The first thing that Elyse Lightman Samuels noticed about the young Cambodian woman was clarity. Absolute clarity in her response to the question, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” The young woman named Hab Saly held Elyse’s gaze and without wavering said, “I would train as a seamstress and start my own sewing business in my village.”
A simple ambition. But nothing in Cambodia is simple. Few young women receive an education beyond sixth grade. They do not permit themselves the luxury of dreams. At the age of 12 or 13, most young women are taken out of school to work in the rice fields, then put into arranged marriages. Some are sold to the brothels. A third of young women move away from their families to live in the loud, dirty city of Phnom Penh to work in the garment factories. When they become too sick or exhausted, they return to their village where they marry and have babies. They do not become independent seamstresses. And they do not run businesses. Until now.
Elyse met Saly in 2008 when she took her and several other women from the village of Tramung Chrum out to dinner in Phnom Penh. Saly and all of the other women at dinner were working at various garment factories in the capital. Tramung Chrum is a 100-year-old village of approximately 600 people, without electricity or running water. There was no school until 2005 (built by the Harpswell Foundation). There is no medical clinic. There is poverty. Most of the villagers are farmers. Some young men leave to work in factories in Malaysia and South Korea and other countries. Others wander aimlessly through the village. The clarity with which Saly expressed her dream to Elyse struck with such force that Elyse talked about it the next day with her father Alan Lightman, founder of the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation. Elyse, Hab Saly, and others at dinner in Phnom Penh
“I remember thinking, what would it take to do this?” Elyse said. What it took seemed fairly simple. Sewing lessons, a machine, fabric and thread. But the goal was not just to teach Saly to sew. The goal was far larger. It was to start a new story in Tramung Chrum. One that does not include sending 14-year-old girls into Phnom Penh to work in the garment factories. One that does not end because the Khmer Rouge destroyed economic hope across Cambodia. The goal was far bigger than sewing lessons for one girl. But all change, all dreams, begin with a single illuminating thought. A sole moment of resolute clarity. The road out, starts here.
Saly began training as a seamstress, eventually leaving her work at the garment factory and studying full-time with a woman in Phnom Penh. Because she could not read or write, Saly relied on memory. She then returned to her village and trained several other women.Hab Saly with a few of her Trainees
The Harpswell Foundation provided Saly with the needed equipment and Alan Lightman began teaching Saly business skills. But there was still the issue of where to sell their goods – beautiful embroidered scarves and purses, shawls with tiny, perfect stitches and dresses in vibrant silks. The first choice was to sell her goods in the market along the highway and sell to other villages. But this would not provide the income needed to help feed, clothe and educate people in the village. The project began to stall. Without an avenue to market the goods, pouring additional funding into fabrics and supplies was not a good business proposition.
Enter Marie Eckstein. Recently retired from her executive position in the chemical industry, Marie made an initial trip to Tramung Chrum in 2011. Marie says, “I was immediately captured by the spirit of Saly and what she wanted to accomplish. We are not so very different, you know. We share similar dreams – a safe environment, a chance to make better lives for our children. And women are most often the driving force behind these things. It doesn’t really matter where you live, there is this universal sisterhood. We must help each other rise up.”.Marie and Hab Saly in Tramung Chrum
Upon return to the United States, Marie couldn’t get Saly and the village out of her thoughts. She met with business colleague Laura Wolak who has an extensive business background in marketing, e-commerce and a keen fashion sense. Together, they forged a plan that would include exporting Saly’s handmade designs. And with the help of creative writer and entrepreneur Julie Battle, they refined their plan and named the business Red Dirt Road. Women helping women. Reaching across the table or across the globe to help each other craft better lives – for themselves, their community, for the world. This is the powerful spirit of Red Dirt Road.
The Model and Vision
The website is up and running. The product line is growing. Volunteer business leaders continue to guide and teach. And 8,600 miles away, the foot pedals on sewing machines whir in rhythm to the sounds of generations of women turning out hope. What started as a clarifying thought from one young woman to another, is now shifting into a global export business. We are still at the beginning of our journey, but the red dirt road to the garment factories is slowly dimming in the distance.
From the middle of the Midwest in the United States, to the middle of a dusty village in Cambodia, commerce is bustling. We invite you to join us. Buy products. Donate. Volunteer.
Empower a young woman today with skills that will empower a village tomorrow and slowly empower a world indefinitely.
Red Dirt Road is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering young women in Cambodia by providing them business and sewing skills to create, market and sell handmade designs. It was co-founded by Alan Lightman, Marie Eckstein and Laura Wolak.
The vision of Red Dirt Road is to create a model of enterprise that can be replicated in the more than 14,000 villages in Cambodia.
The name Red Dirt Road comes from the road that connects Phnom Penh with the village of Tramung Chrum, where the Red Dirt Road organization first started. This is the road that young women from the village travel when they go to work in the garment factories. It is a long, dusty, dirt road that looks red under the scorching Cambodia sun. It is the hope of the organization that one day, young women will not have to travel the ‘red dirt road’ to endure working in the garment factories. That they will be self-sufficient women able to help their villages become sustainable communities.
Red Dirt Road is a Harpswell Foundation enterprise. Harpswell was founded by Alan Lightman, in 2003 and provides education, housing and leadership training to children and young women in the developing world, currently Cambodia. In 2008, Harpswell was awarded the Gold Medal for humanitarian service to Cambodia from the Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia.