A passionate 25-year-old builds a charity for Cambodia

Kenny King created Global ADE, which has already built schools in several communities in Cambodia.

Samrang Pring/Reuters/File
Boys play near a rice paddy field on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Who says youth is wasted on the young?

At 25 years old, Kenny King’s global development resume is pretty impressive. He was still living in a dorm room when he and a friend started Global ADE. Just a few years later, Global ADE has built schools in several Cambodian communities, bringing education and opportunity to children who knew only poverty.

With inspirational merits aside and critical glasses on, King’s efforts could look like just another American funneling money into some good cause in a developing country.

Increasingly, the effectiveness of this scenario has come under fire for failing to create sustainable change.

But King says he’s not just another well-intentioned do-gooder. Global ADE, he says, does things differently.

From the time he was growing up near Seattle, Wash., King knew he could be an entrepreneur. He also had a passion to do good – his mother raised him with stories of her adventures doing charity work in Cambodia and of the great challenges faced by Cambodia’s youth. Still marred by the destruction of Pol Pot (whose regime targeted educated Cambodians, used schools to house torture rather than learning, and burned thousands of books), the need for educational support was more than clear.

While pursuing a finance degree at the University of Portland, King took part in the Entrepreneur Scholars program where he asked himself a question: What if I started an education program in Cambodia?

As part of the program, he traveled to Cambodia to research his idea. Within 30 minutes, he was hooked – the friendly locals and the gorgeous landscape far surpassed the descriptions from his mother’s inspiring stories. Most importantly, it was clear that Global ADE could develop an education program that utilized local support to build schools, boost student hireability, and support other organizations whose work fit Global ADE's vision.

After graduation, King jumped into the high-paying world of finance, working 70-plus hours per week, returning home in the evenings to put in another 30 or 40 hours to build Global ADE.

“It was a busy time, but Global ADE never felt like work to me... Instead of watching a TV show, I could do Global ADE because that was more important to me.”

Soon, Kenny realized Global ADE needed his full attention to reach its full potential. He quit his well-paying job and began working full-time on Global ADE.

The key, King says about starting a nonprofit, is the single-most important tool for any entrepreneur: passion.

Passion sounds nice, but brings back the big question: What makes Global ADE different?

First, while most organizations work with the local community, Global ADE creates local ownership. Many staff and partners are local, and, while the growing organization still relies heavily on donations to run, many resources are donated by locals – Global ADE is more of an in-the-background organizer that gets the ball rolling.

For instance, instead of purchasing land for a new middle school – which would have cost nearly $80,000 – Global ADE brokered property donations from local landowners passionate about the mission. With this grass-roots approach, locals have as much, if not more, ownership in projects’ success, and there’s less reliance on cash donations.

“It’s easy to just kinda throw money at a situation,” King says. “It’s hard to really work in partnership with people half a world away. But I honestly believe that that’s a better way to help.”

In addition to providing a basic education, Global ADE focuses on providing students and the local community with highly marketable skills. Tourism is a booming industry in Cambodia, so English is immensely important. In rural villages, lack of electricity means few, if any, students have access to computers. The lack of basic computer skills makes it nearly impossible to get hired.

In addition to its own English programs, Global ADE partners with PEPY, an organization that offers both English and computer skills programs. Focusing on employment increases the perceived value of education – persuading families to make the sacrifices needed to send their children through school.

Internally, Global ADE also focuses on transparency for donors. King emphasizes that being completely open about the successes or failures are the most important ways to create trust with donors and build a stable nonprofit. His goal is to build a personal connection between donors and the change taking place in Cambodia. Donors can track projects via GPS coordinates, view photos, and even speak directly with King if they have questions.

The impact made by Global ADE is very real.

Global ADE is on the road to finish its third school in Cambodia and – most importantly – the psyche of children enrolled in the schools has changed completely. Before, local children usually grew up to become laborers trapped by poor education in a low-paying job market. Kids’ greatest aspirations were to become tour guides – a good job for families with poor education and little to no computer access, but lacking upward mobility. Now, when King visits and talks with those same kids, they’re dreaming of becoming doctors or lawyers – or even the future president of Cambodia.

Just five years into his career, King can’t wait to push Global ADE further – he plans to expand into several other countries and hopes to partner with other organizations to produce even greater change.

While Global ADE has had its fair share of challenges, from missed deadlines to donation dry spells, King’s entrepreneurial efforts have also taught him many valuable lessons.

Here are the top five suggestions from Kenny King himself:

Kenny King’s Top 5 to-do’s for budding social entrepreneurs

#1: Have passion.
“For a while, I think I went four or five months without taking a day off. But, at the same time, I have so much passion for what I’m doing that I felt like I was taking every day off.”

#2: Have a good – spectacular – story.
More and more social enterprises pop up every day. What sets you apart from everyone else?

#3: Find a great board.
Young entrepreneurs often find themselves judged by their age, rather than their abilities. With a more experienced board, the response changes. Rather than “No,” says Kenny, his board brought years of marketing, global development, legal work, and fundraising experience and gave donors the confidence to say, “Okay, this is an organization that really knows what they’re going to go do.”

#4: Be prepared to work really, really hard.
It’s easy to feel motivated when everything goes well. However, projects that run over budget, missed deadlines, revenue dry spells, and other obstacles require just as much, if not more, energy.

#5: Be a sponge.
King’s final suggestion? “Ask advice from everybody. It’s my goal, every single day, to learn something new.”

•  Read about Global ADE on its website, check out its partners and programs, or get in contact with Kenny King.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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