As one of the country’s first bloggers and digital pioneers, self-made Kounila Keo, 29, has secured a string of successes under her belt. Editor Marissa Carruthers talks to her about starting as a stringer for international media, being crowned one of Forbes Under 30s 2017, launching a company and her passion for all things digital. Photography by Lim Sokchanlina.

How did your career start?

I started a four-year degree at the Department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2006. In my sophomore year, I became a freelancer for AFP [Agence France-Presse]. I then started work for the Phnom Penh Post as a freelance feature writer, and it picked up from there. I started doing bits for foreign media, such as the LA Times, Christian Science Monitor and the Independent because I wanted to have more experience with journalism. In 2011, BBC Media Action contacted me because they wanted someone to spearhead their digital campaign, Loy9, which was an amazing opportunity.

Tell us more about Loy9.

It was probably one of most successful mass media campaigns for youth in Cambodia. It was funded by United Nations Development Programme to encourage young people to engage in public life. Loy9 was the BBC’s first pilot project that incorporated digital components, such as YouTube and Facebook. I was asked to join after they saw me give a TEDx talk and became the project’s digital manager. At the time, there were less than two million users on Facebook in Cambodia so I set up all the platforms and contacted organisations. It was a great experience.

You are a leader in Cambodia’s digital space. How did that happen?

I don’t know if I can call myself an early adaptor to technology but during my first year at university, not many of my classmates used Facebook. It was 2007, and everyone was like, “What’s Facebook?”, “What’s a blog?” I started blogging in 2007 and one of my professors asked me to teach my classmates these tools. I also enjoyed reading IT magazines, even if I couldn’t afford to buy them. I’d stand at the news stalls on the way to school and flick through the pages. I didn’t have a computer or internet on my phone. I could only afford to buy a standard phone in my second year so AFP could contact me. Technology was really expensive then.

What got you hooked?

I wasn’t educated in English in high school so I picked up the language here and there, watching bootleg American movies from the Russian Market. Back then it was expensive to get books so I saved a few dollars a week to buy English books. In 2003, I learned to use the internet and learned so much through English chatrooms. This got me interested because it enabled me to connect with a lot of people. I also enjoy writing, even if my English then wasn’t great so started the blog. I really pushed myself, especially when I started working for AFP. It was hard. Maybe the younger generation behind me have more opportunity; there are more schools and fees are more affordable. Back then it was so expensive but it taught me to be resilient and appreciate things.

You recently launched your own company. How did that happen?

After Loy9 finished, I got into marketing and managed the local digital team for an advertising company that covered Indochina. I then spent six months working in communications for a USAID-funded technology project, before going to grad school. I studied for an MA in public policy at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

I was fortunate to study with 70 people from 40 countries so my network expanded. I met my business partners there, and at the end of 2016 I got back to Cambodia and set up a small digital team to service clients in Phnom Penh. My business partners suggested I help them expand into Cambodia so in April we launched RedHill here, offering PR, communication strategies and digital marketing. 

How is the advertising and marketing landscape evolving?

I’ve noticed a change in a lot of companies’ understanding that their reputation needs to be maintained and managed. Cambodia is not the same place any more. There are more multi-national and regional companies eyeing up opportunities to invest here, so a lot of companies have realised the need to have good PR. .

You were named as one of Forbes 30 under 30s in 2017. Why?

It was within their media, advertising and marketing category and I was so surprised. I was awarded it for my regional work. When I was a reporter, I got to work with lot of companies in Southeast Asia and attended a lot of conferences; opportunities just kept following me. Journalism, marketing, advertising, they all require someone to maintain relationships, and I felt that at one point all of these things connected for me. Like Steve Jobs said, all the dot just connected.

What are your plans for the future?

We hope to expand [RedHill] into more parts of Asia. We are now present in 10 cities. We are a Southeast Asia agency trying to go global, when usually it is the other way around. In Cambodia, we want to provide support to SMEs and start-ups because sometimes they overlook the importance of PR and marketing. 

What has been key to your success?

I’m not sure if I’d call myself successful because I feel like what I want is up there and I’m still down here. It’s a journey, and the excitement along the way keeps me going. I love to see satisfaction in my clients. I have also been collaborating with the US Embassy to help motivate women to go into business. It’s all these little things that keep me excited about my job and keep me moving forward.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

I only have one this year. Melinda Gates inspired me when she said don’t do too many things because they are easier to achieve. People in my generation feel they can do more. When I graduated, people would go for an NGO job, right now entrepreneurship and start-up are buzz words. We have a very bitter and difficult past. I look at my parents’ generation and feel so bad and want to contribute to a brighter future. We have a lot of optimism, my generation. If not now, then when? I realise you only learn when put yourself in an uncomfortable situation. That’s my mantra for 2018.

Follow Kounila’s blog at blueladyblog.com.