A distillation from 10 years of trailblazing by Phare Performing Social Enterprise (Phare Circus & Phare Creative Studio)
When Dara Huot smiles, the sparkle in his eye shines. A Cambodian with a huge heart for his country, the Kingdom of Wonder, the Chief Executive Officer of Phare Social Enterprise speaks fluent Khmer, English and French. He shared with deep authenticity about his valuable experience and vision, with Platform Impact’s ten #PRISME2022 Impact-Driven Enterprises at our recent workshop, and we cover some of his insights here.
Congratulations on Phare’s recent achievement in the Guinness’ World Record for achieving the world’s “longest circus show”! Tell us more about Phare and how did you get involved with the organization?
Dara: I first got to know Phare Ponleu Selpak (“The Brightness of the Arts”) as a youth in Battambang, an Association that helps children from difficult backgrounds improve their lives through artistic training, educational programs, and social support. Fast forward 12 years later, Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSE) and Phare Ponleu Selpak Association (PPSA) are GUINNESS World Record Setters and a Cambodian Global Brand, celebrating our social enterprise’s 10th year anniversary and the mother organization PPSA’s 29 years anniversary in 2023. Phare has been changing lives through arts in performing (theater, dance, circus, music) and visual arts classes (fine arts, film, graphic design, animation), education, and social support. Every day, we support over 1,200 students in Battambang and 800 families in 6 target communes.
In 2012, I first heard about “social enterprise” – I didn’t know there was such a business model that could make money doing good – generating profit and social impact at the same time. I had been working in tourism and hospitality for 11 years at the time. So, after a year of exploration, making the first business plan, doing a market study and developing investor relations, I took the plunge to take on the Phare Ponleu Selpak school’s dream to start the social business. It was really hard work, but I am thankful it has paid off in how we have made seven-figure revenues in 2019 and brought our artistes on global tours to the US, Europe and Asia.
Over the last ten years, we have created a circular economy, a social enterprise model for sustainable social development projects, and PPSE financially supports Phare Ponleu Selpak through royalty payments, dividends, donations at the end of our shows in Siem Reap, hiring student artists to perform at PPSE as part of their training and fundraising for Phare Ponleu Selpak School.
We contribute to Cambodian business economy and youth employment through our growing Phare family of 43 artists, 77 staff.
That’s splendid! Congratulations on your strong performance (in both senses of the word). What are some valuable advice you’d give to new social enterprises that are starting out?
Dara: One word that I have for social entrepreneurs is, it’s always not an easy thing to balance social and financial benefit. When faced with a decision, the first question I ask myself is, does the social benefit outweigh the financial benefit? If so, then I will choose the social benefit. At Phare, we have a strong family culture and we love what we do. That unity and solidarity really helped us as an organization when we had to reduce staff salary and streamline the organization spending during the Covid-19 peak season. One of our artists came to me and said, “When I was a young artist, I do what I need to do to survive. You don’t need to put us in nice accommodation place but we need to perform.” I was really touched that they loved the organization, believed in what we were doing together to bring Cambodian art globally and locally. We decided to relaunch Phare Circus performance in Siem Reap and take the “First market mover” strategy thanks to this request from the artists and it has paid off. Phare Circus is the only night time performance option available in Siem Reap today.
Could you comment about the social enterprise scene in Cambodia?
Dara: Firstly, I see a growing number of small and informal social enterprises because Cambodia, as a post-conflict country had thousands of NGOs and projects supporting the rebuilding the country since the 1990s. 30 years later, many of them are rethinking their sustainability and pivoting into becoming craft boutiques selling homemade products. For these social enterprises, their income and staff impact are small, but together they represent a force for good. They provide social support, gainful employment and sources of income for underprivileged groups or housewives.
