Thyda Thaung: Working on what matters to you makes you happy

Thyda Thaung is the founder of the Thaung Enterprise, promoting Cambodia’s natural salt product from southern Cambodia, Kampot province. Thyda founded the enterprise to make the lives of the community better and connect salt producers to the local and international markets. Thyda is the winner of the 2018 Cambodia’s Young Women Entrepreneur Awards. She also won the second prize of the 2020 National Entrepreneurship Awards, recognizing her strategic leadership to lead the enterprise.

[Below is the translation of the interview, which is edited for clarity.]

Q: Hello! How are you doing these days?

Thyda: I am thinking about having time for myself at least one day a week.

Q: What are you occupied with these days?

Thyda: I just start my business, so that I am busy with it. I have many meetings with the community and government officials. I run around. It is exhausting sometimes.

Q: When did you start your business?

Thyda: I started my business in early 2017.

Q: Why did you start your business?

Thyda: There are many stories in there. I was born in a farmer family. After I studied in Phnom Penh and traveled to other countries, I started to think about helping my community, especially farmers who produced sea salt. That’s where I came from and how I started.

I have seen the challenges of the sea salt business in Cambodia. We had a good product that we used every day, yet no one valued it. We didn’t have the market at that time. We have not marketed it. We have heard people talked about our rice and paper, but not salt. I saw it as an opportunity. Thus, I started it.

There is another story that changed my mindset. I worked in Phnom Penh. When I visited my home, my mom told me that sea salt was full in the stock. I talked to myself that ‘we have a really good product, why don’t people buy our product.’ We didn’t have a market, and no one thought about us. I asked myself how these farmers could help themselves. It changed my mindset to run my business.

Q: Usually, people who run businesses collaborate with rich people, not the community. Why do you work with the community?

Thyda: I think this is how I do business. I know that doing business with rich people can make more money. But this is not what I want. When I started it, I started it with my passion. I want to help farmers. I run a business and help farmers at the same time. This is what I love. This is my purpose in life.

Q: Knowing what you want in life is not easy. When did you realize that your business is what you are passionate about?

Thyda: When I started this salt project, I began to see my path. I realized that this is what I want to do in life. People around me asked me why I don’t work for other people to get a better salary because I have a higher education degree. They asked me why I work with farmers in the salt farmers under the sun. They told me that ‘it is exhausting to visit the salt farm.’ Again, this is what I like. I work hard. It is exhausting, but I enjoy it. After I keep doing it, people value my work.

Q: Was it challenging for you to work with farmers?

Thyda: It was challenging. When I started with farmers, it was challenging because farmers didn’t understand a new business way. They didn’t know why we needed to produce salt following a certain hygienic standard. We bring the salt to the market so that we follow the market standard. I explain to them about the production and standard. Some farmers asked me why we need to follow the standard because they use to produce salt and sell it. We need to let them understand that we have a different marketing approach.

When I first started, some people questioned why I started a salt farm. For them, it was useless. Normally farmers produced salt and sold it in the market, but I asked them to follow the hygienic and packing standard, which was complicated for them. The most challenging task is to raise awareness of farmers. I tried to explain to them their value-added to society. When they understand their values, society will follow. We had many meetings and discussions so that we could get on the same page.

Q: How do you convince those farmers?

Thyda: I build trust with them. I show them the result. Working with farmers requires honesty and trustworthiness. I explain to them about the benefits of the product. I buy their salt at a higher price so that they have the energy to work on that. I promote them and their work as well. When we have visitors from abroad, I bring them to see those farmers. The farmers feel connected with the production chain. We have 25 people who are our members. They are happy to work with us, which women make up about 80%.

Q: How about your family? How do they respond to your decision to run this business?

Thyda: When I first started, it was challenging for me. My family is not businesspeople. They work for others. My father understands me more than others. My family told me to take a paid job so that I didn’t need to stress out about the salt farm. I didn’t bring money home when I first started. My business was a new model. It didn’t bring me money when I first started. When I put my products in the supermarkets, we had an agreement on when to get the money. My family didn’t see the immediate profit. They told me to quit it and work for others. After I ran my business for about two years, my family changed their mindset on my business.

Q: Have you thought about quitting?

Thyda: I thought about it sometimes. I questioned myself whether I had chosen the right direction. It was exhausting because I started everything by myself. I am not a rich kid who always has money to fund the business operation. I thought a lot about how to support my business operation. That was burdensome. When I wanted to quit, I told myself that I start it because I love it. I keep telling myself that creating something new is always challenging.

