Nurturing Cambodia’s Entrepreneur Ecosystem

Melanie Mossard, Chief Executive Officer at Impact Hub Phnom Penh, shares her eight-year journey building Cambodia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to unlock the Kingdom’s social and environmental issues in the long-term
Melanie Mossard, CEO of Impact Hub Phnom Penh, shares her 8-year journey building Cambodia's entrepreneurial ecosystem to address social and environmental issues. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Melanie Mossard, CEO of Impact Hub Phnom Penh, shares her 8-year journey building Cambodia's entrepreneurial ecosystem to address social and environmental issues. Kiripost/Meas Molika

For the last eight years, Melanie Mossard, Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s Chief Executive Officer, has dedicated her life to nurturing Cambodia’s entrepreneur ecosystem to seed more entrepreneurial mindsets - a factor she regards as key to unlocking the nation’s social and environmental issues into the future.

This forms a strong part of Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s vision to create more sustainable and innovative businesses in Cambodia, while empowering the Kingdom’s youth and startups to contribute to solving social and environmental problems through entrepreneurship and leadership.

Hailing from France, Melanie majored in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Looking forward to expanding her knowledge and experience in entrepreneurship, she pursued her Master’s degree. For her final thesis, she decided to study “The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambodia”.

After completing her thesis, Melanie realized that the ecosystem of entrepreneurship in Cambodia is limited and was enthusiastic to be a pioneer in creating a business community. In 2015, she became Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s first employee after the global network was founded in the capital by four members.

“I’m so excited to be part of the first pioneer organization and really make a difference in the ecosystem,” Melanie said.

Impact Hub is a global network of locally-founded and operated impact innovation incubators, accelerators, coworking spaces, and nonprofit organizations that collectively own and govern Impact Hub Company, headquartered in Austria.

There are more than 106 Impact Hub institutions around the world, and Impact Hub Phnom Penh is one branch that operates as a social enterprise.

Impact Hub Phnom Penh envisions a Cambodia where youth and startups are empowered to solve social and environmental problems through entrepreneurship and leadership. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Impact Hub Phnom Penh envisions a Cambodia where youth and startups are empowered to solve social and environmental problems through entrepreneurship and leadership. Kiripost/Meas Molika

During her Master’s degree, Melanie was looking for an internship and found out that Impact Hub conducts work that aligns with her passion in terms of entrepreneurship.

“I applied to maybe 15 Impact Hubs around the world. Then I went to sleep and the next morning I received an email from Impact Hub Cambodia,” she recalled, reliving the excitement when she was selected to work in Impact Hub Cambodia.

She never expected to stay and work in Cambodia for such a long time, but her internship opportunity with Impact Hub Phnom Penh brought her to Cambodia and she has continued to build the team until today.

“I came here as a volunteer intern for six months and I thought I would only stay for six months. I will never leave after eight years,” she said with a smile.

First, she worked in the communication team before moving to program management. Later on, she became more interested in entrepreneurship and designing the programs. Four years later, the co-founder left and she became the co-lead for the Impact Hub Phnom Penh in 2019.

“I feel like Impact Hub is my small baby,” she said. “I think Impact Hub is a startup helping other startups because we’re growing at the same time. We have to find new models, find our communities. I would say as we learn, we also apply what we learn by managing our own company to share with the entrepreneurs we support.”

Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s vision is to build a sustainable innovative ecosystem in Cambodia by developing entrepreneurial mindsets.

“When people are more entrepreneurial, they can be better problem solvers; they can be better at managing resources. They can be better at working collaboratively and identifying the real problems that Cambodia faces and take action instead of waiting for a big company or the government to do something,” she said.

Initially, Impact Hub Phnom Penh focused on entrepreneurs as their target audience. It then spread its reach to students, educators, universities professors, content creators, and NGO leaders to spread the entrepreneurial knowledge to others.

There are four main pillars that Impact Hub Phnom Penh concentrates on. The first is entrepreneurship-supported programs related to sustainable development goals (SDGs), especially climate resilient, agriculture, health and well-being .

