Sotheapanha Theng: Ask people when you need help

Sotheapanha Theng is the co-founder of 606 Digital, a media start-up in Phnom Penh. Also, she is a producer and director of Digital Noodle Development Innovation. Panha received the Women of the Future Southeast Asia Awards in 2021. Phana started her career in the finance sector and later found her passion in the media and communication sector. Her work has been shown internationally and won many awards.  

Click here to listen to the interview

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

Sotheary: Congratulations on winning the Women of the Future Southeast Asia Awards. How do you feel?

Panha: I am a bit surprised because I didn’t expect to win it. Other nominees are high-profile people. I am happy to receive an award. But, I am still in shock.

Sotheary: I am so happy for you. You are at Sciences Po (The Paris Institute of Political Studies). How is it?

Panha: Sciences Po is very good. Students here are mostly international. I am the only Khmer here.

Sotheary: What did you study at Sciences Po?

Panha: I am studying at Sciences Po under the Civil Society Leadership Awards. I am studying for a Master of Communication, Media, and Creative Industries. Graduates here work with communication agencies, UN agencies, or international companies on media. We also learn how to manage our own start-up.

Sotheary: You are also the co-founder of a media company?

Panha: 606 Digital is a company specializing in media and technology. My co-founder has worked on technology. So we have digital and media productions, which make us unique.

Sotheary: Why did you run this company? What factors influence your decision?

Panha: I had worked for others when I first graduated. We have worked for other companies for about five years. Then, I want to have more freedom and create something for myself. I have worked for others for five years, yet I didn’t have anything for myself. I didn’t have anything that I was proud of. So, I decided to run our company. At 606 Digital, we provide media, digital, and software solutions. We started with 3 people two years ago. Now we have 11 people in our company.

Sotheary: Is that challenging for you?

Panha: Yes, it is. I don’t recommend young people run their own company right after graduation. It was stressful. It is not easy. You can’t just say, ‘putting your money together and run a company.’ We work very hard; we don’t have enough time to sleep. When you work for a private company, people say you don’t have enough time to sleep. But, when you run a company yourself, you don’t sleep. We need to be 24/7 available for clients. We think about how to grow our company and manage our cash flow. I am a producer, but I am also a cleaner when running my own company. We need to do whatever we can.

Sotheary: I have learned from other people that they face challenges in finance and taxes. Do you face these challenges?

Panha: We faced some issues at the beginning. We didn’t have a financial structure that supported our company to generate growth. So we sought out support from other organizations. For the first year, UNDP had a program on media alternative programs that support media agencies to grow. We received mentorship from She Investment, other organizations, and media companies from Thailand and Singapore. Under the support of our mentors, we learned how to create a financial structure that worked for us. We knew how to make a financial plan.

We should seek support when we first started our company because no one knows everything. There are many organizations providing support to start-ups. At the initial stage, we should be able to get more help.

Sotheary: Entrepreneurs would like to get support, but some face challenges to get one. How did you reach out to people and get the help you needed?

Panha: I started by researching on the internet. We tried to find organizations that worked on incubator programs. Before we ran our company, we worked for others so that we had some sort of experience in a start-up. I have worked with BBC on behavioral changes for youth and drinking. At BBC, I have worked with business enterprises. So, I have some perspectives on running a business.

My partner is the regional ambassador of Technovation Cambodia. Technovation Cambodia provides training to young children on coding and technology. She has a connection with mentors who teach children.

We looked at our connections and resources, and I felt it was insufficient. We didn’t have anyone experienced in running a business. So, we researched on the internet. We found UNDP’s Business Media Alternative on Facebook. So, we applied to that program. When we applied to the program, we knew that we had criteria that fit UNDP’s program. We have joined the program for 6 months. We have received training and mentorship and connected with other media agencies.

Sotheary: Your co-founders are women. Why is that?

Panha: We have never thought about having men or women in our company. We realized that we had only women. We are feminists; we believe in equal rights and women’s empowerment. Before we started our business, we worked on women’s empowerment. Mostly, networks and people who share our values are women. So, we start with people we know; and most of them are women.

Sotheary: Have you heard any words from others because of your team composition?

Panha: Some people asked, is the cameraman a woman, or the developer a woman? They expected men to hold these positions. We just smiled. In that situation, what could we do? I can’t tell my client that you shouldn’t say that because it affects women. Women, who hold leadership positions in the media or technology industries, sometimes can’t express their options on a certain thing. We are different because we are women in the sectors. When we express our opinions (on gender roles), we would be far different from others. For example, my client contracted us to develop a learning management system. When we arrived, they said, ‘your team is women.’ To me, it means, ‘they questioned our skills.’

