Colonial rule, Pol Pot regime, and massacre, then civil war – the influence of a number of disastrous threats remains still in various fields such as economics, education, medical care, in Cambodia. However, here Cambodia is also a country of grace where about 800 kinds of medicinal herbs and minerals can be taken from ancient times and even where the traditional medicine originating from Indian traditional medicine Ayurveda has passed through more than a thousand years beyond time.
kru khmer botanical (kru khmer), which won the “Certification of Excellence” in 2016 by Tripadvisor, developed and sold aroma products using Cambodian herbs to make a mechanism that people in Cambodia can obtain stable work and income. By hiring staff who dropped out of elementary school, providing a place where even girls without educational background can work, and developing their capacity, kru khmer is contributing to the slow and sustainable development of the community.
It was a Japanese woman, Chihiro Shinoda who founded kru khmer from scratch. Chihiro said that she traveled over 20 countries during college, participated in volunteer activities to support developing countries. Then she felt her lack of ability once she decided to work at a company. However, she came into doubts as to that “What I want to do for whom?” and decided to decline the job offer to follow her own voice from the heart. Then she worked as an intern at a company related to the fair trade in the UK, after that she founded kru khmer in Cambodia.
It has passed 7 years from going abroad directly after graduation and founding a company. Now Chihiro becomes one of the most admired women who has been featured in numerous media such as NHK, Nikkei Woman, All Nippon Air Magazine.
I look back Chihiro’s student life with her. What kind of path has she walked along?
Chihiro, who has tireless energy and is light-footed, said, “I think only about how I can accomplish things without considering the disadvantage.” She also talked about the advantages and disadvantages of founding a startup as soon as graduating from university. Let’s think about “What is necessary to accomplish what you really want to do”
while reading Chihiro’s entrepreneurial journey.
Yusi: Please tell us briefly about the business of kru khmer currently.
Chihiro: In a word, what we are doing now is manufacturing and selling of aroma products using Cambodian materials and culture, and SPA management based on Cambodian traditional medicine concept. Rather than flowing agricultural crops as they are, we are trying to spread Cambodian charm by processing, branding. Cambodia is ahead of poor or negative images, in fact, there are awesome nature, culture, tradition, and wonderful people. We are spreading such good points of Cambodia to foreign tourists through our business.
What future do you want to create through kru khmer?
As my personal mission, I would like to make a model in which kru khmer is the heart, circulating economic activities like a pump to develop the region slowly and slowly.
For example, I would like to complete the following cycle in Cambodia, raising herbs in a certain area, harvesting it, making it as a product, and selling it there. As you know, the baby is also made from the heart first, the hands and feet will gradually come out. In the same way, I would like to be a platform that people grow by involving in kru khmer. I think that it would be better that not taking leadership by myself but leaving roles to the local people and they can continue to change the economy and the region steadily by themselves.
Why did you start to be interested in sustainable and regional growth in Cambodia and social responsibility?
When I traveled Cambodia and Vietnam when I was a university student, I started volunteering with student organizations afterward, but at the time I wanted to create a place where even children without educational background can work, at first it was really all that. Through volunteers, I could make tangible things like schools though I couldn’t do anything on intangible parts so I felt unsatisfactory. There are various solutions when thinking about what it is necessary for the poor region, but I think that the important thing that supports people’s life is steady work and stable income. Steady work and stable income relieve us and let us do various things. Then people can afford to let their children go to school. I began thinking that if I could make stable work and income for parents, the region could develop steadily.
I think that the current flow of society, which involves social contribution as a special word, is somewhat strange. I think that it is also a social contribution just by working and paying taxes properly, and at the time I founded kru khmer, I think that a word “social contribution” or a word “social entrepreneur” had not existed. Although these words may have existed, they were not such a boom.
I certainly feel that there are many people who say that I started a business because I want to have fun. I think that the word “social contribution” is now booming, and I think that kru khmer is also being categorized into that, how do you feel about it?
I feel very complicated. I am very thankful to be said like that but I feel self-disgusted as “Don’t say like that” when the other people think kru khmer is at a higher level than I think. I suffered rather than felt happy lol.
