Sovan Srun: Don’t overthink, just do

Sovan Srun is the CEO of Edemy, an education technology company working to promote equal access to quality education for everyone. Edemy develops e-learning technology, including a mobile application called Tesdopi that enables personalized learning experiences for students and data-driven tools for teachers and schools. Once a teacher herself, Sovan believes that anyone can learn if provided with enough time and support, a belief that everyone at Edemy shares. Sovan is passionate about helping young teenagers to reach their fullest potential in their education and career. Her portfolios include authoring a Major and Career Guidebook for high school students and numerous educational projects. A Fulbright Scholar, Sovan holds an MBA in Social Entrepreneurship from Colorado State University.

[Below is the transcript of the interview that is slightly edited for clarity.]

Sotheary: You just returned from your research trip. How was it?

Sovan: I have a project related to education, information education technology, and value chain actors in the agriculture sector. I went to the field to interview people.

Sotheary: Is that related to your work at Tesdopi?

Sovan: This is a consultancy job. It is not our program at Tesdopi. But, it is related to Tesdopi because the study’s objective is to create content to help people understand technology. So, it is about curriculum development, which is our expertise.

Sotheary: Can you tell us about your programs at Tesdopi?

Sovan: We target students in junior high school and high school. Students can test their knowledge and access learning materials for subjects they need to strengthen. Students can spend 25 minutes testing their knowledge or accessing our lessons. We have math, physics, chemistry, and biology from grade 7 to 12. It is an educational program that students can self-learn.

Sotheary: Why do you create Tesdopi? When did you create it?

Sovan: We would like to have equal access to learning opportunities for everyone. Regardless of where they are located, rural or urban, they can access good quality of learning. When we conduct events, we meet high school students. They study more than 14 hours a day. Sometimes, grade 12 students learn 15 or 16 hours a day. But they receive a lower grade and face issues. Some students study more than 15 hours a day but still fail national exams. Access to quality of education is limited in Cambodia.

Second, Cambodia has a memorized learning style. For instance, they don’t understand math, but they try to memorize how to solve it. Some grade A students also memorize how to solve math problems. Thus, it doesn’t build a strong math foundation for them. They can’t find a solution for an exercise that slightly adjusts the problem. We want to change ways of learning from memorizing to understanding. Students need to memorize formulas, yet they should also understand where they derive from.

Students do not have sufficient testing platforms to test their knowledge and capacity. They wait until the semester exam to do the test; it is late. In Tesdopi, they can do self-learning and watch a video explaining lessons. If they don’t understand, they can ask teachers in our mobile application. They can take tests at any time to make sure that they know what they have studied. If they don’t understand, they can take additional lessons.

Sotheary: When did you start Tesdopi?

Sovan: We launched it in 2018 to support students in accessing their capacity. After launching, many students accessed our application. We launched another version in 2019, containing knowledge assessment and video explaining lessons. We released our latest version in 2021, which is a full version. It is a whole learning process, including knowledge assessment, additional lessons, and re-assessment. The newest version contains premium content that students need to pay to access. It was launched in January 2021.

Sotheary: Do you have a team or work on it alone?

Sotheary: I am an educator. I don’t know how to code. My team in Edemy includes educators who are teachers and math and science graduates; and a coding team who creates a mobile application. Our educators create content such as video, exercise, and text. We have around 30,000 lessons in Tesdopi App.

Sotheary: How do you build a team? It shouldn’t be easy, right?

Sovan: I am fortunate. My team and I started it by volunteering because we are alumni of students studying in the US. We have worked together in provinces, providing training to students. We started with small and short projects; then, it grew organically to today’s company. It began with volunteering, identifying problems in education, etc. We have new team members; they are inspired by our mission and motivated by the students they meet. We have about 20 team members.

Sotheary: Can you share your strategies to build a strong team?