Another example is when I took videos. My role is as a producer, but sometimes I take videos too. They questioned our quality of work because they had seen only men holding a camera. There is no proper response to that. For now, being silent is a decision that we did; but there should be another way to raise awareness of that.

Sotheary: What brought you to the media sector?

Panha: I wanted to go to medical school. But I had a low score on civics. So, I didn’t get into the University of Health Sciences. I got a scholarship to study at IFL. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I studied at IFL. At the same time, I also studied business and finance in another school. I was exposed to the business sector more at that school. I have joined many businesses competition since my first year. I also volunteered. When we volunteered, we could explore many things, such as media. I mostly worked on media and communication, such as taking photos and posting them on Facebook when I volunteered. I enjoyed it. I started to become interested in media when I was in my third year.

It was my hobby, but I was not interested in turning it into my real job. So after graduation, I worked at Prudential in finance. Even though I worked in finance at that time, I designed posters and other internal communication materials for the company. My supervisor told me that you are more interested in the media field. So after working in finance for two years, I started exploring the media sector. After about 6 months of exploration in the field, I got a job at BBC Media Action as an assistant producer. So I began my work in the media sector there.

Sotheary: Did you study at the Department of Media and Communication (DMC)?

Panha: No, I didn’t study at DMC. I studied Bachelor of Education. I used to be a lecturer. I explored many things until I found my passion in media.

Sotheary: You studied education and finance. Where did you pick up your media and communication skills?

Panha: I self-thought myself. I learned those skills when I worked as an assistant producer. Filming skills require a lot of practice. I have learned from Youtube when I have free time. In Cambodia, there are no schools teaching filming skills. At DMC, they teach media and journalism. So I have observed and practiced a lot.

Sotheary: Some people think working in a field different from what you study is a job mismatch. What do you think?

Panha: My mom talked to me a lot about this. She said, you study English, and now you are working as a camerawoman; she was concerned about me.

Studying at school is one part, and practical experience is important. The world is digitalizing, and the job market has become more competitive. It is very similar to creating a product. When creating a product, we need to have a unique selling point. Otherwise, we don’t have value-added.

When we talk about specialization, it is about knowing what you are doing. If we have not volunteered and earned practical experience, it is a disadvantage for students.

Sotheary: Many teenagers experience peer pressure. Have you experienced that?

Panha: Peer pressure is influential for teenagers. Peer pressure can be positive and negative. If we hang out with people who study and are involved in good activities, it would be great because we can explore more and expand our knowledge. On the other hand, hanging out with troubled people may not lead us to a good result. It depends on us as well; do we have a vital principle or not?

I studied at two universities. At IFL, peer pressure was about academic performance. At Economics and Finance Institute, peer pressure was about practical experience; do you have a part-time job or volunteer experience? So for me, it’s a kind of workout because when we tried to maintain good academic performance and at the same time looked out for a practical experience.

Sotheary: When you look back, it was a great opportunity for you to study and volunteer at the same time. How have you coped with peer pressure at that time?

Panha: My friends cried because of peer pressure. And some fell into depression. So I researched the internet for consultation because it was the internet booming time in Cambodia. I watched a motivational video on the internet. I also watched videos of Cambodian students abroad. My friends didn’t have much experience dealing with peer pressure at that time; thus, I didn’t want them to influence me.

My sister was such a high achiever. I look up to her a lot. She studied at IFL and RULE. She was always the top performer. She won many awards. I had people around me and internet friends, so I didn’t get swayed a lot.

Sotheary: I want to ask you about your company ‘606 Digital.’ What excited you most while working at 606 Digital?

Panha: People there make me happy. They are our employees. But, we don’t call them employees. We call them ‘our team.’ We support each other and don’t take advantage of each other. I have seen that my team grows up. We employed two young men in their first year of university when we started. Now, they have grown up a lot. They can handle big projects. They become more mature. I am very proud of that.   

Our work has grown as well. We work more with organizations. I am very proud of that. Even though we have not had enough time to sleep, we are happy because we own what we have done.

Sotheary: What challenges you most when you run your company?

Panha: Family pressure and financial issues are my most challenging factors. My mom was concerned about me. As you know, when we first started our company, there was uncertainty. My mom was not happy if I failed. When she was so concerned, I was not pleased. I wanted to do whatever to make her happy. I don’t think this pressure is terrible; I just want to make her happy.

