A sustainable business helping the rural community in Cambodia
Kurt Xu runs a sustainable business that brings student volunteers to Cambodia to work on projects benefitting local communities
A 25-year-old native of Xinjiang, Kurt Xu first visited Cambodia three years ago. That experience, as a volunteer at an organic farm in the rural Siem Reap province, was pivotal as he pondered his career options after graduating from university in Beijing. A year later, he returned to the Southeast Asian country as one of the founders of Green Leaders Adventure (GLA), an education-focused company he set up with his modest savings and 90,000 yuan (HK$114,000) borrowed from his family. To date, GLA has brought 27 teams of as many as 30 young people - mostly from the mainland and Hong Kong, but also as far away as the United States and Britain - to spend their summer or winter vacations as volunteers for projects to improve infrastructure and other facilities in impoverished rural communities. Xu says he is living his dream of running a sustainable business that benefits society.
Why did you choose Cambodia to begin your career?
In October 2010, after graduating from the University of International Relations in Beijing, I had a few career options: I could apply for a well-paid corporate job, run a family business or start my own company. But I didn't find anything exciting enough to sustain my interest until I visited Cambodia with a professor from Taiwan, who was spending his retirement on projects improving the soil fertility of farmland in developing countries. I grabbed a shovel and hoe, gathered cow manure and worked in the fields under the burning sun for the first time in my life. One day, exhausted after days of heavy work, I fell asleep under a tree near the house of a rural family we had been helping. A widow from the family, grateful for the help she had received, asked her son to catch some fish from the pond, which she cooked for me. The woman's husband had died only three months earlier after being bitten by a snake while fishing. I was deeply touched by the way local people expressed their gratitude to strangers who just offered a little help to them. It changed my perspective on life. The next year, I returned to Cambodia.
What do you want to achieve with your company?
I founded Green Leaders Adventure with a few friends. It's an institution that offers educational programmes for teenage students from abroad to participate in volunteer projects in rural Cambodia. The projects range from renovating schools to building houses and bridges. The students, aged from 14 to 20, get involved in the early stage of each project so they can see first-hand the impact of their actions on society. Working with the poor helps shape their values and outlook on life before they go to university. I want the programmes to add to their formal education. The feedback we get varies greatly but they all fall in love with Cambodia and hope to visit again.
How do you raise funds for the projects?
Apart from GLA, I also head a development agency that serves the local rural community, called the China Cambodian Youth Friendship Foundation. It makes use of fees collected through GLA's education programmes but operates independently. The students pay to join our programmes, of which we have two - one for 21,800 yuan and the other for 28,800 yuan. About half of the fees cover the students' travel costs and accommodation. The remainder is used to buy building materials and hire professional project educators. For example, an architect from one of the world's largest design firms flew in to help us design a project and ran workshops for students. Maybe one day we'll organise fundraising campaigns too.
How is your business running? Is it profitable?
We haven't made a profit yet, but I see great potential. Our target is to break even this year. My aim is to establish a sustainable growth model, which doesn't just generate revenue but also creates social value. From this year on, we will see a big leap in our business growth. At university, I set up a company that brought together students from elite schools to workshops for middle-school students, telling them our real experiences of university life. The students learned a lot but the company did not do well financially. I learned that simply being an idealist is not enough. We can be idealists with a much more realistic approach to doing our jobs.
So what does it take to run a business like yours?
From the very beginning, you must set down clear objectives. This makes a fundamental difference in how you run your business. People working at development agencies must have a selfless heart, a bigger heart. I have met many people in this industry, rich and poor. But regardless of their wealth they all want to do something worthwhile.
What are the biggest challenges in running GLA?
Helping others in the right way is very challenging. We have to make sure our actions aren't one-off deals but should benefit the local community in the long term. Sometimes we have had to give up projects even though some of them were very successful, just because the plans might hurt people we wanted to help. For example, we built a very nice orphanage, but finally found it brought problems to the children as it encouraged undesired visits from tourists who disturbed their lives.