Cambodian high school nurtures entrepreneurs to create change

Academy gives full scholarships to students, grooms them to be 'entrepreneurial thinkers'

Bopha Um, 13, is mulling over whether she can spend more time in the coming school year expanding an award-winning mobile phone application for cultural promotion that she and her schoolmates developed.

"It's a calculated risk-take," she says in English, with the discerning air of a future venture capitalist.

If she focuses too much on the app, she reasons, she would not be able to focus on other projects, which could be just as interesting and rewarding.

Bopha is a student at Liger Leadership Academy, a small boarding school in Phnom Penh's outskirts opened in 2012 to groom what it calls "entrepreneurial thinkers" that will change Cambodia.

Founded by American entrepreneur Trevor Gile and his wife Agnieszka Tynkiewicz-Gile, the school selects a handful out of thousands of young applicants every three years and gives them a full scholarship for the six-year high school education focused on solving real-world problems.

Besides learning a core curriculum that covers Khmer, English, mathematics and science, Liger's 110 students, aged 12 to 18, also design and run projects of their choice, guided by facilitators.

Pint-sized Bopha, for example, was part of a team of five girls who took the top junior prize in this year's Technovation Cambodia, a competition for girls to pitch their technology-based ideas for social change.

  • 110

    Number of students, aged 12 to 18, at Liger Leadership Academy now.


    What it costs to fund each Liger student for one year.


    What the couple who founded the school have spent on it so far.

Her team designed an application that allows people to book tickets for performances by Cambodia's struggling traditional artists.

"Before this, coding was a subject that I hated most," she admits to The Sunday Times, in a conversation at the leafy Liger compound where a friendly brown mutt called Harry wanders in and out of air-conditioned classrooms.

Now, as a Liger student, she lists coding and Web design as one of her interests alongside painting, drawing and conservation.

Bopha, whose father trains teachers for a living, says she wants to use technology to improve education. She hopes to "make the world a better place for animals". And she might want to travel through time too.

"I'm interested in space and wonder if time-travel is possible," she declares. "I would look into all the evidence."

Like Bopha, several other students The Sunday Times met on a visit to Liger earlier this month were equally confident and inquisitive. Two senior students independently gave a guided tour of the premises.

One group of students is working on how to launch Cambodia's first nano satellite, liaising with foreign mentors, raising funds and studying how to get a licence for their space ambition.

Another group started and still runs a bicycle tour business, with students acting as guides for tourists wanting to experience local culture in an intimate setting.

Since 2016, students have also used the Pedro, a digital currency they created for in-house transactions. As senior students live independently in shared apartments, they are allocated Pedros to buy groceries and pay utility and maintenance bills.

Such independent learning stands out in Cambodia, which has recently started what it calls "New Generation Schools" but is still grappling with how to keep students in school as they progress to higher grades.

According to a report published last year by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, which collaborated with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, "students at the age of 15 in Cambodia performed significantly lower than the internationally agreed standards of basic literacy… and in comparison with other countries, in particular, with its Asean peers".

The "learning crisis" extended to students in lower grades, the report said.

"Private schools were better performing but their performance was still below the baseline level on average, reflecting the lack of competency-based practices in classroom teaching and learning," it added.

Mr Hor Sakhak, literacy director of Room To Read, a non-profit organisation working with schools to improve literacy, notes how some private institutes are staffed by teachers from government schools taking on second jobs.

"We need to support teachers to conduct research on new methodologies," he tells The Sunday Times.

Having nurtured their unique school carefully over 10 years, Mr Gile, 49, says he and his wife feel "we have proven the concept now".

Last year, Liger received special permission to take part in a Cambodian business model competition normally reserved for university and graduate students, and emerged third out of 111 teams.

This year, its team which designed an app for job-seekers to showcase their talents and hobbies beyond work experiences won first place nationally - and third place in a subsequent regional competition.

There is already some commercial interest in the app. Sixteen-year-old Samnang Nuonsinoeun, one of the three team members, plans to take a year off after leaving Liger to focus on entrepreneurship. "I enjoy doing it to solve community problems," he says.

Students are chosen not because they are the brightest but because they have an "innate sense of leadership, optimism and work ethic", says Mr Gile.

It costs US$15,000 (S$20,294) to fund each student for an entire year. Each gets a personal laptop, and is covered for medical, tuition and accommodation costs.

"We want to get maximum impact for the resources that we deploy," says Mr Gile. "I'm very, very happy with the return that we get on our capital in terms of per student cost."

He stresses that the Liger model can apply beyond Cambodia. But having spent at least US$14 million on Liger, the couple cannot afford to fund more such academies, and are instead looking for investors and other collaborators to replicate it elsewhere and scale it up.

"By using this entrepreneurship and education, this model can (have an) impact on any country with any socio-economic background," he says.