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Cambodia’s Seamstresses Exemplify Global Trends Toward Investment in the Female Market

MasterCard is eyeing the emerging middle classes of women in Asia and Cambodia is as good a test case as anywhere else — and it offers a CSR branding point.

Cambodian seamstresses

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Cambodia has been attracting a fair amount of corporate and “social business” interest in local seamstresses. Socially motivated businesses like Eve Blossom’s Lulan Artisans and Elizabeth Kiester’s Wanderlust, both for-profit social enterprises that use the talents of marginalized seamstresses, have set up shop here. But now two larger and much more corporate players have entered the scene: MasterCard and the ultra chic Hotel de la Paix, which begs the question of why now and why the focus on women?

Answer: purchasing power.

Goldman Sachs published a report last year highlighting the growing global middle class and the increasingly leading role of women in making financial decisions. The findings are true especially in Asia, where such economies as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are expected to grow and increase its middle class populations considerably.

Cambodia is not too far behind and MasterCard is smart to jump in now. The credit card company has been doing research on the subject of female purchasing power in Asia and based on their findings have been rolling out female empowerment programs across the region.

Over the next few months, according to the press release, “MasterCard will donate USD50 towards the reconstruction of Hôtel de la Paix’s Sewing School, for every room bill paid with a MasterCard card.” The partnership is also a branding point for the hotel, as guests are taken to see community sites to get a glimpse of local Cambodian life. Essentially, MasterCard is making its name known to the very women who will shortly join the growing middle class with their own businesses and thus have more money to spend.

“I know that de la Paix has been actively involved in helping train women in sewing for quite some time, as well as being involved in social programs throughout Cambodia,” Elizabeth Kiester, who relocated to Cambodia in 2008 after a successful
career as Creative Director at LeSportsac and a Senior Editor at Jane
magazine tells Fast Company. She set up her socially conscious, summery, clothing line in Siam
Reap after moving there. She partners with marginalized female
seamstresses and just launched a collection for J. Crew.
“I think what they’re doing is amazing, and I welcome the efforts–I would love to utilize some of their seamstresses some day!”

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Little work opportunities exist for women in Cambodia, one of the world’s least developed countries, and they’re often found working on construction sites. “Sewing and crafting is indigenous to Cambodia, but also sewing offers women, in a country where perhaps they are not yet ‘equal,’ a chance to own and run their own businesses, which otherwise they may not have the opportunity,” Kiester says.

The partnership between MasterCard and Hotel de la Paix may sound like straight-up corporate social responsibility, the same stuff you’ve heard before, but actually, it’s rare to find a set of players and causes that fit so well together. The financial incentive is gravy.

While MasterCard is looking for a way into the female market and continue its CSR efforts in an emerging economy, Hotel de la Paix gets to add an angle to the hotel that doesn’t make it look so out of place as a high-end hotel in a desperately poor nation (in fact, this may just fight off some heavy criticism and also encourage local stakeholder buy-in). It’s not that similar types of partnerships haven’t been done before, but in this case it’s been done well, which takes a fair amount of pizazz and a sprinkle of innovation.

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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.

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