Cambodian business leaders

‘I climbed the ladder to be here today’

Around the globe, women face persistently low representation in the highest levels of business leadership – and the number of females leading the world’s largest companies has actually been on the decline in recent years. In celebration of this International Women’s Day, Southeast Asia Globe sat down with Cham Krasna, the CEO of Cambodian company Soma Group, to discuss challenges and successes encountered during her first year working as the company’s first female CEO, as well as her vision for the future of Soma Group

Robin Spiess
June 26, 2019
‘I climbed the ladder to be here today’
As a female CEO in charge of a Cambodian company, you are one of the few women business leaders in the country. How did you get to this position, and have you faced challenges as a woman in a male-dominated field?

It’s been a year since I became CEO at Soma Group, but I’ve actually been with the company for about ten years total. I climbed the ladder to be here today: I’ve been in several divisions across the company, from the marketing to business and from the hospitality to real estate divisions, and now finally I’m here in this macro perspective role as CEO.

There have been many challenges on my rise to this position, and one of the main ones has been, for me, that when I walk into a meeting room I do not want to be perceived as someone’s secretary. Being young and being a woman, you need to be sure you look credible when you walk into the room, and need to be taken seriously in a meeting. That was one of the main challenges for me at the start, especially when meeting with bigger partners who were coming to meet Soma Group. They’re expecting someone who is much older and, often, someone who is a male figure. I think it took a lot of them by surprise, to see me as CEO. I have had to be sure I am assertive, very informative, and know exactly what I want out of each meeting to help overcome this.

What was it that encouraged you to enter into business?

Well, since graduating university I have been working at Soma Group, and haven’t actually worked much anywhere else – which is probably one of the reasons I’m sitting here in this role now. Ever since I was young, I always wanted to contribute and give back to the Cambodian people, to our society, country and economy. Entering into business allows you to make decisions that will help impact a lot of people, and potentially help create a lot of jobs. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to enter into business. Of course, profit is the bottom line for any business, but to create value for the people is important, and for us to be taking part in driving the building of Cambodia is ideal.

So toward that end, what have you done since taking over as CEO?

Numerous things… pretty much I haven’t slept. Actually, there has of course been a big learning curve, but through it all we’ve learned a lot….

Also, surprisingly, ever since I joined Soma Group we have had more females taking positions in top management than expected. This is growing organically, through our process of filtering for competent employees who are able to push us to the next level. We’ve been getting more women applying who are very competent and very committed to doing the work. And so far, they have been really positively impacting our company. We’ve gone from 20% women to 60% women in under two years. We’re an equal opportunity employer, but we’ve also started including “women are encouraged to apply” to our applications. Most of the time, women tend to be reluctant to apply because they feel that this is a man’s world, not a woman’s.

And it’s also about feeling comfortable during the interview as well, potentially being interviewed by a fellow woman rather than a male.

Yes of course.

So, pivoting the conversation a bit here, you attended university to study ethical business. I’m wondering, how have you been implementing the basic tenets of ethical business since becoming CEO of Soma Group?

We want to be a more sustainable business, and to do that, you need a long term relationship with your employees. That’s what we’ve been focusing on, and that’s what gives us our balance of ethical and sustainable business.

One of our underlying goals is also to take part in more SDGs, or the UN sustainable development goals, as we aim to help alleviate poverty. Our involvement in the water treatment business, for example, is very important to us, because we need to make sure everyone in the countryside can have clean water – it’s a necessity in life, and we need clean water to help reduce incidence of health issues as well.

And do you have big plans for the growth of Soma Group under your leadership?

In the near future, we will be bringing on board Soma Utilities and we’ll also soon be expanding our property and development sector. We are a local company, and we want to take pride in that fact, and in the fact that we can internationalise our business. This doesn’t mean that we have to rely on an international partner; we can do it ourselves. This is why we want to push our people to grow their skills, and to change the corporate mindset to go into this with a “can-do” attitude. When I was attending university in the US, we always used to think that the sky was the limit – so why can’t our local company achieve just as much as any other international company?

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