Diana Swartz recently invited me to a dinner party at a Italian restaurant in NYC. She is good company and I like to see her (and the friends we have in common) but this was no ordinary dinner party. This was a party at which the various guests were assembled to meet some of the leadership, staff, and students of the Liger Leadership Academy. (As we weren’t all going to Cambodia anytime soon, the Liger community came to see us.) I was predisposed to be impressed with the school, since I know Diana to be a smart and caring person, and was interested in learning more (as was everyone present at the event), but I wasn’t at all prepared for how incredible the students were. A number of the school attendees had flown in for a whirlwind tour of New York; they had never been to the United States before. Some of them had never been on an airplane before. They were exhausted and jet-lagged, in a big and unfamiliar city. They spoke flawless English, had boundless energy and enthusiasm and impeccable poise, acted as goodwill ambassadors for their school, and were eager to tell the assembled guests about their future plans. One young woman wanted to promote Cambodian music, another wanted to pursue a career in marine biology. A young man was planning a career in the technology sector. They were among the most intelligent, well-spoken, dynamic students I’ve ever encountered, and I found them even more impressive after the fact, when I learned from Diana that they had very limited English skills before they arrived at Liger.
The students of Liger Leadership Academy clearly demonstrate that this is one absolutely terrific school. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of meeting them, however, here are some stats:
Number of students: 110
Student gender ratio: 50/50
Admission rate: 0.75%
Percentage of students receiving full scholarships: 100%
Hours of class per year per student: 1,464
Percentage of students who compete in international STEM competitions: 32%
Number of books written by Liger students: 24
Hours of community service per student per year: 400
The school is committed to nurturing highly-skilled entrepreneurial thinkers who are globally-minded, determined, ethical, passionate, and effective, and who aren’t waiting for tomorrow. They are actively working on changing their country now.
The students and staff left New York after a short visit, stopped in Chicago to meet more potential supporters, and then dispersed. I spoke with Diana on the phone shortly thereafter and she told me more about the organization and her involvement, and we followed up with some email correspondence after that. Here’s what she had to say:
Date: November 11, 2018
Occupation: Director of Governance, Liger Charitable Foundation
Hometown: Burke, VA
Current town: London
What’s your “elevator pitch” for Liger, in case you meet someone with a whole lot of money to spend on a good cause?
Liger is a six-year, full-scholarship, non-profit, non-political educational institution that provides — at no cost whatever to the students — a comprehensive, innovative internationally-competitive education focusing on an innovative STEM, leadership, and entrepreneurship curriculum. The 110 handpicked disadvantaged students from the ages of 12-18 are selected from over 15,000 candidates from around Cambodia and demonstrate both need and potential. The school is managed by a six-person leadership team and overseen by a five-person Board of Directors.
One of the biggest challenges we face today is finding the next generation of leadership — especially for those new countries quickly emerging on the world stage. In nations in the burgeoning, vibrant region of Southeast Asia, human potential remains largely undeveloped. It is a situation that cries out not just for charitable aid, but for long-term investment in human capital, starting with children of grade-school age.
This is the mission of the Liger Leadership Academy, located in the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Founded in 2009, Liger is not a charity nor is it an educational facility for privileged kids. It is a long-term investment in the future of an evolving and challenging world, giving a chance to youngsters who might not otherwise have one.
Liger’s goal is to assist in the development of Cambodia by creating well-rounded, educated, innovative, entrepreneurial and empathetic graduates who have the ability, passion, and commitment to improve not only their own lives, but the lives of their fellow Cambodians. Liger believes that helping a bright young child realize his or her potential can ultimately change the world.
How did you first learn about Liger and get involved as Director of Governance? I understand the founders of the school just fell in love with the country when they visited Cambodia…how were you so inspired?
I heard about the opportunity from my former colleague at my former firm, in 2009. I spoke with Trevor Gile (co-founder and chair of Liger’s Board of Directors), and was hooked. Therefore, I’ve been involved in Liger since its inception. I love the mission that we can aid a country’s development by educating the next generation of ethical, creative leaders.
How can people (many of whom are not likely to visit Cambodia anytime soon) get involved, or help out, or learn more? And what is your fundraising goal to make Liger sustainable?
Outside of the fundraising space, we are looking for supporters who can share the story of Liger and connect our school and our students with leaders and change makers around the world. As a reminder, we are based in Cambodia, but our organization is a US registered charity, so any donation is tax deductible. Here is a link to the donate page.
