Sunchea Phou was born in Cambodia in 1977, during that country’s civil war. “At the age of one, I lost my father and one of my brothers,” she recalls. Her first memory is the death of another brother and “seeing [my mother] crying out her heart.” She says these painful experiences helped her understand the strength a human can have — and set her on a path that would lead, decades later, to creating her own startup, YaYNovelty. As a way to help her native country, she dedicates 20 percent of the profits to helping Cambodian villagers through her Year Zero Foundation. “I created YaYWallets so I could create income to support my foundation,” she says.
When she was seven, Phou and her mother fled Cambodia, traveling on foot for months to reach Thailand. She lived in a refugee camp there for almost five years, where she says she saw “every part of suffering.” “What I learned from the refugee camp is how lucky I am,” says Phou. “That is part of the appreciation that I have. I don’t take [opportunities] for granted.”
After immigrating to Canada in 1988, her mother worked as a contract sewer in Montreal. Phou helped out after school. That early experience gave her a taste for fashion design. After college, she got a job at a large clothing company, but something was missing. “I knew that, working in corporate, there was no way I could do anything extra,” she says.
Phou felt a pull to her native Cambodia. “In 2003 I went to Cambodia for the first time since I left the country,” she says. “I witnessed a lot of suffering.” She saw that Cambodia had been reduced from a thriving country back to “year zero” by the harrowing civil war, with many people living in extreme poverty and deprivation. She wanted to share the abundance she had found in her new home. It took almost ten years. In 2012, she quit her corporate job and spent two months in Cambodia, traveling the countryside to see what help was needed.
When she returned home to Portland, OR (where she now lives), Phou decided to start her own business, YaYWallets, and founded the Year Zero Foundation to give back to her native land.
Phou has since expanded from making colorful wallets to offering luggage tags as well and changed the name of the company to YaYNovelty. “I wanted to create something that is fun and allows the consumer to express their personality and is functional as well,” she says. You can find her products on Amazon, Etsy, and her own website, and she recently signed a contract to sell on Grommet.
Phou is the epitome of the solopreneur, running both her small business and her foundation on her own. The lack of bureaucracy allows her to move quickly, she says, adding, “It’s easy for me to decide what I want to do to help.” She recently built a school in a small village in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province, where many of the children had never learned to read or write because their remote village didn’t have access to education. “These [villagers], they hunger for education,” says Phou. The school is designed to welcome students of all ages, from children through adults.
The marriage of business and philanthropy suits Phou. She says she loves harnessing her passion for business to try to engage people not only with her products but also with the cause that their purchase supports. “It’s a perfect dream for me,” she says. She hopes her business will raise awareness about conditions in Cambodia.
Because she has lived in Cambodia, as well as Canada and the United States, “I can engage both sides of the world together,” says Phou — and she has found a way to bring all her passions together through entrepreneurship.
Sunchea Phou, left, with students at opening of school built by Year Zero Foundation in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Sunchea Phou.