Interview with Virginie Huynh Kim Lan Viala, and Yiling HUANG, Co-Founder of Horizon Optics

This week, we interviewed Horizon Optics co-founders Virginie Huynh Kim Lan and Yiling HUANG, to talk about how they hatched the idea for Horizon Optics, Phnom Penh’s newest and most exclusive eyeglasses store with French expert opticians (with free eye examinations in the innovative optical lab). 

EuroCham: Could you tell us a little bit about your background? 

Virginie: I have over 30 years of experience in eyecare and eyewear, first in industry with French manufacturers and second at leading French chain stores such as GM, and I’ve always been passionate about all the different aspects of eyecare: from their exclusive fashion aspect to the actual causes of eye ailments, vision needs, and how to alleviate them through regular care, prevention and careful prescriptions. 
In France, I’m also a professor at ISO Paris and ICO Bures, well optical institutes. I always had the idea of opening my training optical academy overseas to help spread excellence in visual healthcare. 
Yiling: Yes, I was working for the first optical chain store in China, there are 1,200 of them! I have experience in the back office, shipping and ordering, as well as HR and talent development. What I found in China at the time was that there was a gap in qualifications. There are different standards and China’s opticians were well-trained, but they were missing an element of proper schooling and certifications for optometrists. My idea was to locate someone who could help train staff in optometry and issue certifications valid in France and China. This is how Virginie was sent to me, she was the person recruited for this role. 

EuroCham: What inspired you to open Horizon Optic Glasses in Phnom Penh? 

Virginie: I had a dream for several years of opening an optical school and with Yiling, I pitched this idea to Chinese government officials. I met with different delegations, pitched the idea, and described about bringing French know-how to China and things were going smoothly but a variety of things happened that prevented us from getting too far, including COVID. 
Confluences then got in touch with me and suggested Cambodia as an ideal market for a French-style glasses store and academy. In October 2022 and January 2023, we visited Phnom Penh, doing some market research and we thought, yes, we can do this. It can be difficult to find quality optical services and products, and with our training services, we can work to fill this gap. 

The objective of our optical store is to offer French standards of excellence and expertise in products, glasses, sunglasses, contact lenses and lenses, here in Phnom Penh.  We want people to trust in the quality and care they receive from us.  

Yiling: The store was just the entry point to show and demonstrate French expertise in visual health, with the goal of a training centre always in the background. Right now, we have a small space upstairs with one class, but we are also speaking with NGOs to collaborate more on this training academy idea. We like to think of it as a social enterprise, because there are students out there we could help, and with Virginie’s expertise, we can properly train optometrists and refractionists in Cambodia. 
EuroCham: What makes Horizon Optics Unique compared to other stores? 

Virginie: We are the only retailer in Cambodia to offer brands like Moscot, Roussilhe, Lafont, or Nathalie Blanc Paris. They have not existed in the Cambodian market until now and they’ve historically not distributed here partly because the industry and the standard of optometry are not yet there in Cambodia. It’s important to know the product, give advice, and customise the lenses. 
At Horizon, our French expert opticians can perform high-level tests that deliver unique solutions for each person’s eyecare needs. We offer the latest high-quality lenses made by Essilor and Shamir and soon you can find a large range of contact lenses provided by renewed brands such as Acuvue and Jonhson & Jonnson. 

EuroCham: What challenges do you face running a cutting-edge optical salon in Phnom Penh? 
Yiling: We are pioneers in the industry here in Phnom Penh and we import all of our products legally, but customs processes can be an issue. When I imported a batch of frames, I labelled them as frames only. There were bits of plastic in the eyeholes serving as placeholders for lenses, but they weren’t actual lenses. Despite this, officials insisted these were imports of glasses, with frames and lenses. This took a lot of going back and forth to clear this and discuss definitions, and in the end, we were penalized. 
The other side is the consumer side. People don’t necessarily think about protecting their eyes enough in Cambodia. Only 30 per cent of the population has had an eye test before.  Sunlight is harmful to our vision; it creates a higher chance of cataracts.  
Vrigine: Myopia, or nearsightedness has become a pandemic for children and adults, and 50% of all people in the world will suffer from this by 2050. It’s a result of overexposure to screens, and we can help work around this with expert care and the selection of specialised lenses and frames. 

EuroCham: What are your impressions so far about Cambodia? 
Virginie: We looked at traditional optical stores in Cambodia and saw the gap. I also have experience operating stores in Vietnam and Thailand. You can have beautiful stores, but in Thailand and Vietnam as well, the education level of the refractionists and the optometrists is not where it needs to be. 
In France, this is proper schooling that takes 2 or 3 years, to obtain a BTS diploma and optician’s license, but many who join the trade in Cambodia learn from their parents or on-the-job training and this training can be condensed to 1-6 months.  
Yiling: There are no schools or optical institutes training in optometry here. So, people learn on the spot. It’s not systematic and it lacks a certain methodology. There’s a huge gap in skilled opticians and refractionsists; we can help close that gap. 

EuroCham: What are your hopes and vision for Horizon? 
Virginie: We would like to open a new store in Siem Reap, perhaps Battambang, and open up a store in the mall here in Phnom Penh. We think having 3-4 stores in Phnom Penh is possible, but we’ll see! Expanding in Vietnam could be interesting, and the market is more mature. There is interest in a location in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.  

Our priority is to focus on opening our first optical classroom within six to eight months, maybe in collaboration with NGOs like PSE or Toute à L'Ecole, who are motivated to help create new career paths, including ones that lead to being an optician. We are also in discussion with Olympia Medical Care to potentially open a vision centre at the end of this year to provide high-standard optometry services.  

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