What are the biggest obstacles Liger has faced so far? Was there trouble with government, with getting parents to trust a new school, with raising money, with the curriculum? And what do you think are your next set of challenges?
One of the biggest challenges was finding the proper staff to help build the school, and therefore we found ourselves in a paradox because Liger’s mission is to help steer the direction of the country’s economy and society via Cambodian people. We have so much respect and love for the people of Cambodia, and there is no shortage of great, hard-working, intelligent people — but because business, managerial, and communication skills were not fostered in them at an early age, there is a gap in their fundamental knowledge level that the school requires.
One of the biggest challenges going into Cambodia was convincing parents to allow their children to leave home and commit to six years at a residential school opened by foreigners. Admittedly, there was some hesitation as the idea of Liger — which is not a traditional school and was created to transform these students into the country’s future leaders — was an entirely new concept in Cambodia. Our phenomenal recruitment team and staff were able to help these parents see the potential not only in the school, but also in their children. Today, these parents are amongst our biggest supporters. We’re welcomed with open arms by them and I am both humbled and proud that their trust has been so well rewarded.
When I went to your event in NYC, I met the founders, Trevor Gile and Agnieszka Tynkiewicz-Gile (moving between New Zealand and Italy), and another person who was involved (I think on the financial side) who lived in NYC, and then of course, you’re in London and the school is in Cambodia…is it difficult to work with people who are literally all over the world? How often do you get on site to see the school, the staff there, and the students?
I’m usually at LLA around twice a year. Additionally, due to our travel schedules, the board and senior staff see each other – somewhere in the world – another couple of times a year. And we also do a lot of Skype meetings, including a weekly call to make sure we’re all up to date on what other people are working on.
With so many problems in the world, and so many people working in non-profits in so many different areas to try and fix them…what’s your argument for why this school in particular is worth support and investment? (It is very obvious to me why this is important, especially after having met some of the students, but most people don’t have that opportunity, of course!)
There is a need for dynamic, creative leadership in Cambodia as the country continues to struggle with the ghosts of a horrific past. After nearly a century as a French colony, Cambodia was victimized by decades of war in neighboring Vietnam, then fell under the murderous regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, which destroyed the country’s infrastructure and decimated its population. Over 1.7 million Cambodians were killed during the genocide which targeted Cambodia’s educated class.
However, Cambodia’s prevailing state educational model, based on the outdated colonial French system, is so far not up to this complex challenge of overcoming the hardships of the past while harnessing the present-day power of economic growth and ensuring parallel social development. A recent report by Cambodia’s National Employment Agency detailed the difficulty employers have finding qualified candidates with the skills to succeed. In June 2018, only 150 applicants were successful in the interview stage despite more than 1,000 job openings in Phnom Penh.
With 65 percent of the population under 30 years old, Cambodia’s future rests in the hands of its youth. Liger Leadership Academy believes it is imperative to equip a new generation with the capacity and drive to lead Cambodia’s future social and economic development.
Is there a book or a movie that you’d recommend for people who have not been to Cambodia, don’t know much about it, and would like to learn more?
Films: First they Killed My Father (a Liger student plays one of the siblings of the main character!) and The Killing Fields.
What is the best and the worst part about working for Liger?
The students and staff — both are amazing. I learn so much from my colleagues as well as the students; we have an incredible team I respect and enjoy working with immensely. However, because it’s always so busy I never get to spend as much time as I’d like with the students. I wish I could spend more time with them! The worst part is not ever having enough time to do everything I want to do!
What should people from the rest of the world know about Cambodia that they don’t?
According to the latest OECD country reports, Cambodia is actually leading the group of the ten ASEAN countries in terms of economic growth: an astonishing 7% in 2018, 7% predicted again for 2019. Much of this growth is digitally-driven via international e-commerce; another significant sector is tourism development. This means there is an opportunity to build strong, ethical businesses in Cambodia; it is a market ready to be opened up to new entrepreneurial leaders, to innovative and creative ideas.
Thank you very much for your time. Wishing you and everyone at Liger all the best and very successful fundraising!
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com.
All images courtesy of Liger Leadership Academy
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* Alexi Auld, author
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* Les Friedman, Mikey’s Way Foundation
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