and we believe that by having systematic work processes, our team will work better and smarter. The SMEs I met with in the US have shown me that it is important to walk the talk, seek for solutions to the problems that startups are facing and to help them succeed because that is how we as a company can succeed as well. Basically, if our client succeeds, we do too.

Considering that America is a country with totally different culture and work processes, what do you think Cambodia can learn from the Americans?

K: I understand that different people have different opinions regarding this. Some say that the US is too big to compare with Cambodia. Certainly, we cannot compare a country that has 15 million people with a country of 323 million people. Every country is different and has its own challenges to tackle. However, I have observed what Cambodians can learn from the US entrepreneurs and individuals is their culture of working and how individuals’ opinions and contributions matter or count in the enormous and complicated system like the US. Also, they have this ability to bring multiple stakeholders to sit down and discuss ways to help create a system that benefits the public. And, to create a level playing field usually takes a lot of time and requires support from different groups.

 Talking about the culture of working, they are some of the most hard-working people I’ve known, and their vision and logic of how work should be done from now is so analytical to a point that they can predict what it will be like 5 years or 10 years from now. Their passion to become better versions of themselves every day is a good philosophy to imitate. How successful the American tech companies have become stands attest to their strength, culture, and philosophy.

 Are there any upcoming plans or collaborations between the 5 of you who attended after this programme?

 K: After the trip, all of us have planned to work together. I have started working with a few of them in some capacity, and hopefully we can create an advisory team that can provide support and contribute to growing the tech startup ecosystem in Cambodia. Of course, the more, the merrier.

 To find out more information about Kounila Keo’s company, REDHILL Asia, you can visit their Facebook page or their website here. Also, you can read last week’s edition of “The IVLP Experience” with BookMeBus CEO, Langda Chea here.

Don’t forget to stay tuned to our platform for the following instalments of “The IVLP Experience” to hear more exciting insights from the other most innovative Kingdom-based minds in tech!