Suffering lol. Were you interested in founding your company since the time of high school and did you choose the faculty of business administration at the university?
It was a bit different. When I was a high school student I wanted to know more about the world vaguely. I did not know the world and the economy that are mentioned in the news. You know, you have to know various things about the history, geography, economy and so on in order to understand the news and if you don’t know, you can’t have your own opinion on that. I wanted to be a person who understood the news and had my own opinions on that. Well then, when I thought how I could become like that, there was a book which was about an investor traveling around the world, it was nothing special that the person was an investor so he could gain insights of what would happen next from the phenomenon what happened at the time. I was so impressed that what he expected was happened in reality. I wanted to be able to examine the phenomenon like him. There were various ways though when I was a high school student, I thought the economic activities were tied deeply to human life and if I learned the economy I could get more knowledge about the world. Then it was hard to decide to choose between the economy and management but I chose the faculty of business administration because I thought that the practical one would fit me more than something vague.
After graduation, you promptly decided to found your company in abroad. However, you got job hunting once at the university, right?
The reason why I got job hunting once, I felt my lack of ability while volunteering. At the university class, I never experienced to find out the way by myself and proceed things so in a certain way, at volunteering it was the first time to do that. You know, in school there are answers but there is no answer in the real world. Specifically, I didn’t have various “business basic skills” such as how to draw out opinions at just a meeting, how to keep motivation, time management. I had thought I could do such things though, I couldn’t do that in real. Facing the obstacle, I felt I had to acquire basic business skills after all so I mainly applied for venture companies where I could work with CEO close and train by myself. I loved to start something by myself so I wanted to work for CEO who would be my role model.
After finishing my job hunting, one day you were in a cafe, you heard a voice “Just do what you want to do right now”, then you declined the job offer lol. What and how did change your mind during that period?
When I got free time to think my future after job hunting, I began to think what I really want to do more deeply. As I applied for venture companies at the job hunting, most of the students around me were such youngers aiming to work for venture companies. Many of them aimed to make an IPO, be rich, and make a mark, so I was very impressed and enjoyed but on the other hand, starting a business is for example meeting customers needs, providing useful products has not existed, founding a company or making an IPO as one mean to achieve the mission, right? But I felt that many of them set one of the means, founding a company and making an IPO for the purpose. And at the same time, I had a feeling of strangeness, I wondered what I want to do for whom. At the time, I thought I wanted to develop a model that people who didn’t receive education would be able to work and the region would get developing slowly and slowly with stable work and income as I mentioned earlier.
Didn’t feel any anxiety or fear when you declined the job offer?
I wouldn’t say I was not scared, but I didn’t want to do the same thing as others. I had fallen out passion for something if others do the same thing. Therefore, the feeling of fear of doing something different from others was originally small. I am the type of the person who moves without thinking much about things when I get want to do. I move into action quickly with thinking only how to achieve the goal before thinking about negative things like a failure so on the one hand, you could say I have unlimited energy, on the other hand, I just go heading without considering well.
My parents have had qualified jobs so they didn’t experience general job hunting as well. So I think if parents had experienced working as an employee at a company, they might not agree that you start a business without work experience. My parents didn’t mention about the risk of starting a business without work experience lol. Therefore, I moved many times since I was a small kid because of my parents’ jobs, so there was no resistance to going to a new place.
What was your path from declining a job offer until starting your own business in Cambodia?
Although I had wanted to go to Cambodia where I had a strong impression, I thought I needed to get English skills first. And I was interested in producing products though I disliked that “Feel pity, Buy”. Then I went to the UK where famous in the ethical and fair trade to learn branding.
First of all, I went to a language school in London and then I worked as an intern or perhaps I should say it was like a copygirl at a company running an event related to fair trade in Scotland. When I was in England, I always would like to move to Cambodia, I couldn’t decide between doing a business in Japan and moving to Cambodia directly. Thinking without action didn’t much help so I went to Cambodia for about a month. I thought that the next step might come to me when I went to the site. I met an expat there and told what I wanted to do and the person told me that I should have lived in Cambodia and worked for a while. Then when I worked in Cambodia, my friend gave birth, so I visited to celebrate, she got Chupon* at home and I was interested in it. This was the first trigger to get an idea of kru khmer.
