As a network aimed at helping Cambodia’s businesswomen shine is launched, writer Jessica Tana speaks to some of the inspiring females behind it. Photography by Enric Català.

“I doubt my children are going to hate me when they see I’m stepping out on my own,” Intan Kosem says from the foyer of her latest development project, a block of luxury condos in Tonle Bassac, called Habitat. “I’m creating a business so I can help them in the future,” she says.

A successful real estate developer, Kosem, like many women around the world, feels the need to defend her career-orientated lifestyle.

Leaving her children to be raised by their father in Australia lost her time as she debated for four years whether to do it, as well as facing fears from friends who couldn’t believe that she would move back to Cambodia to start her career, rather than be a stay-at-home-mum.

“I can be a much better mother by looking after my children’s future,” she says. “I can’t just sit at home and wait for them to finish university. What kind of a role model is that for my children to see? That that’s the only role for a woman, to stay at home.”

Creating a financial future for children to inherit is often regarded as a noble pursuit for fathers, but seen as bad parenting for mothers. Married women who spend too much time away from the house, and even single women who care more about running a business than starting a family, face the same stigma.

Then there are the challenges of being seen as less qualified, more gullible, sexually available or in the wrong industry that effect women in business.    

As part of International Women’s Day last month, a business network was launched by BritCham and AusCham to tackle these issues, prevalent for female entrepreneurs. From dealing with the stigma surrounding working women, to facing the challenges of working in Cambodia and dealing with border taxes and quality control, Women in Business (WIB) aims to encourage and aid businesswomen in the Kingdom.

Held at Raffles Hotel le Royal, the WIB launch saw moderator Katie Scheding Longhurst, head of digital at MangoTango Asia, lead a panel of four thriving boss ladies: founder of ethical garment factory Fairsew and bridal store Anne Noelle Bridal, Anneliese Helmy; owner of boutique pet store Edgar Allan Paw, Tisha Shelley; general manager of Emerald+ Property Management and café owner, Monypich Sou; and real-estate developer, Kosem.

“It was almost like I was supposed to be in the industry,” Kosem says. Cambodian born, she was schooled in Australia and studied hotel management in Switzerland. She went on to challenge everyone around her and applied to the prestigious Ivy League college, Cornell University. “Everyone told me not to do it,” she says. “They didn’t believe I could cope.”

She proved them wrong and graduated with a degree in hotel management and majors in finance, marketing and real estate – all as a single parent with her first-born daughter in tow.

Next, she landed a job with Malaysia’s legendary infrastructure conglomerate Yeoh Tiong Lay (YTL). A company so prosperous they had Pavarotti sing for staff at a private party, Kosem says.

As part of the job she coordinated three projects in Cambodia and found herself travelling between the two countries.

Eventually she moved back to Australia and had two more children, but in the process, she  found another way to stay connected with Cambodia.

Kosem and her partners created a wholesaling business using Cambodian silversmiths. She bought a container load of hand-crafted silver items with plans to sell them in Australia. “Cambodian crafted silver is the best in the world,” she says.

However, most did not sell, and Kosem was left out of pocket with an abundance of stock.

“My business that failed is actually my biggest success,” she recalls. During a trip to buy silver, Kosem invested in land in Phnom Penh. Within a year, it had tripled in value. “If I had not been here, buying the silver at the time, I would not have bought that block of land and made a lot of money.”

Selling the land enabled her to buy a block on Sothearos Boulevard, which she turned into apartments and commercial space. “If you open your eyes and really look around you can see how many opportunities are there,” she says. Once the apartments were sold, she bought Habitat. “Behind every failure is a success. That’s how I look at life.”

Speaking at WiB’s launch, Kosem relegated the positives of her failure and spoke of being a woman in business in the Kingdom of Wonder.

“There is actually less stigma here in Cambodia for working women,” she says. “Women here, are often the backbone of every small business.”

Asked what advice she would give to young female entrepreneurs in Cambodia, she smiled and says, “Innovation and persistence… and take risks, there is no reward in business without risk.” And Kosem herself, is a walking example.