Interview: Jeremy Hockenstein on how Digital Divide Data attacks poverty in Cambodia and Laos
Jeremy Hockenstein is the son of a Holocaust survivor, a fact that made his first visit to Cambodia in 2000 intensely personal. Much like his mother’s Jewish contemporaries in Nazi Germany, millions of Cambodians had been exterminated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Though the killings occurred in the 1970s, their effects will likely shape Cambodia’s 21st century and beyond.
Hockenstein was stunned by the absence of middle-aged Cambodians and the damage that had been done to the social fabric of society. The poverty was severe and many had no escape. Everywhere he went, he met highly capable Cambodians, but they had no employment. So, working with aspiring Cambodian and Laotian workers, he founded Digital Divide Data, an organization which would provide living-wage tech jobs and training. Hockenstein explains how the idea was born.
Dowser: Digital Divide Data (DDD) provides IT training and jobs for disadvantaged people in Cambodia and Laos. Tell me about the work.
Hockenstein: We target very poor youth who can’t afford university because they need to support their families, or disabled youth who are neglected by society. We’ve created a work-study program where people can develop technical skills, learn on the job, earn an income for themselves and their family, and move on to better paying jobs.
How much better?
Our graduates make six times the average wage in Cambodia and Laos.
So, when did you first go to Cambodia?
In November 2000. I was doing some of my own technology consulting in Hong Kong. I’d never been to Asia before, and asked someone where I should go for the weekend. They said, ‘Oh, go to Angkor Wat.’ I’d never heard of Angkor Wat, but it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Did you connect with Cambodia on a personal level?
My mother was born in a concentration camp, in the Jewish Holocaust. It was very rare; very few babies were born in and survived the concentration camps. So, being in Cambodia only 20 years after the Khmer Rouge-led genocide, seeing people struggling to rebuild, was something that resonated with me on a personal level.
What else struck you about Cambodia?
The fact that people who knew English and had computer skills didn’t have jobs. They believed the promise that globalization and technology would bring them better futures, but they were being left behind.
So how did you take this experience and turn it into an organization?
I went back home and told some old friends and former colleagues, and we all went to Cambodia for a month in February 2001 to ask Cambodians if there was something we could do. What did they need? The answer was always ‘jobs.’ We realized we needed to somehow bring in revenue from the outside.
Did you have any models for your work?
We heard about call centers in India. The call centers wouldn’t be easy in Cambodia, because people’s English wasn’t so good. But data entry seemed like it could work since everyone could type.
So where’d the money come from to start DDD?
I came back to Cambridge, where the Harvard Crimson paper was in the midst of trying to digitize itself. They agreed to give us a $50,000 contract to help with the digitization.
Then some venture capitalists who had a small foundation in Silicon Valley that was looking to support projects like ours gave us a $25,000 matching grant. With that funding behind us, we opened in the summer of 2001.
Was DDD’s initial stage overwhelming at times?
Sure. At first, I just thought, ‘We’ll help 10 or 20 people.’ I had a day job; I’d manage DDD by instant messaging at 2 in the morning. Then one thing leads to another, you get more contracts; now we have 500 clients and 600 employees. You have to have a larger vision, but you also have to be able to not get overwhelmed by that, to take small steps every day.
Your program provides workers with a four-year work-study program, in which they work with you half a day and go to a local university for the other half. Where do they go from there, and is that how you measure DDD’s success?
We really measure ourselves by how many graduates we have, and how much they’re earning. We’ve had over 200 graduates – people who move up from DDD to more advanced jobs – who earn an average of $192 a month. If you get a good job at the garment factory, you make $55, maybe $60 a month. We pay our employees about $100 a month for a job that’s not full-time, which is a good salary for a low-skill job.
What were some of the challenges you had to contend with when starting DDD?
The problem then and now is a lack of human capital. First of all, anyone who would be 40 or 50 years old in a management position was killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Half the population is under the age of 20 or 25. We have to grow and develop the management experience ourselves.
The other thing is that many Cambodians are so used to living day-to-day. The kind of planning and goal-setting that you need for decent-sized projects is new to them.
Any good employee success stories?
One of our first employees realized when she was 19 that she’d better learn English if she didn’t want to work at the market 60 hours a week like her family. She joined a church group so she could learn English from the Khmer-English Bible, and then came to work at DDD. She was one of our successful operators, and became our first accountant.
Is she still working for you?
She developed aspirations to create her own accounting business, which she never could have imagined doing before. She got jobs at a couple of other nonprofits doing their books, which led to a six-month internship at a New York accounting firm run by a Cambodian-American family. She wrote a business plan to start her own accounting business in Cambodia and was a finalist for the Cartier global entrepreneur awards.
Was it hard for you to walk away from your job to start a risky venture?
In some ways, it’s much easier than people think, but it is hard to take steps in a direction you care about or do things that are a bit different. Not going back to my employer after they paid for my schooling seemed like the craziest thing ever. My father was the first to remind me of that.
Success also doesn’t happen overnight in your field.
I don’t think most people say one day, ‘Here is the genius thing I’m going to do and it’s all going to work.’ Spending time with other Skoll Foundation social entrepreneurs, most of whom were in their 50s and older, I was struck by how people don’t just come up with this in one day; they get closer and closer to what they want to do, and just follow their instincts.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Digital Divide Data