Empowering young women in Cambodia through education, vocational training & career opportunities.
There are loads of beautiful jewelry lines. Each with a unique style, claim to fame or distinction. But very few can say that, besides making beautiful jewelry, they set out to empower marginalized young women to pursue their life goals. Penh Lenh, founded by my dear friend, can say just that. A social business designed to empower it’s artisans, suppliers, customers (and really everyone it touches), it is making a huge mark near it’s headquarters of Phnom Penh, Cambodia and worldwide.
I met Rachel Dodson (lovingly referred to as Dodson), six months out of college when she interned at the modeling agency I snagged a post grad job with. When she walked in, all blonde curls and blue eyes, boss babe style, I had no idea how much she would change my life. Now, 12 years later, she’s still changing it (and countless others).
Dodson is the best kind of contradiction. Her presence is angelic and her wit sharp. She loves fiercely and openly, while maintaining a certain shroud of mystery. She is the definition of adventure, but even half a world away can make you feel at home. Dodson is a brilliant businesswoman and the very best prankster. She lives more like Jesus than any person I’ve ever met, and she does is it in a way that makes you feel closer to Him when she’s around. She inspires me to do better, to be better, to empower those around me and to laugh the whole way through it.
If you couldn’t tell, I am so, SO proud to call her my friend.
I tell you all this, so you get a little glimpse of her heart. She has a heart for women, especially those who have dealt with extreme injustices. As long as I’ve known her, she has been passionate about doing what she can to change the landscape of the sex trafficking industry. So nearly 5 years ago, she laid down her worldly comforts and took up residence in a country she wasn’t familiar with, picking up pieces of a language she didn’t know and let God lead her heart and actions to build a masterpiece. What she has created with Penh Lenh is about SO much more than jewelry … it’s sacrifice, a labor of love, and her heart in sparkly, tasseled form.
Penh Lenh strives to make a lasting impact on a world in which every woman deserves to seek her dreams and know her value.
Who better to tell you about Penh Lenh than its creator herself! Here is a little Q&A with the amazing Dodson:
What inspired you to move across the world and launch Penh Lenh?
After several years of working as a modeling agent and owning my own agency in Nashville, I moved to NYC to work at an agency and climb up the proverbial ladder. I had been aware of the issue of sex trafficking and exploitation, however, once I moved to New York I spent time educating myself further on the issues. As I learned more about these issues and other prominent social justice issues, I also became aware of how the very industry I worked in not only participated in but perpetuated many of these issues. I reached a point where I simply HAD to do something. In college I studied business and marketing, so the idea of creating a social business was something that made sense to me and felt more sustainable for generating change in the long term. Penh Lenh truly became a reality and necessity after I travelled to Cambodia and felt the weight and the need for a company like Penh Lenh.
Currently, 72% of Cambodians live on less than $3/day and 70% of women are in vulnerable employment. Not to mention the staggering statistics of sexual assault, rape, gender inequality, and lack of educational opportunities specifically for young women. According to UNICEF, women reinvest 80% of their income into their families, while men invest only 30-40%. We know that when women are given equal opportunities to work, not only do they thrive, but their families and economies thrive as well. So in the face of all these seemingly hopeless statistics, we also saw great opportunity for change by simply empowering and investing in the education, training, and employment of young women.
What does Penh Lenh mean and why is that important?
When I first came to Cambodia I learned that the local term used for a sex trafficking survivor is “broken girl.” When I heard this, my heart immediately broke. I knew right then and there that I wanted my business and program to be named something that would combat this notion. “Penh Lenh” in the Cambodian language of Khmer, means “whole.” This, to us, is the opposite of broken. We want to show that we are whole, we are complete, not lacking in any way, and everything we do will reflect this. We believe this represents the strength and beauty of the women creating and also wearing the jewelry.
What do you want potential customers to understand about Penh Lenh jewelry and the artisans making it?
One thing that I, embarrassingly, didn’t give much thought to before getting into this business was how much my purchases impacted others and impacted the world. I really want customers and everyone to be empowered knowing that with every single purchase they have the ability to use their voice. Your purchases have the ability to empower, give opportunity, and fair wages to people around the world. At the same time, when we do not give thought to our purchases, we can damage and perpetrate industries that harm.
Each peace of Penh Lenh jewelry is handcrafted by one of our female artisans here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is our mission to pour 100% of our net profits back into reinvesting in our artisans. This is done through paying fair wages, home cooked daily meals that focus on health and nutrition, and a Penh Lenh subsidized health care plan. We also reinvest in educational opportunities for our artisans. Not only does Penh Lenh provide skill training, we offer courses that cover an array of topics ranging from English, professional skills, budgeting, health and nutrition, sexual education, and female empowerment. Truly, when someone purchases a piece from Penh Lenh they are directly investing in the lives of our artisans.
Tell me about the impact you hope to have through Penh Lenh.
My vision is to empower women to know their value. My hope is that every time our artisans step into work, they feel loved. And each time our customers step into our shop or receive our product in the mail, they too, feel loved. When we are loved, and feel worthy of love, we can then know our value and feel empowered.
We may be a cool jewelry company, but I believe we can be a platform for so much more.
What has been the biggest lesson the girls have taught YOU?
I spent the most time on this question and saved it for last. There have been infinite lessons and growth for me throughout this experience. They have taught me how to love beyond conditions, to forgive quickly, and how to be brave. These girls are fierce champions. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that the greatest thing we can give anyone is simply opportunity….the opportunity to learn, to be educated, to be equal, to be valued, and to be loved. It is each persons’ decision to take the opportunity, but it is the greatest honor to simply be given equal opportunities.
What US things do you crave/miss the most?
Of course family and friends are top of the list! I get really random cravings every once in a while. I love candy so Jolly Ranchers are a big craving. Last week I was craving a Jimmy Johns sub. Random, I know. After being sick several times here, mostly I miss the comfort of being able to eat at any restaurant and order an iced water and know that it is clean and safe.
If you could give our women readers one piece of advice, what would you share?
“Use what’s in your hand to fulfill what’s in your heart.” – Brian Houston
For me, this affirms that whatever our passions may be, God will always give us enough. We will never be lacking if we simply give what we have to God and allow him to use it and transform it for his purpose. You are enough. You are valued. Your voice matters.
…..I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING…
I hope this has made you curious about Penh Lenh. About purchasing some beautiful goodies made by incredible artisans. Or maybe about exploring what you can do to help empower women or combat sex trafficking near you. No matter where you are, you can shop online at www.penhlenh.com and know that your purchase is truly making a difference.
Visiting Penh Lenh
I’ve always been in awe of Dodson. And knowing her, I knew she was doing beyond incredible work through Penh Lenh and with her presence in Cambodia. But I wanted to see her world for myself! And well, frankly I missed her tail SO much, I wanted to squeeze her.
In January of 2018, my husband and I got to spend a few days with her in Phnom Penh. Although it shouldn’t have surprised me, seeing Dodson in action, speaking fluent Khmer, negotiating with suppliers, inspiring her artisans (and pranking them in the next breath) blew my mind. Meeting, watching and hugging these brave, resilient, talented woman that have overcome so much pain, and yet embrace such joy… well… I tear up just thinking about it. They opened my eyes to so much. They gave me the gift of a different lens with which to view the world. One that sees their pain and angers for their injustices. And shows them as the whole survivors that they are.
Indeed, woman ARE gold.