Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list is chosen from over 2,000 entries and is based on careful research by a team of reporters and vetted by an A-list of judges. The list features 300 young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs across Asia, all under the age of 30, who are challenging conventional wisdom and rewriting the rules for the next generation. One of the honorees is Cambodian Monirath Siv (Moni) who founded Teach for Cambodia. Siv serves as CEO and is working closely with participants to set a long-term vision that addresses the needs of disadvantaged communities in Cambodia. Key policy makers in Cambodia have sought out Teach for Cambodia for insights on their approach. The company has served over 52,000 children in 2018 alone with plans to ambitiously scale up the programme in the next 5 years. Eileen McCormick talks to Moni, who Forbes lists as Asia’s next generation of leaders.
GT2: Can you tell me about yourself?
Moni: I was born and raised in Cambodia and graduated from high school twice – once in Cambodia and then second time in the United States in California. I went on to college on a Fulbright scholarship and studied engineering in Washington University in St. Louis.
GT2: When did you become a Teach for America volunteer, which was a precursor for the Teach for Cambodia project?
Moni: In 2012 I was a Teach for America volunteer in the US. That summer, I came back to Cambodia briefly to do a community project in a low-income community. It was when I realized that engineering was not something I wanted to do. I wanted to do something very grassroots involving people on the ground. So when I went back to the US, I dropped out of engineering school. My university engineering counselor thought I had lost my mind. I then enrolled in the university’s medical anthropology programme. Then Teach for America recruited me after I finished college.
GT2: How did you start your own Teach for Cambodia project in 2015?
Moni: I found a research paper from Cambodia’s current Minster of Education, Youth and Sport on reforming the education system and I was really curious about what he wrote. After I read it I had this idea for Teach for Cambodia and contacted Minister Dr. Hang Chuon Naron directly. He really liked my idea. The minister read my proposal and got back to me the same day, saying my proposal aligned perfectly with what he was trying to achieve. Starting this project meant I had to turn down a lot of other offers and leave America to come back home.
GT2: How is your Teach for Cambodia project different from other programmes?
Moni: I think that what we are doing is complete and very different from other programme. It’s like creating a whole new space. We are not teaching a programme and we are not a school. We are a talent development programme for education. We are bringing all new education talent into the education work force. Our positioning is that we will produce a whole new source of leadership that can be tried out locally.
GT2: How do you deal with the ego volunteer complex?
Moni: I criticized, in my proposal, the power dynamics systems in current programmes. You can’t enter an education system that is broken or not operating at optimal level and expect to change it overnight. I want people who volunteer or work in these programs to have a mindset that they are not God and they are not special and neither should they see themselves as heroes. You can have volunteers who want to help the community but it is from an ego perspective. Volunteers have to have a realization that they are here because they want to learn alongside the community. They have to be the community’s allies. I don’t believe in one single solution. It needs to be a bit more like long-term and it requires a lot of patience. It’s more like running a marathon.
GT2: How is the Teach for Cambodia selection process?
Moni: Selection will be based on an online application where we ask general information and the reasons why the applicant is sending in his or her application. This is the first step. Based on the applicant’s experience and answers, if they pass the first phase we will invite them for a phone interview. After the phone interview, we would invite them to our assessment center to participate in a full day of activities. The activities include case studies to assess how they go about solving problems and how well they can work in a group.
We try to assess not only their logic but also their attitude. Those selected are not only teaching full time but also getting their Masters in Education from the Royal University of Phnom Penh. We started this partnership recently. Those selected into the programme are given a full scholarship.
GT2: What aspect do you look for in your volunteers whom you refer to as fellows?
Moni: We are looking for highly committed leaders because leadership is not a part time job. I’m looking for humble, committed passionate, competent leaders from all walks of life, and not just with a strong educational background. Humility, respect and patience are part of our strategy and to solve complex problems you need people from different fields. We know that creating transformational change or a revolution is a long-term process. Public education is a long-term game. Those leaders who try to change things overnight tend to burn out. You need to have immense patience when working to reform the education system.
The key is to be an ecosystem thinker or leader and this requires a mindset that if your ecosystem is not thriving you are also not thriving. The solution to this is finding the leaders within that ecosystem such as universities, parents etc. and partnering with them.
GT2: What is the ecosystem of the Cambodian educational system?
Moni: My understanding of Cambodia as an educational ecosystem is that are limited resources to open up opportunities. But there is a lot of space to imagine what education could be. During my time in America, it felt almost impossible to have systematic change because there was no space to reimagine it. That’s why I chose to work in Cambodia because there is just so much space to create.
Now we just need to find away to get our best and brightest to go into teaching and the education system versus finance and banking. If you look at thriving education systems globally, all of them have one thing in common: the best and most committed are teaching and helping reform the education system. And look at Korea, where they have made positive changes in their education system and this in turn allowed the economy to make a big jump forward.
GT2: Why not concentrate on resources? Why focus on leadership?
Moni: I chose the harder job which is to invest in leadership because not many programmes focus on real human beings. Instead it’s like let’s give these kids more infrastructure. But at the end of the day, these things can be replaced. On the other hand, you cannot replace people. If you go into these marginalized communities, what is the one thing they need? Another laptop? Of course, no! The most-at-risk kid needs an adult in their life who cares about them. So I think prioritizing leadership skills before resources is the best solution. We want teachers to build a foundation as leaders in the class room and in their communities.
GT2: What advice do you have for youths wanting to start an impactful project like Teach for Cambodia?
Moni: My advice is to stay committed. Before reaching higher to a leadership role, you need to clear with yourself and ask why you want to do it. As far as planning is concerned, you need to be clear. If it involves technology that is fast changing, you have to move much faster. So be aware of what to plan and how to plan for it. Also building up a committed team is a must. Together you can really make it happen. Another key aspect is selecting a strong board of directors because that can help secure your credibility with the government and other well established institutions. Of course, building you own self confidence matters a great deal. Don’t doubt yourself and have self-confidence. Before I started Teach for Cambodia I had done none of the things like team management, creating a board etc. I learned as I went by and opened myself up to coaches and mentors to help me.