Sovan: It is a learning stage for me. When we expand our team, we learn to work together because we have different personalities. For instance, I am a morning person. But young members are night owls. We need to find ways to work together. It is a learning process for me. I don’t have a crucial strategy to build a team. Each team member has strengths and weaknesses. We need to identify which power we want to embrace and flaws we can compromise. We need to complement each other. For instance, I am not good at implementation, but my members are. I need to recognize my strength and weaknesses. We need to recognize that other members’ assets are vital. Thus, we can work well together when we know the strengths, weaknesses, and assets that our members bring into our organization; we need to adjust ourselves.

Sotheary: When we put something news on the market, users do not have information about our product. What have you done to inform users about your products?

Sovan: We focus on our product. Marketing and promotion are our next steps. We focus on what problem we want to address and how our mobile application can address students’ issues. We did research before designing our mobile application. We tried to understand students’ problems. We tested whether our solution met the expectation of students or not. It helps us to understand our gaps. Students recommended the mobile application to their friends after using it. Parents recommended our products to their children. We focus on our product development first.

When talking about marketing, we try to understand the value proposition we sell to students. For Tesdopi, students spend 25 minutes learning and testing. We share our value proposition with students; students can try our product. If it meets their expectation, they can subscribe.

I have two components: making a good product that users want to recommend and following a typical marketing strategy on social media.

Sotheary: What are the main challenges for you when running Tesdopi?

Sovan: Tesdopi is a learning product. It requires students to put effort into studying. Students can see the result in the long run. Some students are not motivated to learn. It involves behavioral changes that we include in our Tesdopi. Changing learning attitudes takes time; we need to be patient.

Sotheary: Have you experienced exhaustion that discouraged you from moving forward with Tesdopi?

Sovan: Yes, we can’t see an immediate result because we create something new. For instance, if we create a mobile application for shopping, we can see immediately how many people purchase products via our platform. When we see an immediate result, it keeps us motivated. Working in the education sector takes time. It takes at least one or two months to observe students’ progress. Then, we need to assess whether our product meets users’ needs. When we don’t see an immediate result, we do not get immediate satisfaction from our work.

To cope with this situation, we look at our long-term vision—what we want. If we have not seen it yet, we ask ourselves, is there light pointing in our direction? Or can you see the north star?

Sotheary: How did you tell yourself? How do you manage to cope with this situation?

Sovan: I am a positive person. When issues arrive, I believe there is a solution to them. A positive mindset reminds us to work on it even though we don’t see an immediate result. I can overcome it, and I trust my team to overcome any challenges. We try our best on our work.

Sotheary: I had learned from other women that they experienced some challenges in convincing their families to believe in what they were doing when they left their paid job to do what they liked. Have you experienced that?

Sovan: It is typical. Our parents are concerned about us because we should be at the stage of financial stability. It is expected that our families are worried about us. I experienced that as well. I always explain what I am doing to my mom and keep her updated. I told her that we are in the process of growing even though we don’t get paid as well as we work for others. My mom sees my effort and progress. She doesn’t discourage me, but she is still worried. It is normal because there is always uncertainty when running a company. The important thing is how you build trust with them.

Sotheary: You mentioned earlier that you went to the US to study. Did you study subjects related to technology?

Sovan: I studied social entrepreneurship. It is about using entrepreneurial skills to address social problems. For example, we are working on education; we would like to enhance access to education via Tesdopi.

Sotheary: Why did you study social entrepreneurship?

Sovan: Before I studied master’s degree, I used to go to the US for an exchange program for one year. I volunteered with the US alumni association since I was an undergrad. I am passionate about education and working with young people. Young people living in provinces have limited opportunities, unlike youth in Phnom Penh. I want them to access more opportunities like young people in Phnom Penh, such as scholarships abroad and promising careers. I am interested in the development sector, such as education and health, because of volunteering.

I kept finding donors because we needed funding when I volunteered. It was not sustainable. We kept searching for international NGOs to provide financial support to us. Therefore, I think about social entrepreneurship. We run a business while addressing issues faced by society. It is more sustainable. We don’t need to depend on donors. We still have funding from international organizations. But our goal is to sustain ourselves through premium access payment without external financing.

