Champion for Change: Rachel Dodson

Rachel Dodson of Penh Lenh {Jesi Lee Photography}Photo by Jesi Lee Photography

In 2013, Rachel Dodson, founder of Penh Lenh, left her fast-paced job as a modeling agent in New York City to pursue a career in serving and empowering marginalized women. It was then that Rachel traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and saw the need for women to be educated and provided with self-sustaining jobs. Just a couple months later, her bags were packed for good. Thus began Penh Lenh.

Over four years, Penh Lenh has grown into an internationally recognized jewelry company that not only produces unique and bold pieces, but also serves its artisans through quality education, sustaining employment, and female empowerment. You can follow Rachel and Penh Lenh on Instagram at @penhlenhdesigns.

Please describe a typical day as founder and CEO of Penh Lenh.

My mornings always, without fail start with coffee … strong and black. I live just a few blocks away from Penh Lenh in the bustling city of Phnom Penh, so I drive over to the shop on my motorbike. Most days I arrive to see the artisan’s smiling faces waiting outside of Penh Lenh. Our workshop is bright with the most amazing natural light, and you can pretty much guarantee if you come to visit us, we will be listening to pop music (as requested by the artisans). As our artisans eat breakfast, Srey Mao (my right-hand girl in all things Penh Lenh) and I meet to discuss new orders, current order statuses, and set daily production goals for each artisan. I wear many hats, and my days are filled balancing responsibilities between building curriculum for our skill and job training, leading staff trainings, individual staff check-ins, designing, building and maintaining customer and partner relationships (domestic and abroad), social media/web/marketing, scheduling and managing our community service outreach program, scheduling events to host at our shop, and all the other day-to-day business dealings that come my way.

There literally never seem to be enough hours in the day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wake up every day and am still excited to go to work and feel privileged I get to do this work. I recognize how rare that is and will never take it for granted.  

Please tell us about your decision to relocate to Cambodia to run a program that provides education, employment, and empowerment to marginalized and at-risk young women. Was there a pivotal moment in your life that informed your decision to start the program?

After several years of working as a modeling agent and owning my own agency in Nashville, I moved to NYC to work at an agency and climb up the proverbial ladder. I had been aware of the issue of sex trafficking and exploitation, however, once I moved to New York, I spent time educating myself further on the issue. As I learned more about these issues and the lack of opportunities for marginalized and at-risk young women I literally hit a point where I HAD to do something. In college I studied business and marketing, so the idea of creating a social business was something that made sense to me and felt more sustainable in the long term.

Penh Lenh truly became a reality and necessity after I travelled to Cambodia and felt the weight of the need for a program like Penh Lenh.

Who were your role models and/or mentors growing up?

It might be cliche to say, but my mom has always been my biggest role model and mentor. She taught me how to be independent, never settle, persevere, and be confident in myself and the decisions I make. She showed me how to be strong and humble and the same time, which is a beautiful combination. Her generosity is authentic and for every opportunity she lacked in her life, she made sure I lacked nothing. Above all, she led by example and showed me how to approach every situation with love and grace. And even though I know it broke her heart to see me move across the world to follow my passion, she is my biggest encourager and cheerleader!

Beaded and Tassel Bracelets 2 {Jacob Taylor - The Little Market}Photo by Jacob Taylor

How did you become interested in the empowerment of young women?

Like many things, my interest started by being educated on social justice issues.  For me, it began almost as an indignation against the injustice of sexual exploitation, trafficking, and gender inequality. In the beginning my head was filled with troubling statistics, but I had lived a life of privilege and didn’t know how to truly relate or help. Once I moved to Cambodia, everything changed for me. I was immersed in a culture where the gender inequalities are still so vast, corruption is a regular part of life, and sexual exploitation along with countless other injustices are hidden in plain sight. The statistics I read about suddenly had faces and names. For the first time in my life, I was also the minority, couldn’t speak the local language, or understand the local customs. All of this combined allowed me to empathize in a new way, and I was no longer just interested in empowerment, it became my passion.

What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?

The typical pressure that comes along with owning a business is a feeling I had known before, however, there is also an emotional stress that comes with running a social business. Working with the specific demographic of young women that Penh Lenh employs comes with new challenges I was unfamiliar with in the beginning. Not only did I feel responsible to keep the business going for each artisan’s financial security, but I felt a responsibility to their emotional well-being, health, and future. After four years, I am able to balance these pressures and recognize that it is because of these challenges I am able to stay motivated and passionate to give my all day after day.  

There are so many aspects of my job that are rewarding! I think it can all be summed up in seeing growth in the artisans. From seeing their jewelry making skills develop and deepen, to watching their mind expand with new ideas, and watching their self confidence grow day to day and month by month. All of this growth results in true impact and their individual ability to live self-sustained lives. Watching our artisans take pride in their accomplishments may be the absolute best thing about my job!

Can you share with us any new projects that you look forward to working on?

We just launched a line of affordable T-shirts here in Cambodia with the phrase, “Women are Gold” printed in Khmer. In Khmer, there is a saying, “Men are gold, women are a white cloth,” which implies men are strong and cannot be stained or lose their value. While women, like a white cloth, once dirty, are stained forever. Our Penh Lenh team designed this shirt together to challenge this thinking, and our artisans are excited to lead the way toward equality!  

We also hope to use the curriculum from our Women’s Empowerment class to empower women in the community. It is our dream to create easy to read and understand booklets or leaflets that our artisans can use to educate women in the community. We want to empower our artisans to be leaders and eventually incorporate the empowerment curriculum into our service projects.

Rachel Dodson of Penh Lenh Image 2 {Jesi Lee Photography}Photo by Jesi Lee Photography

What is your life motto?

“Use what’s in your hand to fulfill what’s in your heart.” – Brian Houston

I’m not sure if it qualifies as a life motto, but this quote has certainly been the motto for Penh Lenh. For me, this affirms that whatever our passions may be, God will always give us enough. We will never be lacking if we simply give what we have to God and allow him to use it and transform it for his purpose.  

We’ve read that Penh Lenh means “whole.” Please tell us how the name was chosen and how the program’s mission is reflective of its name.  

When I first came to Cambodia, I was told the local term for any marginalized, sexually abused, or trafficked woman was “broken girl.” The moment I heard this, my heart literally hurt for these girls and women. I wanted everything about Penh Lenh to combat this idea and promote the opposite of “brokenness.” So, it started with a name that represents fullness, completeness, and lacking for nothing.  

Our mission of empowerment through education, skill training, and job opportunities is a holistic reflection of our name. It is our goal that each Penh Lenh artisan and employee would not only become self-sufficient but also live whole, healthy and vibrant lives.    

You describe how the Penh Lenh team has made a conscious effort to set yourselves apart “not only through [your] beautiful, unique jewelry, but also by being a company that is filled with gratitude and generosity.” How do you convey the deeper meaning behind these beautiful products to your audience?

It has always been our goal to serve our artisans whole-heartedly, but also give our artisans the opportunity to know the joy of giving as well. We believe that worldwide change comes from within and our team strives to be messengers of generosity and equality in the workshop and throughout our community. Our team aims to serve our community through regular service projects including serving meals and clothing to children living in the slums of Cambodia, preparing sanitary packages for women working at KTVs and on the streets, and giving out clothes and shoes to children living on the streets. Serving the marginalized and often abused women and children of our city gives Penh Lenh the chance to illustrate our message of kindness, generosity, and hope where those things often lay dormant.

Artisans at Penh Lenh in CambodiaPhoto courtesy of Penh Lenh

Penh Lenh is a small team doing big things. Tell us a little about the artisans and what makes them so special.

This is a hard question to answer because there is SO much I want to say!  Our artisans are strong, vibrant, hilarious, persevering, and straight up champions. Each has their own unique story of triumph. Through all of their individual struggles and challenges, they are the most resilient and inspiring young women I have the privilege to know.  

I could name a million things that make them special.  From they way they care for another and have each others backs, to the way Srey Vin sings at full volume when she has her headphones in, or how Heng has an unending love for Justin Bieber, or how Srey Ya laughs in a way it is impossible not to laugh with her. SongLy is always up for a good prank, and even when Srey Mao is the receiver of the pranks she is selfless to her core and only wants to serve the artisans with all her heart. I have found that most people expect there to be a sadness in working with young women with backgrounds similar to our artisans, however, the opposite could not be more true. There is a hope and joy that far outweighs the despair.

Beaded Tassel Bracelets from CambodiaPhoto by Jacob Taylor

In addition to vocational development, Penh Lenh also focuses on empowerment through interpersonal skills and community development. We know that the artisans love the Women’s Empowerment class. Please tell us a little bit about what they learn and how they apply it in their daily lives.

Our Women’s Empowerment class is our artisan’s absolutely favorite class we offer! Not only is it their favorite class, we have also see this class result in the most impact and change in our artisans’ lives.  We have covered a wide range of topics including beauty standards, gender stereotypes, diversity, oppression, sexual harassment, sexism, menstruation, sexual reproductive health, safe and responsible sex, and bullying to name a few. Creating a platform and safe space for these discussions and educational opportunities to take place has been incredibly empowering for our artisans.  