SPA KHMER staff give you a massage your shoulder with their essential oil and stone. I bought a herbal mosquito repellent spray. It is made of natural materials so I used it before sleeping without anxiety and could spend a relaxing evening even there were many mosquitoes in Cambodia.
*Chupon is a Cambodian traditional herbal steam sauna. Chupon has the effect of healing fatigue after giving birth, stimulating metabolism by warming up the body. Chihiro got hints on this and would launch a SPA project using Cambodian traditional materials.
Chihiro, you have unlimited energy. What was the decision that you needed the most courage so far?
I’m scared always when I decide something and start new things. I am terribly scared and getting sick.
Squeezing sensation? lol
Yeah yeah, it’s over squeezing sensation lol. Even I have a laid-back personality with few troubles, I woke up worried at midnight and consider that a second after waking up. Even for a brainless person like me, it becomes like this so I think that it is impossible for a worried person to start an own business lol. I think I am a pleasant person who has not thought of anything, but I thought once that how easy it is if there were a boss who told me to keep going, and I wanted someone to decide instead of me when I was tired to decide things. To notice that, it took me about 5 years since I started my business lol.
People who are courageous and reckless are totally different from each other. I think that having courage is a person who knows the risk and can overcome the wall. In my case, I do not have the courage at all, I act only thinking the merit without considering the risk. I am a reckless person lol. For example, when I opened the second shop, I had some troublesome things, but things would not move unless I decided to do it. So if I declare my friends to do what I want to do, I have to do it. Because if I do not do it, they think “Chihiro is all talk and no action”.
Do you dislike that you are thought all talk and no action?
Of course, I dislike that. I’d like to die by being told that “She carried out her words” lol.
To become top of the organization, it is hard if you don’t have strong willingness about the vision and can’t concentrate on the business. Since entrepreneurs have to decide everything yourself, I feel some pressure that I can’t blame anybody for in that sense. I started my own business in abroad as soon as I graduated university, so it might be regarded as an aberration lol. It’s not easy to earn money by working. I think that it is a good thing that you join a company once to know what business is such as the basic attitude on business, how to write an email, accounting and so on. Just because you study business at a company, doesn’t mean you will succeed in your own business. But I was worried even by little things called “common sense” as I started my own business without knowledge. On the other hand, starting an own business without an experience of working at a company, there is an advantage in flexibility in a word. Once you work at a company, you get to know that “do like this at times like this” based on your experience even that is good or bad meaning. However, it is sometimes not practicable overseas. I have been able to adapt to all the phenomena that occurred without biased views because I moved to Cambodia without such experiences in Japan. I accepted everything and put it in myself that it was something like that, and I’ve made my own judgment axis.
Lastly, please give your message to youngers who are on the ways of exploring what they want to do!！
I want you to meet various people and try various things. I think that you will find out what you are good at through the experiences. I want you to challenge various things, on the other hand, I want you to have something that you think you have done seriously in the twenties. It is not important whether it will work or not. If you have something that you did your best, it will become your success experience and I think that it will lead to the courage to take the next step by accumulating such small success experiences.
After graduating from the management department of Aoyama Gakuin University, she moved to Cambodia and started her own business. When she was 20 years old, she visited Cambodia at her backpacking trip then she experienced supporting developing countries such as school construction at university club. Once she decided to work at a company in Japan but she declined the job offer by feeling haziness. From the experiences of volunteering, she wanted to make a model that leads to sustainable development of the region by making stable work and income, not depending on donation. After studying fair trade in the UK, she founded kru khmer botanical in 2009. In 2015, she established a spa, and she launched 3 days detox tour from May 2017 as well.
kru khmer botanical shop information
From the outside, Chihiro is a career woman creating her own path so far with strong willingness and unlimited energy. However, when I talked with her, she was humility to surrounding opinions despite she had done great things and as understood from the answer to the interview, she was playful so I held admiration for her. At the kru khmer shop, the staff girls gave me a very attentive attendance with a smile and taught me that “Chihiro always try to help us, she is really gentle and nice lady”. I believe that the slow and sustainable development in the region that she wants will be realized and kru khmer will still be there as the heart of the model.
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