Secondly, In Cambodia, there has yet to be a formal social enterprise legal framework. We are taking action to form a social enterprise taskforce with Platform Impact to lobby for registration, support and other incentives for such businesses. Right now, in company registration law, there is no category of social enterprises thus we have to register as businesses. This creates a challenge in our operations and some results of tax audits can be punishing, despite the social good we are creating. Many neighboring countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore have models that we can learn from. The current Inclusive Business framework is not able to support smaller social enterprises, and I believe we can work together to grow and support more social enterprises in Cambodia to benefit the country at large.
What is your advice about speaking to Impact Investors?
Dara: Be ready to present yourself as someone they can work with. Work on your elevator pitch. Even if your business is challenging, once they need to know they can work with you, that’s the most important clincher. They invest in people and work with the entrepreneur, and want to see that when things get tough, the entrepreneur won’t give up.
Could you share some best practices when working with a Board or important stakeholders?
Dara: Be transparent and having the willingness to face issues. Do not make the strategic mistake of not engaging with your board or stakeholders early. Ensure that you work closely with them, don’t alienate, or have side conversations. At major stakeholder meetings, ensure everyone comes to the meeting with same information shared. Once there’s a back-strategy, the moment someone feels left out if there’s something hidden from them, there is friction, behind the back conversations and that could be the downfall of trust and the relationship.
What worked for you in securing your impact investment?
Dara: For me, having quality time with the main decision maker was key. As there was a lack of communication between my case manager and the CEO, we lobbied to find a private moment with the CEO decisionmaker to get his buy-in. In my limited exposure to impact investors, I would say that generally institutional donors are rather process-heavy compared to individual donors, and that’s something you would want to take note of in your financing strategy planning and preparation.
Last but not least, what are some of your dreams for Phare?
Dara: Over the last ten years, we have overcome challenges and tided through Covid-19 by ingenious ways of revenue generation, thanks to our world class performances by artists in Phare Circus with daily performances in Siem Reap and tours in private events in Cambodia and festivals around the world and creative communications social and behavior change communication by Phare Creative Studio have made Phare become a Cambodian global brand and a GUINNESS World Record setter. This is also thanks to our strong global fans and supporters. Our social business charter keeps us on track and on mission to provide gainful employment to Cambodian artists, financially sustain our mother organization, Phare Ponleu Selpak Association, and contribute to the revival of Cambodian arts.
Our digital arts arm, Phare creative studio, Cambodian creations for social good, thrived during Covid-19 with six-figure revenues, and contributed to raising awareness in public healthcare. Using our expertise in understanding Cambodian social behavior, we help to raise awareness, understanding and influence behavior change, helping our target audiences take one step of action at a time. We want to continue to take on new frontiers, grow our team’s technical skills in audio-visual content, develop music recording and production, find resources for our e-commerce strategy and Cambodian craftmanship and expertise, explore reaching local Cambodians to help them appreciate the arts more. We want more people in Cambodia to experience, appreciate, value Cambodian art! We are also looking to provide a permanent high-end fine dining cultural experience in Phnom Penh, so watch out for us!
Overall, we are looking for strategic direction and welcome input. If you’re reading this and are interested to support us, please reach out! Phare is a big family and we are happy to welcome new members. We also want to invite you to our upcoming online global fundraiser on 18 Dec, Phare: Fight for Light | សង្វៀនពន្លឺ. Join us online for an hour-long musical circus adventure and multimedia love story about the light and struggles of Phare Ponleu Selpak and immerse yourself in a visual and musical feat from Phare!
About PLATFORM & PRISME
At PLATFORM – Impact, we are scaling economic, environmental and social impact, brokering impact investment deals and co-developing policy frameworks with the private and public sector to foster a more inclusive and sustainable economy in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia.
In collaboration with Cambodia Investor Club, Oxfam and Khmer Enterprise, Platform Impact leads PRISME (Program Impact Small & Medium Enterprises), the first Cambodian Impact Catalyst program providing top-class advisory for impact entrepreneurs. Each year, our consortium selects ten of the most promising impact-driven enterprises to provide strategic advice, financial planning, impact management and connections to international funding partners.