From Consulate in China to Crocheting in Cambodia

Godie Van de Paal is the Dutch founder of KOW (Kingdom of Wonder), a small, social enterprise apparel manufacturer that knits handmade, wool slippers in Siem Reap, Cambodia. After working for the Dutch government in China for some years, she and her family now call Siem Reap home. Professionals doing good spoke to Godie about her experience as the founder and as one of the first host organizations we have partnered with. Read more below about her journey starting a social enterprise with a focus on providing ethical, uplifting, and fair employment for local Cambodian women.

What motivated you to found KOW in 2015?

We came here for my husband’s job. I was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Shanghai, China and my husband worked for Pactics. He was transferred here and we decided to move here with our kids, I knew I wanted to set up a business as I come from an entrepreneurial family and always wanted to do it. I thought about what product or market is not here and what could I bring in? My comfortable, handmade wool slippers were worn out and the lady who used to make them didn’t do it anymore. That gave me the idea that in Cambodia there was the labor to make them so I had confidence in the product and all it needed was an upgrade in terms of design. I posted job ads for crocheters on Facebook and the people who responded got a crochet needle and yarn to make a sample. One young lady even taught herself online how to crochet through Youtube! She is now my production manager. Khmer women are very quick learners, good at hand work and even if they generally don’t know how to crochet, they learn quickly.

How did you decide on the name KOW?

It stands for Kingdom of Wonder (a nickname for Cambodia) and also is pronounced like ‘cow’ since Holland, where I am from, has so many cows!

How big is your team and why are you a social enterprise?

I have 5 full-time women knitting for me. We are for-profit social enterprise, as there are already plenty NGOs here and I wanted to supply sustainable employment. I wanted to find niche market, offer employment and do it in a fair and right way. I don’t need to get rich, I just want to be able to pay my bills and take care of my employees and in turn they take care of the business. That’s my philosophy and that’s why we have no retention problems. It’s important to me to create an atmosphere of trust at work and for them to tell me if something is wrong or if there is a problem. Building trust in a business is always a good investment. We work with a small team, have seasonal products (for European winters), build up stock, and ship out to Europe, so we have busy seasons. They can voluntarily do over-time for extra pay if they’d like. We sell online in Europe and had a soft launch in Holland last year and are planning to launch in the UK and Germany this year.

Why was your organization looking for a skilled volunteer? In what way did Pdg help you find the right one?

I talked to Luisa Gentile over lunch one day and she had skilled people in mind and I said I could use one as a small startup because even though we have an investment, I couldn’t afford to have someone here full-time. I needed help and in return could offer them insight into how a startup works. Luisa put me in touch with Eva Yulzari as she was interested in fair-trade and for the duration of the internship, she worked alongside me on topics across the board: preparing the company for certification; setting up a professional accounting system; writing an employee handbook; setting up a zero-waste project and much more. She would sit in with meetings with consultants and act as a sparring partner with me. Basically, she got the full experience of running a startup: the fun stuff and the not so fun stuff as well.

How did the professional volunteer make an actual, meaningful impact at your organization?

Eva came in at moment when we needed man-power and a marketing strategy. Her biggest impact was the administration side of things that we really needed to get done. But her work on social media and the marketing strategy was of great value as well. For me personally, I think the biggest impact was on me actually: having worked alone for 2 years, it was really nice to have a colleague to work and discuss things with. Because as an entrepreneur in a start-up, you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to making decisions.

What is the difference you noticed between having an intern/ student volunteering and a professional one?

I haven’t had any student volunteers here yet but working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, I had interns there under my supervision and they went from downright bad to excellent. It was too much of a risk to take on someone so young and if they can’t make it living in Cambodia. With Eva, I saw that she had lived in Indonesia and traveled and could be someone who could make a transition and hit the ground running. If I took on a young, inexperienced person it could take a month to get them up to speed and not even get any output from them. It can be a liability or risk to take someone inexperienced in the startup phase.

What advice would you give to a professional volunteer willing to volunteer in Cambodia? What does it take to make it a successful experience ?

You have to be open minded and if you travel abroad at all try to say yes to everything and go for it. Same goes with volunteering, whatever comes up, go out of your league of expertise and just say yes and don’t be afraid.

What advice would you give to a hosting organization looking for a professional volunteer?

Keep in mind that it’s not regular internship or volunteer opportunity. You need professional volunteers to have a good idea of what you can offer them in return. It is not just about taking from them, what can they get out of the experience? They come to volunteer professionally for a reason and you should listen to them and help facilitate what they want to learn and do then you will have a happy volunteer.

Are you going to repeat the experience and search for another pro volunteer in the future and why?

Yes, I would love to. We are already looking to have another Marketing and Communications volunteer through Professionals doing good again.