Despite leading her eight-member team down the garden path several times, leader Priyanith Keo, whose team also made repeated mistakes of interpreting instructions, emerged victors of the final challenge of the inagural SmartEdu University Student Development Program (USDP), the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Challenge, on Saturday.
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“There were lots of ups and downs because we didn’t start together as a team, so we didn’t know each others strengths and weaknesses. We also understood the instructions wrongly, and made wrong management decisions.
“There were times, we focused too much on a smaller part and forgot the bigger picture, also because I led the team down the wrong path many times but our coaches said it is better to make early and frequent mistakes. Then only we can learn better,” Keo, 20, said laughing as she comes to terms with their victory and their $1,800 cash reward.
The team was given the challenge of reducing Smart Axiata’s cost of handling high call traffic, made up mostly of low-value calls, and managing the calls in a cost-effective and prudent way, utilizing exiting and new digital solutions.
The problem statement was among three different problem-solving cases, respectively drawn up by Smart Axiata, Sabay Digital Group Pte Ltd, and AIA (Cambodia) Life Insurance Plc for the final challenge.
The three teams presenting on Saturday, also in the presence of Education, Youth and Sport Minister H.E. Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry Secretary of State H.E. Dr. Kan Channmeta, and Economic and Finance Ministry Under Secretary of State H.E. Dr. Ieng Sunly, were selected out of six teams at the semi-final to pitch to the CEOs and an independent CxO, to win the challenge at Sofitel Phnom Penh.
The CEO Challenge was part of the leading mobile telecommunication provider’s SmartEdu USDP, a 13-day business leadership bootcamp involving 48 undergraduates from 14 universities in Cambodia that was held in Siem Reap from Nov 15 to 27, 2018.
Smart Axiata launched the SmartEdu USDP in October 2018 in conjunction with a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Education, Youth and Sport, and Posts and Telecommunications ministries, respectively.
As part of the MoU, Smart Axiata committed to invest $1.5 million over three years into two SmartEdu programmes. A portion of the investment would be allocated from Smart Axiata’s contribution towards the Royal Government’s Capacity Building and Research and Development Fund.
Shortlisted USDP candidates chosen for their academic, leadership and co-curriculum performance underwent four other rigorous business simulations where they were given tight timelines to complete their tasks, take risks and propose solutions.
The challenges include pitching a new product launch idea, handling a press conference, managing budgets and cashflows of a car production factory, and pitching a business turnaround plan for a technology company.
Over ten business models, frameworks and tools were introduced apart from interactions with Smart Axiata CEO Thomas Hundt, National Bank of Cambodia Assistant Governor H.E. Chea Serey, and Economic and Finance Ministry Secretary of State H.E. Vongsey Vissoth.
They also attended four masterclasses – communication, critical skills, creativity and emotional intelligence, and underwent 360-degree feedback, and personal coaching.
The programme hopes to develop Cambodia’s top digital and business minds with the tools and skills to help drive the nation’s tech landscape.
While picking the best overall team that won $1,200, the telco also rewarded eight individuals with a fully-sponsored two-month work exposure at its parent company, Axiata Group Bhd and other subsidiaries in Malaysia, for their top performance throughout the bootcamp.
The individuals comprise Vireak Kunthy, Chandevipha Hourn, Lay Cheavita, Vuthy Oudomdavid, Pov Sokhom, Teng Seavpor, Putheary Phan, and Keo.
“Being an arts background student, some of the smaller challenges were difficult as they were data-oriented, and involved lots of maths which I found hard to understand but I learnt to trust my teammates, and be inter-dependent but not co-dependent,” said Keo, a double-degree second year student of International Relations with Zaman University, and Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the Institute of Foreign Languages.
Banking major Puthery said although she was familiar with some of the financial terms and problem-solving cases, she struggled through the challenges because it involved cracking real financial and management issues.
Most of her learning was in theory but when thrown into real-life situations with trainers playing the role of CEOs, board of directors and investors, it was an eye-opener.
“There were many moments my teammates cried, thinking if we could not do this. It was quite an experience being among the best,” said the 19-year-old Acleda Institute of Business sophomore, wiping away her tears.
Another student, Sopheak Kanha, 19, said her biggest challenge was trying to stay awake till 2am or 3am everyday apart from the conflicts with her colleagues.
“It was tiring but worth it because it taught us to push the limits. It also helped to build my self-esteem. The coaches were good because they guided us to meet expectations,” said Kanha, a BA in International Business Management student with the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Axiata Young Talent Programme (AYTP) head Rohaiza Ahmad said the SmartEdu USDP is modelled after the Malaysian-run University Leadership Development Programme (ULDP), part of Axiata’s overall vision to create future CEOs and leaders of the world.
“Smart Axiata introduced the SmartEdu USDP in Cambodia to lead the country’s tech industry into the future and test their aptitude for learning real-life problem-solving skills. It is difficult to find talent in Cambodia, in fact everywhere. It is a challenge corporate companies face everywhere.
“Talent has always been important for the whole group, so this is one way to create a talent pool for the companies,” Rohaiza told Khmer Times.
In Malaysia, the group runs three annual projects under the AYTP with a 100 million ringgit ($24 million) allocation for 2011 to 2020.
To date, some $15.31 million has been utilised for the School Leadership Programme, ULDP, and Young CEO Development Programme, with some 1,660 Malaysian participants aged between 13 and 29 impacted.
In Indonesia, subsidiary PT XL Axiata Tbk has been running the Future Leaders Programme in six regions where some 650 undergrads have undergone the course since 2013.
Rohaiza said based on her observation in Indonesia and Cambodia, the growth of understanding and knowledge-absorption among the participants is very high.
“They are so hungry for knowledge. They don’t give up and want to learn more. I am amazed by their appetite and eagerness,” she explained.
Smart Axiata’s Thomas Hundt expressed his admiration over the students’ performance in his speech, saying how he was inspired and encouraged by them.
“We believe that all of you in the crowd are the ones who will lead the Kingdom’s tech industry into the future. I spent some time with the participants and I have to say that the future really looks bright for Cambodia.”
“Their drive, commitment and level of curiosity are absolutely superb. I look forward to enriching the Kingdom’s information and communications technology sector with these talents,” he said.
He added: “For those who didn’t know, the bootcamp was really intensive. They had many sleepless nights, some arguments and even broke down but none of them gave up. They impressed the facilitators, mentors and judges all the way”.
Hundt expressed confidence that the cogs are already turning for the emergence of resilient digital corporate leaders in the future.