This Berkeley Grad is Building Teach For Cambodia
Jojo Lam speaks three languages and is working on a fourth: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer is a work in progress. An unusual mix to be sure – but one that starts making sense when you consider her life’s arc.
Born to Vietnamese parents in an Indonesian refugee camp, Jojo wound up at UC Berkeley, both for undergrad and later on staff at the Haas School of Business.
Now, she's adding Khmer – known to Americans as Cambodian – to her polyglot repertoire.
“I spent the first ten years of my career building up different skills without a clear idea of what it was all leading towards... but there was always this nagging question of whether I was really doing my part in the world.”
During a year-long sabbatical tracing her roots in Southeast Asia, Jojo took what was meant to be a “short detour to Cambodia.” On a whim, she Goggled, “women’s leadership jobs,” and found herself at The Harpswell Foundation in Phnom Penh, a non-profit working to educate Cambodian young women.
“I shed a layer of skin on this journey; I didn't know then that I was on my way to living the second phase of my life.”
“I spent almost a year living with 80-some young Cambodian women...from all different parts of Cambodia, many of them were the first in their families, and sometimes the only woman from their village, pursuing higher education.”
Jojo learned that Harpswell’s young university students were a statistical anomaly. Only one in ten Cambodian students makes it through the 12th grade. Even fewer go onto university.
While at Harpswell, Jojo met Monirath Siv, the young founder working to get Teach For Cambodia off the ground. Born in Cambodia to a single mother who prioritized education, Siv went to college and grad school in the U.S. and spent two-years in Camden, New Jersey with Teach For America.
Siv was determined to bring the transformative power of education to wider Cambodia and in 2016, Jojo joined him – hanging up her backpack for good – to become a founding director of Teach For Cambodia.
Teach for Cambodia Launch Party
Jojo Lam (l.) with Kalyan Yim and founder Monirath Siv.
In this #WatchHerWork profile, Jojo shares what it takes to launch and scale a non-profit and why remaining humble is a key ingredient for impacting change:
Teach For Cambodia officially joined the global Teach For All network last year. And your first generation of teaching fellows starts in schools in November 2018. What are you working on today?
“We're in an exciting place right now where we are selecting the first cohort for our program so this week was a mix of managing and supporting one of our younger directors in charge of this.
We're transitioning from that stage when you are still pitching, selling, and laying groundwork for a big idea... to really implementing that idea and becoming a real organization. So, each day/week is a mix of carrying out our plan and timeline, but also encountering and adapting for the very real challenges of doing something for the first time.”
How do you do something you’ve never done before? Your CEO was a teacher in the flagship program Teach For America but launching and scaling an organization is different. How do you make it work?
“I feel lucky that Teach For Cambodia is part of a global network…. there are regional experts that I can consult on a number of challenges... and they are really good at what they do!
The network offers global learning labs in the form of conference calls where we get to hear from people like Malcolm Gladwell and Lant Pritchett which really helps frame and give perspective to the work we're all doing and how everything connects.
Last but not least, their global conferences are purposeful and amazing and accelerates all of our learnings.”
Continual learning seems to be the name of the game.
“Our CEO ran a team retreat this week, so the recruitment team could reflect on the past three months. Our team really appreciates learning. It helps that our CEO is a former teacher -- we engage in a lot of intentional reflection, and step-backs to build and grow.
We feel very lucky to have the opportunity to create a space and culture where people want to learn and are willing to invest in that learning.”
How do you take a program that started in the U.S. and make it relevant in a new context, a new country?
“It's absolutely critical to understand local needs and to surround yourself with people who have taken the time to do that -- or are willing to do that. When moving fast, as startups tend to do, it's very easy to fall back on our defaults... which isn't necessarily how other countries and cultures operate.
Ongoing mindfulness is important, being curious about what you don't know, and staying humble.
Before I started on Teach For Cambodia, I spent almost a year living with 80 young Cambodian women in two different dormitories with The Harpswell Foundation. That experience really helped ground me in the culture and invested me in the success of the country.
I was also recently elected to the board of directors of an NGO which represents 125+ education NGOs in the country. I see this as an opportunity to continue keeping myself grounded in the local context and the other successes that are happening around the country and see what we can learn.”
You are making an amazing life for yourself in Cambodia professionally. Was it all seamless or were there any hiccups?
“At the end of my one-year break, I really struggled with how to transition back into my career. I remember questioning whether I had done the right thing by stepping off the professional path I was on.
I have a tendency to overthink, go in circles and make up excuses when I spin out. I short-cutted all of that by approaching a friend of mine to be my career coach. We had worked at Berkeley together where she coached MBA students. She had a reputation for being super straightforward and strict. I wanted someone like that on my side, so I wouldn't waste time and energy fooling myself!
I thought she'd be much harsher on me, but she was really kind and supportive and helped me see a version of myself that I hadn't seen in a long time.
You know how they say you need to be ready to recognize that good thing when it comes into your life? She did that for me so I could see opportunity when it presented itself in the form of Teach For Cambodia.”
Working with a coach is so smart. Who else lifts you up and shares needed advice?
“I was in a sorority in college and the women I met there continue to be a constant source of support, feedback, and inspiration. We've a group chat of eight and communicate on almost a daily basis about all kinds of things. They've been my go-to when I feel stuck and need to crowdsource advice.
My mom definitely serves as my inspiration every day. The sacrifices she and my dad have made to give me the opportunity to pursue this kind of life... I'll never be able to repay them for that. But, I am glad to be doing work which feels like it could make a real difference for others.
My partner being in Cambodia is definitely the cherry on top of life. After he wrapped up grad school in Europe, he moved here to Cambodia in 2016. He's been here since and is a daily source of support, knowledge, and feedback and is the one who sees my constant struggles but reminds me of what's possible.
Sheryl Sandberg was right when she said the most important career choice we can make is choosing the right partner. Any other must have career or tech tools you can’t live without?
Number one -- my glasses! Followed closely by my beat-up MacBook Air, hand-me-down iPhone, Google Calendar, Slack & Boomerang, and last but not least, my Hydro Flask. It's hot here, gotta stay hydrated!
Thank you, Jojo, for sharing a look at your work and how you building Teach For Cambodia.