The second pressure was my financial condition. My company didn’t have a financial structure when I first started. Even though I graduated with a finance degree, I didn’t know how to manage finance for a company. What we learn in school is different from real life.

Sotheary: How did you overcome these challenges?

Panha: I cried a lot. I wanted to quit more than five times a week. I just kept going. We needed to go back to why we started it. If we have a clear vision and goal, you just need to re-visit your goals. It can motivate you to keep going no matter how hard it is. Moreover, I have business partners who support me.

Sotheary: I want to ask you about your scholarship. How do you prepare yourself to apply for a scholarship?

Panha: You should know clearly what you want to study. A master’s degree is different from a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree is more general, and a master’s degree is more specialized. It is not about applying for a scholarship because you just want to study abroad. We shouldn’t waste scholarship money on something like that. If you spend your money to do that, it should be fine. Scholarship means that people sponsor you to study; you should be more critical about it.

Moreover, you should reach out to people. I asked many people about personal statements. They are more willing to help us than you think. Don’t think that people won’t share with you information. You just need to ask first. You should ask for advice because people who have won or lost the scholarship can tell you the process and lessons learned.  

Sotheary: Because you have been through many challenges, have you experienced depression or anxiety?

Panha: Yes, I have. I experienced it before I started a company. I argued with my mom before I started my company. I fell into depression. I wanted to commit suicide. I sought help from TPO.

Later on, I experienced burnout because of a lot of work. I didn’t have any purpose; I didn’t want to continue anymore. It affected my health. I had nose bleeding every day. I also got a stomachache. When I went to the hospital, the doctor told me that it was because I was so stressed. How could stress lead to nose bleeding? I didn’t want to wake up. I have not attended any events in two years. I worked only in the office. I stopped associating with others. I had a suicidal thought. I was so depressed. I couldn’t manage my feeling. When I was depressed, I didn’t even want to take a shower. I didn’t want to meet people. I am much better now. I receive support from my friends. I also do a podcast about that.

Sotheary: How did you know you needed to get help from a mental health professional? Where did you get help?

Panha: I didn’t want to accept that I had mental health issues. I skipped many classes, especially at EFI. I wanted to sleep all day. I felt very depressed. I didn’t realize that I had a mental health problem. At one point, I thought about suicide while driving my motorbike or cutting myself while cooking. I am sorry if my words trigger other people’s feelings. When I argued with my mom, I thought about hurting other people. Finally, I realized that I’m not this type of person. I wrote an email to Friends International. I told them that I was not doing well and sought support. They referred me to TPO.

Sotheary: Some people are afraid of being judged by others when talking about their depression experience. Are you concerned about that when sharing your experience?

Panha: I wanted to hide it before. I told myself to be happy when going out. I didn’t want to tell people that I experienced depression or suicidal thoughts. I feel much better when I do a podcast about mental health. Depression is an ongoing battle; you can’t get better by staying at home for one day or taking medicine for a few days. Sometimes it comes back; we need to accept that.

First, I accepted myself. I told myself that many people went through depression and still survive; I can survive. Second, people around me understood me and accepted me. At my workplace, we had mental health day; you could take leave if you didn’t feel well mentally. I know I have a community that supports me. Some community doesn’t understand depression. We need to find a community that understands it and helps us go through it. For me, my family and co-workers understood me and accepted me.

From my experience, people wanted to walk out of depression. They don’t want to be stuck in that situation, but they don’t know how to get out. So, for now, I understand mental health issues and surround myself with people who understand that.

Sotheary: Do you have any messages for family or friends of people who are depressed?

Panha: It is a bit cliché. When you are depressed, you may ask yourself why no one understands me; why am I going through that; why am I becoming this person? I want to tell them, ‘Don’t blame yourself.’ Don’t think that you are alone; seek help from others. Some people don’t understand us, but we will be able to find someone who supports us. Don’t blame yourself.

Sotheary: Do you have any messages for other young women who want to follow their dream?

Panha: You are amazing if you do what you like. When you do what you enjoy, it is the most significant gift. It is the best thing for you. Your life is meaningful if you can do what you want. You will feel happiness and joy. Don’t think you can’t do it because you are a girl. You can do it.

You are more capable than you think of explaining what you are doing to your parents. You are suitable for the job. You can go to provinces or other countries even though you are a girl.

Be creative. If you want to do it, find a way to do it. Your parents do not encourage you to study something or do something. Find a way to do it. By the end of the day, they want us to be happy. They want us to be good people.

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