The second pillar, Media4Impact, is a support program and network to help creators, influencers and entrepreneurs produce impactful formats, grow engaged audiences and ultimately build viable media platforms.

The third pillar is related to environmental education and supporting young entrepreneurs on environmental topics. While the fourth focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion with the goal of supporting grassroot projects, NGOs, indigenous communities and people with disabilities to gain more knowledge.

“Our goal is to create an ecosystem. We need content creators first to expose to larger amounts of people about social environmental issues. We need lecturers to expose to youths about entrepreneurial mindsets. We have very few entrepreneurs because not many people want to become entrepreneurs,” she said.

“At the beginning, we reach a bigger audience and as they start to be passionate on the topics then we start to support them,” Melanie added.

Impact Hub Phnom Penh has mobilized about $890,000 in grants to support 120 groups since it first launched the grant programs for startups and young entrepreneurs. Grants range from about $2,000 to $40,000 and aim to help cut down on a startup’s expenditure during its early stages. This is after they have developed prototypes and want to launch physical products or services in the real market.

“There is a big gap for entrepreneurs to get started with their ideas. At first, they don’t have their own funding. Our goal is to make them test their products to see how it works and if there is a market for it, and to have some financial support so at least they don’t have to look for another job to cover their costs and can fully focus on this to make it happen,” she said.

Through her experience working with startups and entrepreneurs in Cambodia, Melanie discovered there are two crucial challenges that entrepreneurs most often face.

First is finding the right team with the same goals and commitment with diverse talents and skills to help run the business. “It is hard for entrepreneurs to attract the talents from the team and to build a strong team.”

Furthermore, she noticed that in Cambodia there are a lot of people who start their own business at a young age. In other countries, such as France, they wait until they are 40-years-old. However, she noted that it does not really matter what age people launch their business as long as they are passionate and eager to learn.

“I think the best age to start a business is at the age of 30-years-old. When you have a bit of experience, you are exposed to work experience and you are not too old to have the obligations for yourself,” she added.

Approximately 40 percent of startups can survive on their own after receiving the grants from Impact Hub Phnom Penh.

“For people that we have given money to, even though they fail, it’s ok. They have learnt so much because now they know how to manage a project and team, and they might be more mature than a lot of people who haven’t had experience before. That makes them a stronger employee or business later,” she said.

Business Challenges in Cambodia

Melanie raised the issue that the process of closing a business is difficult, while registering one is convenient.

“In Cambodia, to close a business you need to have a note and the audit needs to charge you a lot of penalties,” she said, adding that accessing the tax exemption framework is also a challenge for SMEs.

Currently, Impact Hub Phnom Penh is collaborating with Khmer Care to run fundraising campaigns to raise seven sets of funding to assist social entrepreneurs.

Beside the challenges in business operations, Melanie also sees opportunities for startups to test their business idea in the market.

“In Cambodia, it is easy to start things to test the market. You just create a Facebook page, post things online and then you see whether people like it or not, and you can sell it,” she said.

In addition, she sees the potential of the food processing industry, as well as agro-, education- and sustainability-related businesses to grow in the Cambodian market.

Social and environmental issues, and more divisions in society, are creating pressures in life, she noted. Finding more people to help solve these problems and transform business ideas are significant to make a change for the better.

“I realize that if we look around the world, the people who develop the best solutions to solve social and environmental issues are entrepreneurs who are really passionate about the topic and dedicate their lives to advocate about the issue,” Melanie mentioned, adding that these people need support and a community that believes in them.

She also believes that entrepreneurs can stay in the middle to connect government and associated stakeholders to solve social issues.

“We welcome everyone who decides to do something instead of waiting. And we want to be the first believer in their ideas and then give them the tools, the connection and funding to get started, especially provide emotional support for them,” she added.

Fun facts that Impact Hub Phnom Penh discovered are:

  • 24 is the average age of its entrepreneur community and 64 percent of its entrepreneur community are women
  • 73 percent of the teams in its last tech incubator were led by women
  • 100 percent of SmartSpark program winners evolve from idea to full time entrepreneurs

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