Interview with Jane Darbyshire, Founder of Penh Lane || Jewelry Making Social Enterprise in Cambodia
I was super excited to have the opportunity to speak with Jane Darbyshire, founder of fair trade company, Pehn Lane. It’s an understatement to say that I was inspired by her passion for educating victims of gender-based violence and helping disabled people. Read my interview with Jane below.
Lauren Dinkens: How did you get started with your business?
Jane Darbyshire: Well, long story short, I traveled to Cambodia in 2006 with Oxfam (on the Oxfam challenge) and just fell in love with Cambodia, really. At the time, I was making jewelry and selling it in Australia, just as a hobby. I was asked to volunteer and teach some jewelry making classes to young women that were transitioning out of the sex trade. From this I realized that the girls that I was working with were really, really talented. So, [I and] another volunteer, who became my business partner decided to make a sustainable business out of it. We thought, "why not make a fair trade business with jewelry?" There were a lot of social businesses in the fashion, textiles and hospitality industries at the time. We thought that our skills were jewelry making, and that's how it got started.
Lauren: What made you choose Cambodia as opposed to other countries that are highly affected by sex trafficking?
Jane: I guess the proximity was one thing. Being based in Australia, Southeast Asia is pretty close, and the connections are strong. Also, the [relatively] recent history of Cambodia was quite devastating, and it really affected me when I visited. There was so much I didn't know about the country that I felt really impacted the young people of today in Cambodia. Also, I guess, [it was] the people, they were just so willing to try anything and make the most of every situation. They're welcoming. I was lucky; I decided to travel there first and loved it.
Lauren: What would you say is the most difficult thing about doing business abroad?
Jane: I'd say the most difficult [things are] language barriers and cultural expectations. Just being aware of that the way I might work in Australia is not necessarily the way someone in Cambodia will work. The language is obviously another difficulty. Some of my staff speak a tiny bit of English, and I speak even less Khmer. I rely on a lot of body language and showing demonstrations. When I am not in Cambodia, the internet really assists. Twenty to thirty years ago it would have been much more difficult to run a business based in Australia and trade with Cambodian artisans and producers.
Lauren: Would you say that your passion for jewelry making and teaching jewelry making is really what pushed you to teach jewelry in order to bring awareness to and fund different causes?
Jane: I think my passion for women's rights and equality is more of the driving force. It just happened that the skill I had to offer was jewelry making. The driving force behind why we continue the business is to empower women to have careers and work in jobs that they enjoy and support them. If I had other skills, I would have maybe taught those instead.
Lauren: Your company focuses a lot on training programs, and creating employment opportunities for local people. What made you realize the importance of those factors?
Jane: We've based that on the basic fair trade principles, but also on what we would expect from a job. I expect professional development in my own job (I have a full-time job as well). I expect to be able to learn new skills and grow. So, we want to provide that for our own staff. We also want to be able to give them opportunities so that if they decide to move out of Phnom Penh or if they decide to go back to their provincial homes, that they have options to either start their own business (because they've got skills to run it) or join another business. We don't want to "tie them down" but give them all the skills and qualifications so that they can make their own choices.
Lauren: How does your company plan to grow in the future? Do you plan on offering other business classes or expending teachings to other types of skills?
Jane: Yes. We've got plans, but it always comes down to funds. So, we're really working on finding new retailing avenues. We really only use profits from sales to go back into the business. We don’t get any grant funding or fundraising at this point. When we have some savings, the next thing we're going to be focusing on are computer literacy classes. So, we're obviously going to outsource that and send our staff to classes to learn basic computer skills. English classes, normally, we do that through volunteers to give lessons. We've just recently partnered with an organization (in the sense that we're sending one our mangers to one of their courses) in business training. They focus specifically on women in business. We hope to send more staff on this training.
Lauren: That's very inspiring. Are you planning to offer computer skills so that they will be more competitive in a global market?
Jane: Yeah. It's about providing different skills that they can use and transfer to other jobs. And, if they do stay on with us, as many of our staff [members] have been with us since the beginning, it opens up more opportunities. More of them can communicate with customers online, can communicate with me, just checking in with daily management, but they can go on to do other work as well.
Lauren: How do you come across the organizations and artisans that you work with?
Jane: We founded a jewelry studio in Cambodia, and that's our main producer partner. Through that experience, we ended up working with [a lot] of different producers who make some of our raw materials. So, for example, we'll get our timber elements made from another producer-partner who specializes in hand carved timber. Through that we've learned about their work practices and organizational structures, and from there, have decided to partner with them and bring their products to Australia. So, it's through the jewelry studio that we've identified our other partners that we want to work with under the name, Pehn Lane. We make sure that we know how they treat their staff. We meet with all of the producers that we work with. We go to their workshops; we like to really be confident in the products that we bring to Australia.
Lauren: Do you solely work with fair trade businesses and ethical businesses with a philanthropic mission?
Jane: Yes. We choose the partners based on their aims and what they set out to do. Many of the organizations we work with, work with minority groups such as women and people that either have polio or landmine injuries. For people with disabilities and for uneducated women, it's quite difficult to enter mainstream employment in Cambodia. We're basically supporting people who are most vulnerable in Cambodia. So, women, people with disabilities, they're our main two groups.
Lauren: As a wholesaler, what do you look for in partner retailers?
Jane: We've approached existing fair trade retailers, so people who are already aware of fair trade, ethical trade and the reasons behind it and why it's so important. We also want to bring awareness to the main stream consumers as well show them that buying ethically doesn't have to be buying poor quality or cheaply made products. You can be a young, fashion-forward person or a young professional, and still wear ethically-made products. I guess we want to be just as well-known and acceptable as other local designers.