Sotheary: Can you share your experience of choosing a major when applying for a scholarship abroad?

Sovan: I have worked a lot before going to study abroad. I had a full-time job and volunteered on the weekend for three years to strengthen my capacity and test what I enjoy. Before studying abroad for a master’s degree, we should work on many things to find what we like. For instance, if you want to run a restaurant, you should work as a chief or an order to see if you like it. Then, you should find more opportunities to work on it. If you enjoy it when doing it, you probably want to continue doing it in the future. Then, you can continue to study it.

Different people have different pathways. For instance, lawyers need to use their technical skills right after graduation. So, they should continue their study right away. There is no one size fit. It is case by case. We may want to try it first for some jobs to see if we like it before continuing our studies.  

Sotheary: Some young people have difficulty defining or finding what they like. Some young people experience peer pressure to pick a career. How do you choose what you enjoy doing?

Sovan: If you work on what makes you happy, you can define what you like right away. The issue is that you work on one thing, and then you think this is what you want to do for the rest of your life. Society is evolving. If we enjoy doing something now, it doesn’t mean that we will enjoy doing it in the next ten years. So, they need to understand what can be changed from time to time, and it is ok.

Another issue is when young people work on one thing in many different places. They need to ask themselves if they can grow themselves or not. For instance, they like running events. They volunteer at many places to run events. Yet, they keep repeating the same tasks that do not add value to skill development. When they volunteer, they need to understand what they can learn from their job and what additional skills they need to strengthen. For instance, they may start with assisting someone in organizing an event. After that, can they transform themselves into an event organizer or any specific function in the organizing team? They need to have a goal. When they volunteer, they need to ask themselves if they can reach another level to meet their goal. They should not just volunteer without any goals. Our goal is important that motivate us to keep moving forward.  

I would like to talk about changing my perspective on the career that I mentioned earlier. When I was in school, I enjoyed volunteering. Then, I thought about working in the United Nations, World Bank, or non-governmental organizations. After graduation, I thought the business sector was interesting; then, I wanted to work in the sector. So, I changed my perspective on my career. The most important thing here is asking yourself what you have learned from these jobs. Then, you can refine your skills.

In the next ten years, I may be interested in other sectors such as health and agriculture. I just remind myself to build my skills from my current jobs and find ways to use these skills.

Sotheary: What did you tell yourself when you first quit your job. I have learned from others that they had pressure when quitting their job. How did you manage yourself at that time?

Sovan: I didn’t remember what I told myself. There were many involving factors. I like working in a team. I had financial constrain, but it was not challenging for me. I didn’t remember what I told myself; I just kept working. I have a good team, so it offsets other constraints. We have a salary that can cover our coffee. We have a salary, so we don’t have many financial issues.   

Sotheary: What would you tell other young girls who tell you that they want to run an initiative?

Sovan: Find a way to test your initiative with the least effort. You can start it small. You can build it step by step. Don’t overthink; just test it to see if it works.

Sottheary: What do you want to tell other young people who are not in a supportive environment?

Sovan: It is normal to have people who support you and do not support you. You need to understand where the pressure comes from. If it is from the outside, it is not influential for me. My family can’t pressure me much if I want to do something. Family pressure takes time to explain to them. For example, I explain to them little by little if I want to do something. If I told them immediately that I wanted to quit my job, they would disagree with me. I shared this idea with them little by little. And, we don’t need to take it seriously for people who are not crucial for our lives.

Sotheary: Do you have messages for young people who want to work on education and technology?

Sovan: At Edemy, we tell ourselves that we can do what we want. We can find resources to support us on the internet. If you’re going to do something, you can find resources to do it. You should test it as soon as possible. Don’t overthink. You need to try it strategically. You can’t just quit your job and do it. It is not an intelligent choice. You can do it little by little. If you see it works, you can leave your job and do it.

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