Q: What motivates you to keep moving forward?

Thyda: I think I like what I am doing. I face many challenges to run my business. When national and international communities value my product, it is the most significant motivation for me. My family, especially my dad, told me to keep moving. He said to me that every business is challenging. Each entrepreneur overcomes their challenges to succeed. My mom also supports me. When I started, she didn’t understand how to run a business, so she didn’t support me. After I started for a while, she witnessed my progress. I commit myself not to disappoint them. I want to make everyone proud of me. I listened to other entrepreneurs’ stories. They work hard to be who they are.

Q: What is the most significant challenge for you as a young woman and female entrepreneur?

Thyda: I work from A to Z by myself. I ran around when I first started. My health is not as strong as men. I used to deliver our products to our customers. I used to cry when I got sick because I felt lonely. I was emotional sometimes.

What hurts me the most is that others devalue my effort while I work so hard to raise awareness of people on our product’s benefits. For example, some people faked the Kompot salt in the market using the product from other places. Some people promoted different types of salt that can be harmful to people. It hurts me.

Q: Your product reaches the international market. What are your strategies to introduce your product to the international market?

Thyda: I always share with other entrepreneurs about that. When we want to have domestic and international markets, we need to look at two bigger pictures, micro and macro environments. We need to look at ourselves where we are and what our gaps are. We can’t export our product because its quality isn’t good enough to meet the market standard. When we introduce our product to international markets, we have to look at the political context that may affect our business. We need to look at the legal framework of specific countries that we want to introduce our products. It is important because if a particular country prohibits our product, we can’t just bring it there. We need to look at the economic environment, whether our product has a market or the targeted consumers can afford our product. We also need to look at the technology environment and social environment that affect our product on the market.

Q: I want to ask you about your childhood. Did you want to be a businesswoman when you were young?

Thyda: I wanted to be a scientist when I was young. I wanted to explore other planets. I haven’t thought about becoming a businesswoman.

Q: How did your family and community that you grew up with shape your business direction?

Thyda: I was born in a farmer family. My grandfather was a salt farmer. I grew up in that community that I feel attached to the community. I think that I am a part of the community. My family taught me to be humble no matter what I have achieved or progressed in life. They taught me to respect other people and treat others as equals. I help others as I can.

Q: I have read about the investment in the coastline of Cambodia. Many people sell their lands to foreign investors. Have you thought about selling your farmland?

Thyda: I have a funning story. A person called me another day to ask me if I want to sell my land. I asked that person that, do you think I will sell it to you? That person responded that you wouldn’t sell it. I responded, I wondered if you know that why do you call me?

People may think that they can make a lot of money by selling their land. They can be happy with their money. I ask myself whether or not I am pleased with that money. I think that selling land makes a lot of money, but it doesn’t bring value to my life. I do what I can to promote this salt sector.

Q: Why do you think that money from selling land doesn’t bring value to your life?

Thyda: Money is significant. I have my purpose in life that is more valuable than the money. When people value what I do, it is more meaningful than having millions of dollars.

Q: How do you stay focus on your goal?

Thyda: I admire women. They have a high commitment to make it happen. I am this type of person. If I do something, I will work best to bring the best result.

Q: How do you manage your time?

Thyda: We need to learn how to balance. I am fortunate because I am single, so I don’t need to spend time with family and children. I use my entire time with farmers and businesses. I have my personal space. I worked six days a week. I keep one day for myself at home to clean the house or do whatever I like.

Q: How many hours do you work a day?

Thyda: It is challenging. People told me that I shouldn’t pressure myself too much or too tough on myself. I don’t count the hours. If I am in my work, I keep working from morning till night.

Q: Do you have business partners?

Thyda: I am the sole owner. I have a team to help me, such as the production team and so on.

Q: How do you build a team?

Thyda: We must be a role model. We must show them our passion for our work. If they see that I am happy to work on my project, they are delighted to work with me.

Q: Do you have any messages for young women?

Thyda: I have been through my teenage years. I wanted to do many things when I was a teenager. I want to share with other young girls that you consult with yourself before you start something. They can learn from other senior entrepreneurs who can offer many lessons learned for them. People have different life experiences, so that they can provide different lessons for you. You can explore as much as you can. Keep working.

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