One of our artisans recently shared with us that previously, she did not understand her worth and had low self confidence. However, after having the opportunity to join in our Women’s Empowerment class, she says she now knows her worth, sees herself as beautiful, and is able to have better relationships. How good is that! On another occasion, our artisans had gone out during their break time to buy some fruit for a snack and the male seller said something rude to one of the girls about her appearance. When they came back to the shop, she was crying and explained to management what happened. The artisans all decided they wanted to go back with management and confront the seller; they wanted to not only stick up for their fellow artisan against bullying, but help teach the seller why what he said was inappropriate. To us, this is true empowerment. Seeing the dialogue spread beyond our team and impacting the community as well.        

We love how you support these talented women in a number of ways. Could you tell us about some of the programs you offer, such as the subsidized lunch program?

We continually strive to look inward and assess our programs to see how effectively we are making an impact and what gaps we are missing. As a result, over the past four years we have changed and added several programs to fill in the gaps and meet our artisans where they’re at as we aim to support each young woman. Each week, we offer our artisans English classes, Professional & Budgeting skills class, and a Female Empowerment class. We also offer additional courses ranging from nutrition and physical wellness, cooking, life-skills, and more. For example, right now our artisans are learning about climate change and how they can make a difference in their city.  

Penh Lenh also supports our staff through our subsidized breakfast and lunch program. After having a nutritionist come in and teach the artisans about health and wellness, we wanted to model healthy living and eating, which sparked the idea for our subsidized food programs. In addition, Penh Lenh also provides healthcare, proper paid vacation and sick leave, paid maternity leave, and help with transportation to and from work for employees who have none.

Please share with us a little bit about your design process. Where do you find inspiration? Do the artisans sometimes come up with new designs themselves?

Our design process typically always starts with colors.  We are inspired by colors and when designing anything new we find our process works best when we choose our color palette first. Each season and each collection is different and can be inspired by something new  Srey Mao and I meet to discuss what we are are currently inspired by and build an inspiration board of colors, silhouettes, styles, and other inspiration. We always aim to create jewelry that is high quality, unique, and on-trend without falling into the trap of being a fad. Srey Mao and I design together and that is what truly makes Penh Lenh unique, fusing both our American and Cambodian aesthetic together. We always involve the artisans in the process as well, getting their feedback, ideas, and input in the designs and decisions.  

Beaded Tassel Bracelets from CambodiaPhoto courtesy of Penh Lenh

According to the U.S. Department of State, “Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.” Please tell us how Penh Lenh and other anti-slavery organizations are creating opportunities for survivors of trafficking.

In addition to this, it is said that 70 percent of women in Cambodia are in vulnerable employment and 15,000 women in Phnom Penh alone work in drug or sex-related industries, often with the hope of being able to support their families.  

Penh Lenh seeks to combat these statistics and these industries by not only creating safe and dignified employment opportunities, but by taking our mission into the community as well. We believe by setting higher standards of salaries, health care benefits, providing daily meals, and a safe and dignified work environment, we are not only impacting the lives of our staff, but the communities around us. In fact, we believe we can be part of a movement that inspires conversations that in turn bring about change.

In addition to supporting an amazing program like Penh Lenh, what can each of us do to contribute to anti-slavery efforts?

I remember when I was still living in the U.S. feeling like there was nothing I could do to actually help. I wondered, “How could my money or my purchases make a difference in grand scheme of things?” The amazing thing about living here in Cambodia is that my eyes have been opened to see how much people can truly make a difference. There are SO many wonderful people here in Cambodia, in the U.S., and globally doing amazing work, and it is all possible because of people that support financially or who simply take a little extra time with their purchases to be informed and support ethically made brands. Buying from brands like Penh Lenh and The Little Market really does create change and empower lives!

I would encourage anyone wanting to contribute to anti-slavery efforts to first educate themselves and be informed. Give to organizations who are transparent about how they spend their money and be skeptical of those that use sensationalized stories to seek support and funding. Using survivors’ stories without their consent to garner support can be another form of exploitation. Volunteering is always a great way to contribute as well. Find an organization or social business that you feel passionate about and volunteer!

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  • Great accomplishments by a very caring lady who wishes to provide assistance in many ways to some very appreciative women. It illustrates how special and brave Rachel is to take on such a mission to serve and help those who really need help in a Country far from her own. I wish her much luck in the future.

  • What an intriguing, interesting, inspirational blog this is. I am thankful to be learn more about what this beautiful lady is doing in Cambodia. How amazing that she has created this business and provides all of these services for these needy women so unselfishly and lovingly. May God continue to bless her in this mission and keep her safe. It is a joy to recognize my great-niece who is doing great things. Love you. Aunt Bea

  • Very good article about what you do in Cambodia. I was glad to read it. If There’s anyone that can truly make a difference in Cambodian it would be you. Love you Dad