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Q&A: Weh Yeoh shares core values made organisation responsive during the pandemic

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Third Sector news caught up with OIC Cambodia founder and CEO, Weh Yeoh, who who was Social Entrepreneur of the Year during the 2019 Third Sector Awards. He also gained recognition as 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians.

In this interview, Weh shares about what awards meant for his organisation, his journey in the disability sector, why a social enterprise needs to work in tandem with nonprofit organisation, and how focusing on core work and values meant being responsive and flexible during the pandemic.

1.       How did winning 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians and Third Sector awards impact your advocacy?

Winning these awards are great recognition of the hard work and dedication of the teams I am involved in. It also helps to validate the response that our organisations are taking to solving deeply embedded problems. In Cambodia, there are no speech therapists in the entire country. OIC Cambodia is addressing the root cause of this situation, and is one of a handful of non profit organisations in the world which has a clear exit strategy and defined end point.

Umbo is addressing the lack of rural access to basic healthcare, in particular, speech and occupational therapy. We believe that by having a remote workforce, with clinicians all around Australia, we can connect them with families in rural Australia to cut wait times down from as long as 18 months to potentially a week.

Both of these organisations have a unique way of addressing a particular problem, and these awards help us to add weight to our methodology. It allows us to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in both Cambodia and Australia more strongly.

2.       As a four time founder, what motivated you to start nonprofit organisations. What made you begin your journey in the disability sector?

My journey in the disability sector started on my first day in kindergarten when my teacher, Miss Pickering, sat me next to a boy named Roger. He had thick, Coke-bottle glasses, and scrunched his nose to squint whenever he concentrated.

“Roger can’t see colours,” Miss Pickering told me. “So I need you to help him pick the right pencils when we are colouring in. Can you do that?”

I nodded. That year, when we coloured the sky, I picked out the blue pencil for him. For the grass, the green pencil.

Roger and Miss Pickering taught me valuable lessons. Not everyone is the same. We all do things differently. And sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of help for someone else to join in. At that age, I hadn’t been able to put a word on it, but disability and inclusion were things that I intuitively understood.

After graduating from university with a Physiotherapy degree and a Masters in Development Studies, I worked in Vietnam and China, and realised that access to basic services in disability were severely wanting. And yet, the approach that most non profits took seemed to address symptoms, rather than solve the core problem. It often seemed to be more about the self perpetuation of the non profit organisation than making themselves redundant.

When I arrived in Cambodia in 2012, I was shocked to learn this statistic – the entire country has not one single Cambodian speech therapist. This means that one in 25 people were forced into isolation and poverty. In response, I founded OIC Cambodia. After four years, I handed over leadership to a local Cambodian team.

I then moved back to Australia to co-found Umbo, a social enterprise connecting children in rural Australia with clinicians online.

3.       Do you usually have an “aha” moment before delving into the business side of things?

It’s rarely one moment, but a series of moments where I begin to realise what the root cause of the problem is, and how our strategy will hopefully address it.

Isaac Asimov said this about science, but it could equally apply to the evolution of any organisation – “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”.”

There have been moments like this over my career. For example, in Cambodia I realised how few non profit organisations were actually led by Cambodian people, particularly women. I realised how damaging that was to effectiveness of the organisations, and how wrong it was for a foreigner like myself to come into Cambodia and tell people what to do. Those realisations led to the fact that both OIC Cambodia and Happy Kids Clinic, two organisations I have been involved in founding, are now run by Cambodian women.

In Australia, there was a moment where I realised that lack of access to health services in rural communities occurred because big urban based providers were addressing the problem, and their work often becomes self serving. At the very least, it does little to change structural inequality between rural and urban communities. This moment is guiding our work at Umbo as it evolves.

4.       Why do you think it was necessary to start Happy Kids Clinic after having such a successful run for OIC Cambodia?

OIC Cambodia’s core mission is to work with all levels of Cambodian society, including government, to develop the profession of speech therapy – which does not yet exist. It also means that wherever possible, we do not want to fall into the trap of flying speech therapists across from Australia to provide direct services, when we really want Cambodian people to eventually be able to do it.

However, this presents us with a problem – that we cannot learn by doing.

I’m biased, but in my opinion, the model of Happy Kids Clinic is the perfect social enterprise, where it works in tandem with a non profit organisation to complement its work.

Through Happy Kids Clinic, we are able to learn by doing – we develop speech therapy resources, we conduct training, we do research, and we raise awareness of the need for speech therapy. As importantly, 100% of profit from Happy Kids Clinic goes directly to OIC Cambodia.

It has evolved over the years, but the ability of Happy Kids Clinic to compliment OIC Cambodia is a crucial part of the solution to creating speech therapy in a country which has not one single Cambodian speech therapist.

5.       How has the pandemic affected your organisation? How do you see your organisation in the next five years?

In general, like everyone, the pandemic has forced the organisations I am involved with to be responsive and flexible. It’s also meant that we must focus on our core work and values.

The pandemic has made it very difficult from a donor point of view for our work in Cambodia. At the same time, some staff members have had to return to their home countries. With borders effectively closed, recruiting into Cambodia has been almost impossible.

In Australia, with Umbo, restrictions around movement and school closures have resulted in a 5800% increase in practices wanting to be trained on how to work online, and a 1000% increase in clinicians wanting to work with us. This has helped Umbo to expand its geographic reach, so that more people who need access to therapy can receive it.

In Cambodia, I see our organisations beginning to graduate the first ever Cambodian speech therapists from a local Cambodian university, and then OIC Cambodia working its way towards making itself truly redundant. OIC Cambodia will dissolve when there are 100 speech therapists integrated into the public sector by the year 2030.

In Australia, I see Umbo expanding its geographic reach across more parts of Australia, and developing a fit for purpose marketplace solution for online allied health. This marketplace is something we are currently seeking socially minded investment for.

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