I am in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, eating lunch—pumpkin parcels with tamarind dip for the appetizer, crispy rice noodles with lime and chili sauce for the main course, ginger-scented mango, pineapple, and coconut crumble for desert and a passion fruit and watermelon freeze to wash it all down. If it sounds like I am at an innovative fusion restaurant, I am, but I’m also at a restaurant that trains former street youth for jobs in the hospitality industry. 

imageThe restaurant is called Friends, and it is owned by the nonprofit Mith Samlanh.The profits from the restaurant go toward running an orphanage and school for street children. The benefits are two-fold: the profits earned support the NGO; and the youth they serve get valuable job training. Mith Samlanh runs many other businesses the same way, including an upscale restaurant, Romdeng, a clothing shop, a nail salon, and a moped repair shop. What is remarkable is that not only are these businesses successful, they also seem to be on the edge of local trends.

During lunch, Friends Restaurant was completely full with people from all corners of the world. I went to Romdeng that evening and found a similar story. The clothing shop, Friends & Stuff, carries fashionable clothing designed and made by former street youth. I purchased a grey slip dress that was tied into a knot on each shoulder and silk-screened with an updated Cambodian design in bright yellow.

After clothes shopping, I stopped in an inviting, pink-colored nail salon called Daughters. While getting my nails painted, I read posters on the walls that gave information on child prostitution in Phnom Penh. With a sinking feeling, I realized the person giving me a pedicure had escaped from prostitution and was going through Daughters’ training program for a job in salon services. Daughters is such an upbeat and cheerful place, it is hard to imagine what these girls had to go through to get here. 

imageMith Samlanh (www.streetfriends.org) and Daughters (www.daughtersofcambodia.org) are respected pioneers in a growing trend in Phnom Penh: nonprofits that support themselves by providing vocational training to the youth they serve. I am happy to say that the trend seems to be taking off and walking around the city. You will find many businesses that are created to fund nonprofits and provide training. It seems to be part of the accepted social fabric. The businesses are not only supporting fantastic causes, but the products and services they offer are surprisingly good.  The concierge at Raffles, a luxury hotel, recommends Romdeng to their guests. They don’t bother to mention that it is run by former street youth. They just say, “The Khmer cuisine is excellent there.”

Sometimes you go looking for the story, and sometimes the story finds you. I came to Cambodia to do a story on their exceptional ability to provide HIV/AIDS treatment and I will write that story. But first I had to share this incredible story of social entrepreneurship giving street youth a brighter future.