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A Business Model Built on Faith

By: Michael Scharff

January 30, 2010

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Noontime in Cambodia'™s capital city, Phnom Penh, is greeted with great anticipation by workers and tourists alike, eager to unwind and escape from the bruising midday heat. But here in the kitchen of Cafe Yejj, a small restaurant located across the street from one of Cambodia'™s most heavily-touristed markets, the mood is anything but relaxed.
"œNo. No. You have to mix it like this," Cafe Yejj'™s kitchen supervisor informs one of the young cooks, as she demonstrates the way to stir a freshly prepared dish. The entree is then promptly whisked off to a group of hungry customers. Nearby, Ka Pheap is searing sausage links, while her colleague Moeun Sela attempts to take a phone order while simultaneously pouring water for a table just seated.

What diners craving the perfect antidote to the sweltering bazaars and motorbike-clogged streets might never know is that their patronage here is supporting what the Founder and Executive Director of Yejj Group, Trevor Sworn, calls a "Christian Social Enterprise." Yejj Group, of which the cafe is a part, is one of a handful of self-described "œsocial enterprise" organizations in Cambodia which have been set up by individuals whose faith is a leading motivator in their endeavors.

Over coffee at Cafe Yejj, Trevor explains that he first came to Cambodia with his wife and two children in 1999 as missionaries with a Christian evangelical organization that assisted street children. After leaving the organization in 2001, he began channeling his passions for information technology and good food into a new corporation: Yejj Group.

Registered in Cambodia in 2003, Yejj Group comprises the cafe, a web and software outsourcing venture, a training center that teaches both information technology and hospitality skills, a solar energy products group, and soon, a nursery school. (Yejj also has a charity registered in the UK to raise awareness of and funds for those studying in Yejj'™s training centers).

Yejj Group'™s impact on social enterprise is largely focused on giving young people practical job skills in hospitality and information technology training. "Over 50 percent of the cafe staff are from shelters or disadvantaged backgrounds," explains Trevor. The training they receive in class and the chance to put those skills to the test in the restaurant helps pave the way for future employment in the industry.

But in addition to encouraging social impact, Yejj Group is an example of how faith is channeled into the company'™s philosophy and business model. As Trevor describes, "œYejj is driven by the core values of compassion, courage, commitment, integrity, and worth from a Christian perspective. These values are incorporated as much as possible into our organizational structure, team ethos, and routines." Time is set aside every Monday morning for devotions, and while they are not mandatory, many of the staff attend. "We are not overtly evangelical, but we really want biblical values to pervade everything that we do," says Trevor.

He is quick to point out that Yejj'™s hiring practices make no prerequisite to faith - a common criticism of many faith-inspired organizations - but adds that he is "œvery open with applicants in informing them that we are a faith-based organization."

Equally intriguing are the investors behind the venture, many of whom have their own faith-linkages. "œI call them 'Angel Investors,'"™ says Trevor of those who have a stake in Yejj'™s success. "œThey are individuals - many of them Christians - that believe in the cause and the aims of what we are doing. They are looking to see a social impact and return, as much as a financial one." (However, Christians are not the only ones coalescing faith and business. Smile Cafe, a restaurant in Cambodia's eastern Kampong Cham Province, was founded last year by a Buddhist monk. It is administered according to the Buddhist tenets of love and kindness and employs former street kids who gain invaluable on-the-job skills training.)

"œI love to dream dreams and realize the apparently impossible," says Trevor. He pauses and looks towards the front counter where his staff is busy taking phone orders and settling customers'™ bills. "The most exciting thing I see is a generation of young people here who have very high expectations of their lives ahead and are very different from their parents who, considering the recent history of the country, were worried about merely surviving" he says.

Asked what direction he envisions taking Yejj Group in the coming years, he smiles. "œOverall, it'™s the big picture which energizes me, and I'm very excited about the future and being a small part of the development of this country."