There was hardly a dry eye in the auditorium when Arn Chorn Pond, founder of Cambodian Living Arts, was narrating his story.
Arn had just been announced as one of the winners of Iclif’s Leadership Energy Awards (ILEA) and his story tugged at the heartstrings of those who attended the Leadership Energy Asia Summit at Sasana Kijang, Kuala Lumpur on Nov 5-6.
The recipient of the Societal Leaders award survived a labour camp, became a child soldier and moved to a faraway land with hardly any friends. Today, he is a renowned musician and human rights activist who advocates the healing and transformative power of the arts, especially music.
The other two ILEA winners were Indonesia’s Helianti Hilman (Business Leaders award) and India’s Ankit Kawatra (Young Leaders award). All three received US$15,000 each at the awards ceremony organised by Iclif Leadership & Governance Centre.
From labour camp to inspiring the young
Arn grew up in Cambodia just as the Khmer Rouge was coming into power.
He didn’t know it then but his life was about to change. He was 11 and his family was rounded up and thrown into a labour camp
“Do you know that when they came into power nearly 90 per cent of the artists and musicians in Cambodia were slaughtered?
“This included my parents as they ran an opera house.
“I was thrown into camp alongside my siblings and we were told to learn to play propaganda music. Those who were slow to learn were killed and their bodies left for us to see.
“We were not allowed to show emotions. If you cried, you were killed. I learnt to shut myself out as I needed to survive.”
The hardest moment for Arn was witnessing his brother and sister dying of starvation and being powerless to help them.
Later when the Vietnamese invaded, Arn and other children became child soldiers, fighting to ‘defend’ the very people who had ‘tortured’ him and his family and friends.
He finally escaped to Thailand where he was rescued by a Thai soldier and brought to Reverend Peter L. Pond at the Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp.
Pond adopted Arn and 16 other Cambodian children, mostly orphans, in 1984 and brought them to the United States.
Arn went on to attend White Mountains Regional High School, one of the first non-white students to do so, then graduated from Gould Academy in 1985.
Later, he attended Brown University for two years before withdrawing to co-found Children of War, an organisation dedicated to ‘help young people overcome suffering from war and other traumas such as child abuse, poverty, racism and divorce.’
But his calling to return home and re-educate the people about Cambodia’s lost heritage was burning bright.
He returned home and founded Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) to revive the endangered traditional performing arts in Cambodia by locating former masters and trained professional musicians and empowering them to pass on their skills to the next generation.
CLA then expanded its scope to include scholarships, fellowships, workshops, training, commissions, arts education, and a cultural enterprise that provides enriching job opportunities to Cambodian performing artists.
Following her dreams to promote Indonesia’s indigenous heritage
Helianti Hilman was an entertainment lawyer turned businesswoman who went against her father’s advice to set up PT Kampung Kearifan Indonesia 10 years ago.
Also known as Javara (champion in Sanskrit), the company is a foremost promoter of Indonesia’s food biodiversity heritage, helping bring indigenous food products of remote Indonesia to an international audience
“My father (Hilman Najib) actually advised me against starting my business as he said there was a lack of interest. Being a professor in agribusiness, I was tempted to listen to him,” said Helianti.
“But my mother (Soertiningsih Ramli) took me aside and told me if I believed in my idea, I shouldn’t listen to my father!”
Helianti, had initially followed in her mother’s footsteps by reading law – (Soertiningsih was a District Attorney) but later took up the challenge by starting her own business.
She admitted it wasn’t easy to ‘grow’ her business and her dad was initially proven right as it was not possible to get bank loans.
“But with help from family and friends, we managed to find the funds to keep going and now we are one of the leading brands in Indonesia.”
Initially, Javara found more success overseas with 90 per cent of its products exported as artisanal products from indigenous farmers aren’t cheap.
Its products are not as affordable as mass market brands and do not have the premium imagery of high-end brands.
“Once we found acceptance overseas, the locals realised we had quality products and the market share now is almost 50-50.”
Today, Javara works with over 52,000 farmers and has about 2,000 artisanal producers creating more than 600 products, sold under 14 categories.
Helianti has also established the Javara Academy to train students and farmers.
When Javara was first founded, they worked with people older people who were in their 60s. Now over 40 per cent are aged below 35, which is the academy’s targeted group as the ‘entrepreneurial farmer’ ideology becomes more popular.
Feeding India’s poor one wedding at a time
A self-confessed foodie, Ankit Kawatra used to crash wedding parties to enjoy the sumptuous feasts.
But something changed five years ago when he wondered what happened to all the leftovers.
Being a curious 22-year-old, he spoke to a caterer and was shocked to discover the food, including the untouched ones, was thrown away!
“I was disgusted. According to the caterer, food for about 5,000 people is thrown away each time there is a wedding,” said the Feeding India founder who is 27 now.
“India has about 194.6 million undernourished people (according to Food and Agriculture Organisation) and here we are wasting food for 5,000 at each wedding.
“So I started going to meet the caterers and asking them for the leftover food. I told them they didn’t have to pay me and that I would do all the packing and ensuring it was all good enough for the hungry to eat.
“At first they thought I was a scam artist who was going to resell the food but eventually, they realised I was giving it to the poor and those who didn’t have enough to eat.”
However, his biggest challenge was many considered him a ‘young punk’ and as such, found it hard to buy into his idea.
“But over time, Feeding India has found the support to carry on, having won awards from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Queen of England, the United Nations and Bill Gates. We are also expanding our reach to other countries soon,” he said.
One of the fundamentals of Feeding India is it doesn’t create new food, but instead manages surplus food. This makes Ankit’s initiative different from what many other similar organisations do, where most of them create food rather than look at food that has already been created.
Leaders who challenge conventions
These three embody what ILEA is about – ordinary people who challenge the status quo by overcoming adversity and disabilities with relentless tenacity.
The desire to make the world a better place by harnessing their Personal Leadership Energy which is a combination of a set of deeply held values, and a clear sense of purpose.
Iclif believes in recognising and rewarding such individuals, and the Iclif Leadership Awards, or ILEA, were created for that purpose.
This article is brought to you by Iclif.