A Cambodian Woman in Business, And as Strong as Silk

Seng Takakneary started her business in a one-room shop with two sewing machines in 2004.

Today, Ms. Takakneary’s Sentosa Silk employs around 100 staff in Phnom Penh who produce a range of fine Cambodian silk items, including pillows, curtains, bedspreads, dresses, shirts and bags. Since opening eight years ago, Sentosa has found a natural market locally, and is gaining strong ground internationally.

And as the female owner-director-designer of a fast growing silk business, Ms. Takakneary has plenty of advice for other female Cambodian entrepreneurs. Most importantly, she says, plan ahead, and expect that the beginning of a business is going to be very hard work.

“I started alone with a blank piece of paper. I didn’t know anything about silk or designing and had no business plan,” the attractive 48-year-old said in an interview at her new retail outlet, Salt, on Street 294, in the Boeng Keng Kang neighborhood.

“You have to have a clear plan with everything prepared before you begin,” said Ms. Takakneary, who answered a reporter’s questions as she buzzed around her new boutique arranging her silk attire on mannequins.

“Don’t start if you’re not ready, because it’s a very, very hard time at the beginning.”

The toughest challenge Ms. Takakneary said she faced was when she opened her business but was isolated from the knowledge and networks that every nascent entrepreneur needs to get started.

“There was a lack of information, networking, [business] associations and a feeling of solidarity,” she recounted of the business environment at that time.

Another hurdle was battling the perception that a Cambodian woman’s place was inside the house.

“The traditional role is that women stay at home. In a man’s mind, he never thinks a women is great,” said Ms. Takakneary, a mother of three.

“My daughter used to cry and ask me to quit to spend more time with her. I know many businesswomen whose husbands leave them because they think the women work too much,” said Ms. Takakneary, who grew up in Phnom Penh with her mother and six siblings. Her late father, a university professor, died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
But balking tradition and building her business has paid off: Sentosa Silk’s earnings have increased every year (Ms. Takakneary declined to reveal financial details), while international orders, which are growing rapidly, now constitute 20 percent of her total sales.

Salt, which opened last week, is Ms. Takakneary’s second retail outlet that builds on her flagship store on the corner of Street 178 and Sothearos Boulevard.

Though more Cambodian women are venturing into the small-business sector, Ms. Takakneary said that a more fundamental shift is needed when it comes to Cambodian women doing business.

“The role of Cambodian women needs to change. More women need to step up, have goals, contribute their skills and stop being soft. Quiet means nothing. Do something.”

And doing that something was how she got started.

Having worked for seven years in an uninspiring clerical job with a Japanese trading firm, Ms. Takakneary wanted to do something creative. So she began checking out the handicraft market in Phnom Penh. And it was there that she noticed a gap in the market for high quality Cambodian silk items.

Now her designs and products have become so popular that major hotels, including the Himawari and Sokha, use her curtains, cushion covers, pillows and bedspreads, while she has designed uniforms for staff at several major companies, including ANZ Royal Bank.

Drawing inspiration from nature, tradition Khmer motifs and visits to different countries, Ms. Takakneary designs her products from a studio inside her Sothearos Boulevard shop. Her days are spent manages everything herself, from company administration to providing customer service on the shop floor.

“I had a dream. Sure, capital is important, but ambition is the most important part,” she said.

Ms. Takakneary believes the future of Cambodia’s economic development lies in its natural resources: rubber plantations, paddy rice, and cassava, and the country’s agricultural potential will be achieved as the country attracts more international investors.

Cambodian silk too, can compete on the international market because of its unique, natural quality-its woven, handmade structure and natural dyes, said Ms. Takakneary, adding that she wanted to work with silk because of its deep cultural heritage, and its ability to support silk-producing communities in rural areas.

When she is not designing and making the next deal, Ms. Takakneary is focused on her presidency of Cambodia’s first women entrepreneurs association ahead of its official launch on International Women’s Day next month. (As president of the Cambodian Women’s Entrepreneurs Association, she has been invited to Washington by the Asia Foundation to speak about women’s changing role in Asia.)

Cambodian women need to change too; Ms. Takakneary says they need to be stronger.

“I used to be soft, passive…but can’t anymore. I am a steel bar, not a sugarcane. Throw me a brick and I’ll build a wall.”

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