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Initiative Seeks to Build a Bridge Between Silicon Valley and Cambodia​

Miss Maya Gilliss-Chapman, founder and CEO of Cambodians in Tech talks to VOA Khmer's Sophat Soeung during an interview at startup in Palo Alto, CA, in the heart of Silicon Valley, September 2, 2016. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)
Miss Maya Gilliss-Chapman, founder and CEO of Cambodians in Tech talks to VOA Khmer's Sophat Soeung during an interview at startup in Palo Alto, CA, in the heart of Silicon Valley, September 2, 2016. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Editor's note: Cambodians in Tech is a relatively new Silicon Valley-based organization that aims to increase the number of Cambodians in the tech industry, in the US and globally. Founded in 2014, the organization now claims to have members in four US states as well as in Cambodia, Switzerland, and Singapore. In its first attempt to create a direct link between Silicon Valley and Cambodia, CiT is organizing a hackathon #SVtoPP from November 26 - 27 in Phnom Penh. In September, VOA Khmer’s Sophat Soeung sat down with Cambodian-American Maya Gilliss-Chapman, founder of Cambodians in Tech, in Palo Alto, California, to discuss why she founded the organization, the upcoming hackathon and her views on Cambodia’s fledgling tech industry.

VOA: How did “Cambodians in Tech” come about?
MGC: It came about in a few ways. A few years ago, I was the only Cambodian in tech [in Silicon Valley]. Every April, I would say “Happy New Year!” and everyone around would say “Are you crazy?” because no one understood that that was Khmer New Year. So eventually I did meet another Cambodian in tech. And I was so surprised. We looked at each other and we were like “cheh Khmer?” [Do you speak Khmer?]. It was a great moment but I also realized that that’s a problem. If I feel this way, that’s so rare, and you need to meet another Cambodian in tech, why is this the case? So I did some research and according to the US 2010 census, less than 1% of the American population is Cambodian-American. And about a third of us live below the poverty line. And this is well-known, but when you live below the poverty-line, not a lot of people have access to resources. So about 54% of Cambodian-Americans over the age of 25 don’t have a high school diploma. So when you think about Silicon Valley and how they only recruit from Stanford, Harvard and my alma mater, UC Berkeley, it would make sense that they miss Cambodians, because a lot of Cambodians don’t go to those universities or they don’t pursue a technical degree. Learning about these statistics, I realized that I needed to figure out how to change this.

How many Cambodians have you helped bring into tech?
We have three pillars: community, education, and inspiration. Over the past two years, we’ve grown to over thirty members, across the US as well as four different countries in the world. To me that’s a lot because I can’t remember a time when I walked into a room of thirty Cambodians in tech. In terms of education, we’re implementing education initiatives in Seattle. We’re still working out the details, but I am in contact with the Cambodian association at Stanford and at Berkeley and trying to help the university students realizing that eventually we should be helping the youth as well, the younger generation, because that’s where it really begins, that’s where they get their skills. We just can’t do everything at once.

So far what has Cambodians in Tech done?
We haven’t had a huge get together yet. Everyone is welcome to come the hackathon in November in Cambodia, that’s the first one. That being said, not everyone has the financial means or the time to fly everywhere. So I actually visit each chapter. I host dinners and brunches with members from CiT and get to know them individually. We are also trying to fundraise, because in order to implement these educational initiatives I also need a lot more money than I have. So the end goal … is implementing educational programs such as coding classes or to provide computers and educational resources like teachers and textbooks, to teach the youth how to code as well as pursue a technical degree by offering scholarships. I think a lot of Cambodians don’t know that tech is an option, so we’re here to inspire them right now but once they get their foot in the door we’re here to say if you want to pursue a technical degree we’ll make it easier for you by offering this scholarship. That’s the end goal.

So far how do you fund yourself?
So far I personally fund it. I don’t have a problem with that right now but it is a problem when people want us to do so much more and I can’t do that. It costs thousands of dollars a year for me. I wish I could give tens of thousands of dollars to this, you have a scholarship ready to go but right now that’s not the case.

During your last trip to Cambodia, what surprised you as someone coming from Silicon Valley?
I didn’t realize this but I knew nothing about the tech scene in Cambodia. It’s so different than Silicon Valley. They were saying that money is not the main problem in Cambodia. People are willing to invest. The problem is getting more Cambodian entrepreneurs. So a lot of the tech companies in Cambodia are actually run by Chinese or French and there are less actual companies run by Cambodians. So that was surprising to me but at the same time it made sense. People would move there to start a startup. I get that. So they were excited to meet me, someone that is Cambodian and in tech, is someone they haven’t seen that much.

How optimistic are you about the tech scene in Cambodia?
I’m really optimistic. I don’t think I’m super well-versed about the tech scene in Cambodia. I think that one trip is only scratching the surface. But I do know that from my multiple trips from Cambodia that everyone is quite entrepreneurial. They don’t do tech startups but they have their own shops, they make their own clothes. I call it the Cambodian hussle. So we need to provide resources to the people that want to pursue tech, give them the best computers, provide them with the best teachers, give them access to scholarships. And then I think we will really create a bigger impact.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.