Women entrepreneurs

Defying the Odds to Follow Her Dreams

Pong Limsan defied the wishes of her parents to follow her dreams in the male-dominated world of IT. Today, she heads a multi-million-dollar tech business that is transforming Cambodia’s health sector
Pong Limsan poses for picture in her office in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Pong Limsan poses for picture in her office in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Life has not always been easy for 42-year-old Pong Limsan. As a child, she lived with her mother’s aunt and was forced to work hard in rural areas. However, her hardships growing up only served to make her stronger and more determined to succeed.

As an adult, she faced different challenges working as a woman in what is traditionally seen as a man’s world. As a female coder, people often assumed she was a man - another factor that has added to her determination to break down gender barriers.

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Today, Limsan heads a multi-million dollar tech company, First Womentech Asia Co LTD (FWTA). The software development company was founded in May 2013 and specializes in hospital operating management systems.

FWTA’s product, Peth Yoeung, is a cloud-based hospital operating and health care platform that was developed in response to growing demand for hospitals to go online to reduce workload and make operations easier.

Limsan is from a family in Kandal province. When she was six-years-old, she was sent to live with her mother’s aunt who did not have any children.

She had to work hard but found inspiration by listening to the news on Voice of America (VoA) every night and morning.

From a young age, she knew education was key for her to succeed in her dreams.

“It hurt my feelings,” she said of her mother sending her away, adding that living with her aunt in fact made her life stronger. She had to work hard to try and finish her education.

As she listened daily to VoA’s inspiring stories, she knew she wanted to achieve something more than staying in the village, where many kids did not have access to higher education.

She saw medics visiting villages to treat people and thought of pursuing a job in the sector. In the evenings, elder people would gather and talk about politics, further encouraging her dream to be educated.

“It was my ambition and when doing something, I don't want to do easy work,” she said, adding that in school, she was good at mathematics and fell in love with Information Technology after hearing about it from a friend who had studied it.

“WE DON'T JUST QUIT WORK”

Limsan finished high school in 1998 and went on to study IT at university, where there were only a handful of females. Most did not go on to work in the IT sector after graduation.

“I want more women to be involved in tech. During my generation, three women studied and when they graduated, they worked as cashiers while some others stayed home after marriage. I don't want women to stay home because women are part of social development,” she said.

“Women are the backbone,” she said, adding that her and her husband Bin Socheat, a former journalist and NGO worker from Kampong Thom, take turns looking after their two children - a 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son - as they both struggled to continue in their professions.

“We must find solutions to things; we don't just quit work. When people quit, social problems and family issues occur, but if couples can work and earn money together, families grow. Our children are also happy,” she said.

“If women stay at home, there are risks. That's why I want women to be involved in technology, so it helps their business.”

In the 1990s, her mother pushed Limsan to study medicine. However, she defied her mother’s wishes and went on to pursue IT.

Lim Pongsan speaks during a recent interview in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Lim Pongsan speaks during a recent interview in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

“I DON’T BURN FORESTS”

Limsan went on to study IT at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), graduating with a bachelor and master degrees. During her studies, Limsan worked as an intern at a leading local bank, where she realized she would never work at a large corporation. Instead, she wanted to start something from scratch that would help others grow.

In 2002, she worked on a Danish-funded project in Preah Sihanouk province as a consultant working with ministries of land management, environment and agriculture. This provided her with opportunities and experience as the only female IT staff there. The other female worker was a cleaner.

There, she was in charge of the computer network, building systems, administrative work and other related computer management tasks.

From there, she went on to work with other foreign funded projects, learning new skills, such as writing proposals and bidding processes, in addition to her coding knowledge.

Limsan said she is also good at building relationships with people. “When I work, I don't burn the forests, the forests are still the forests, meaning that once I am done working, I will never abandon that place. I keep connections, and that’s my special thing.”

In 2010, after she gave birth to her first child and decided to take a risk by becoming an independent consultant, defying various discriminations as a female entrepreneur.

Many people thought of her as a man because her name sounds masculine. Whenever she went on stage to speak, people were surprised.

“As an IT person, people thought that it’s a man’s job. At the beginning, people were not happy with me, they thought I couldn't do the work but in the end, I could do it. I’ve always had connections and people trust me,” she said.

“When I could do the work, people began to trust me and then I kept building connections.”

In 2012, she started working with Ministry of Health officials and saw business opportunities that can help people and society. She was assigned to conduct a survey about health financing in the health sector and noted a lot of paperwork was being used.

Another challenge she saw was that some women in rural areas could not read and write when attending health centers.

Another problem was finding documents and data about patients. People were unable to find medicines and, sometimes, patients would spend half a day waiting at hospitals.

Then, she had the idea to create Peth Yoeung. However, people told her it is impossible due to the lack of internet access and difficulties changing doctors’ mindsets to use the system.

“When we start a business, we must know a lot of information. At the time I just knew I wanted to help people, to help people become digitally connected, to have a system to change, and how a market strategy would be, I didn't know yet.”

In 2013, she began quietly planning the business but waited until it was officially registered in 2015 to share it. She used her consultant salary and sold land to fund the project, while her husband’s salary paid for the family’s expenses.

She said millions of dollars have already been invested in Peth Yoeung to ensure the system is watertight and can be immediately fixed if anything goes wrong.

“Peth Yoeung was created out of passion and if there are people who want to invest in the digital health sector, they need to really love it out of their heart. If investors want to put in money for profits, don’t do it,” Limsan said.

“When doing business in the health sector, we must think about life first. I am in this because I love it. If I used my money to buy land, I don’t know how rich I would become, I would have become Oknha already. But I want to help women and society.”

As the company CEO, Pongsan said she is not the type of executive who sits behind a desk in the office and prefers to be out in the field. Sometimes she travels alone, for instance, to work in Battambang province.

She likes to be hands on and goes out to check whether systems are working in clinics and hospitals. It is not just for the money, she said, adding that the aim is to help hospitals understand the work well.

“Our vision is to develop our country’s health system to be digital and we are part of the help for medics,” she said.

Hundreds of hospitals have signed up to use Peth Yoeung’s services countrywide, and the next step is to launch E-health. This is in response to a lack of understanding of what people are sick with and where to seek treatment. The digital app will help patients and doctors connect.

A patient is administered a card that they can use at different hospitals. It stores the history of patients in apps - My Clinic and E Health. The card is connected to the apps.

For example, an app will alert a person to get a vaccination booster. There are also videos in the apps that provide health tips. One of the apps also allows patients to contact doctors directly to ask questions and make appointments.

Limsan said that in 2020 during Covid, her business grew in size of users. However, business was affected in 2021 when hospitals and clinics closed during lockdown amid the pandemic’s peak.

In 2020, she saw growth because her business allowed medical people to continue their work without having to meet patients. They were able to remotely access patients’ history and provide prescriptions.

The number of users as of July this year has equaled the entire of 2020 after the implementation of a government policy that aims to accelerate digitalisation within the health sector.

Reflecting on her life, Limsan said her mother thought a daughter should stay at home and marry a husband at her parents’ wish. However, she defied that and went on to study IT. “We must have a plan and we must achieve it,” she said.

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