Interview with Emerald Am, Country Manager of IDH Transforming Markets

This week, we spoke with Emerald Am, the country manager for IDH and Chairman of our Garment and Manufacturing Committee about work, family, and fnding opportunity in Cambodia. 

Brian: You have a lot of experience working in the US and Cambodia. Can you give us a little background about how you came to settle here and what you like about living and working here?

Emerald: I was born in a small refugee camp in Mairut, Thailand and migrated to the US when I was four months old. We settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for a few years and then headed to Los Angeles, California. Later, we moved to an apartment in Long Beach, CA in 1989, where almost all of the 108 tenants were Cambodian refugees. It was a poor community, where most, like my family, were on government assistance (welfare, food stamps, Section 8 housing, etc.).

I come from a poor family and wanted to ensure that when I became an adult, I would work, go to college, live the American dream and support my mom and my five siblings (I have 2 other half-siblings that did not live with us). I worked in a lot different industries (banking, finance, insurance, automotive, optical, F&B) and large international corporations (Bridgestone & Firestone, Bank of America, First Data, Luxottica and DriveTime), while also owning some American franchises (Farmer’s Insurance, Blimpie America’s Sub Shop). It was a lot of work, mostly six days per week, for 60-80 hours a week. If you add in the commute, that was approximately another 15-20 hours per week. We spent very little time at home and with our loved ones.

My first visit to Cambodia was 2010 (keep in mind, I never wanted to come to Cambodia because of all the negative perception from Western media. But once I got here, I did not want to go back “home”. Since then, my wife and I spoke about what it would take to come back here, as at the time, Cambodia wasn’t yet developed and we didn’t know what we could do to sustain our current lifestyle. After visiting Cambodia again in 2017 and 2018, my wife was afforded the opportunity to run a Swedish microinsurance company (she didn’t tell me she was interviewing for the job, but then she said she got offered a job in Cambodia and my response was, yes, let’s move). We ended up moving here in July 2019.

I enjoy the different lifestyle that we are afforded here, the genuine people I meet during networking events and the new relationships that we’ve gained from expats and locals. Everyone here is just trying to make it work, just like us, and most people we find are very helpful. I also love being able to meet humble people, specifically C-level executives, high-level government officials and other individuals who are looking to leave a lasting imprint of their legacy here.

Brian: Through your work at IDH and LABS, you spend a lot of time working in ensuring safety at factories. Are you making progress on this front?

Emerald: The LABS Foundation was setup by IDH Transforming Markets at the behest of eight brands after the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that saw 1,134 people die during a factory fire. The exit doors were locked during business hours and the workers couldn’t escape. The eight brands wanted to have a program in place to mitigate safety risks in regards to electrical, fire, and structural risks.

We operate as a secretariat that facilitates the necessary work in each country. It launched in India and Vietnam in late 2019, launched in Cambodia in May 2022 and will be launching in Indonesia in 2023. We have received a great amount of positive feedback from the factories, the workers, the buyers, and other relevant stakeholders. To date, we have had 33 factories graduate in India and Vietnam, over 400 factories onboarded, 380+ safety assessments, 500+ safety trainings delivered and many more to come (these are delivered by qualified third parties). Keep in mind, Covid-19 had a lot to do with the delay of the processes from 2020-2021. Now, we are getting back on track. Each country has a methodology and standard developed by highly qualified international firms, ensuring the highest standard is being followed. There are also third party suggestive remediation firms the factories can engage with to remediate these safety risks. We have timelines for the factories to follow in remediation of safety risks, depending on the priority of each issue.

Brian: As chairman of the Garment and Manufacturing Committee, what are a couple of your priorities for the committee heading into 2023?

Emerald: The executive committee has a few priorities that we would like to see starting in 2023: preventing sexual harassment, promoting sustainable packaging, working on fabric waste, and organizing a Public-Private Dialogue, as well as about a half-dozen or more events. We will be prioritizing what we would like to see in 2023 and putting a poll to the rest of the committee members. We want every member engaged and will do our best to address their priorities.

Brian: The Responsible Business Hub just released a sector brief on the GFT sector. What stood out to you most in this report and where do you see the biggest needs in the sector?

Emerald: It was a very interesting read. Some of the key points was the data provided for the growth of the sector and the wage increase over the last 20 years. A few items we need to continue to address is the electricity costs of factories, the costs of documents to the buyers, the feasibility of buyer’s requirements to the suppliers, manufacturing more luxury goods and capacity building (strengthening our local human resources skills to improve productivity). I think a lot of this would require everyone being more transparent in data sharing (private sectors, government sectors, NGOs, CSOs, etc.). It would require everyone working together to ensure that Cambodia will continue to expand in these sectors.

Brian: You’re also involved in a lot of other initiatives in Cambodia. Could you talk about some of your passions outside of work?

Emerald: It’s funny, I don’t consider what I am doing as work, as I love what I do. I get to meet a lot of interesting people, listen to their challenges, and try to address them. I am involved in a lot of other committees outside of EuroCham; committees of AmCham, advisory committees for non-profits, and committees within IDH and LABS. I am passionate about helping people and providing advice and guidance. Within my role, I get to travel to other countries, experience different lifestyles and organize other events not related to LABS but has always been a passion of mie, which is women empowerment and gender equality.

One of my favorite roles is being a volunteer for Khmer Sight Foundation. In this role, I get to assist patients with eye pre-screening and broken Khmer translation. This was an organization started by a close friend and they have done so much for the poorer communities in improving their eye sights by either providing corrective glasses, sunglasses or eye surgery. I am able to do a lot of things here that I couldn’t do in the US because a driver, a cook, a nanny, a cleaner, and a tuk-tuk ride are a lot more affordable and convenient. About the only thing I miss about the States is the variety of food, the shopping (more luxury brands) and of course, the cars were a lot more affordable.

Brian: If you were to pitch Cambodia as an investment destination for a potential investor, what advice would you give them?

Emerald: Cambodia is still a hotbed for investment in so many different sectors. There’s still so many opportunities available here. I would recommend to investors or people who would want to move here, you are able to come here and do what you love. Figure out what Cambodia has and doesn’t have, create a business plan around that, reach out to your network and see your dreams become a reality.

The country is beautiful with so many short-distanced vacation spots. Almost everyone here is here to make a better life for themselves, but they are also doing a lot of CSR work. There are so many events here, where you can consistently meet new people. The opportunity to engage with relevant stakeholders is a lot easier. Don’t take my word for it, come here and find out for yourself. Find out why so many people are moving here and making Cambodia their new home.

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