THE IN­TER­VIEW

Zoë Ng worked at McKin­sey, Google and the beauty startup Charlotte Til­bury to build up a range of ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore strik­ing out on her own. Now she heads up Rain­tree, an award-winning of­fice and re­tail de­vel­op­ment in Phnom Penh that of­fers yoga classes,

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - WORDS BY EUAN BLACK PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY THOMAS CRISTOFOLETTI

Bou­tique of­fice de­vel­op­ment queen Zoë Ng brings a col­lab­o­ra­tive aes­thetic to Cam­bo­dia

AT a long ta­ble in one of the bright, open-plan workspaces at Rain­tree, a bou­tique of­fice and re­tail de­vel­op­ment in Phnom Penh, Zoë Ng is sit­ting with her legs crossed at the an­kles and her hands rest­ing on her lap. She is telling me about her mum.

Ng, 31, who co-founded Rain­tree in 2015, ex­plains that her mother is a part-time teacher and for­mer full-time ath­lete who re­cently fin­ished a PhD in Phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Read­ing in the UK.

Both Malaysians with Chi­nese her­itage, Ng 's par­ents stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture in the 1980s at the renowned Ar­chi­tec­tural As­so­ci­a­tion in Lon­don and, af­ter a brief stint back in Malaysia, re­turned to the UK when Ng was five so that their chil­dren wouldn't have to re­ceive an in­ter­na­tional school ed­u­ca­tion. “It's a great sys­tem, but it tends to be a pretty nar­row stu­dent de­mo­graphic,” Ng says.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a master's in lin­guis­tics and Ara­bic from the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh in 2008, Ng briefly con­sid­ered a ca­reer in re­search be­fore ac­cept­ing a po­si­tion as a man­age­ment con­sul­tant at McKin­sey, a role she says trained her to deal with dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions and adapt ac­cord­ingly. Four years later, Ng moved to Google, which she views as “ar­guably top of the class” when it comes to creat­ing work en­vi­ron­ments that max­imise both an em­ployee's hap­pi­ness and pro­duc­tiv­ity.

While work­ing at Google, a for­mer McKin­sey col­league came knock­ing, lur­ing Ng into be­com­ing head of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment at the beauty startup Charlotte Til­bury in 2013. How­ever, Ng spent just a year there. Un­able to ig­nore the burn­ing de­sire to break new ground on her own two feet, Ng took the plunge into self-em­ploy­ment in 2014. On re­flec­tion, she says, each po­si­tion was pre­par­ing her for the day she broke free.

“In all the roles I've had, I've been quite con­scious about why I'm tak­ing that role and what it's go­ing to add to me. I knew that McKin­sey would give me a great foun­da­tion; I knew that Google would give a real in­sight into the digital econ­omy and tech; I knew that go­ing to Charlotte Til­bury with such a small found­ing team would teach me how to start some­thing from zero,” she says.

The fi­nal nudge to ditch the nine to five and forge a path of her own came from Hok Kang, a Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tect re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing the store lay­outs of Cam­bo­dian suc­cess story Brown Cof­fee. Ng first met Kang in Cam­bo­dia in 2005 when the pair was work­ing on a tech­nol­ogy ed­u­ca­tion project with the US-based South­east Asian Ser­vice Lead­er­ship Net­work (Seal­net), a project that al­lowed Ng to “feel out the re­gion and be in Cam­bo­dia with­out com­mit­ting for five years”.

“[Cam­bo­dia] def­i­nitely opened my eyes. It was an ex­cit­ing place… It had an amaz­ing en­ergy, and I knew within pretty much a week that I wanted to come back and do work here,” she says.

When she fi­nally made that move in 2014, Ng strug­gled to find of­fice space for a new ven­ture. She fig­ured that other busi­nesses look­ing to set up in Phnom Penh would be in the same boat, giv­ing birth to the idea for Rain­tree, a four-floor de­vel­op­ment con­tain­ing of­fice space for rent that of­fers ad­di­tional ben­e­fits such as yoga classes, talks from vis­it­ing en­trepreneurs and an event space.

Af­ter roughly a year and “a cou­ple of false starts”, the pair man­aged to get their hands on a site in the mid­dle of Phnom Penh's upand-com­ing busi­ness dis­trict and be­gan plan­ning what Rain­tree would look like, a process Ng says should never take place prior to the ac­qui­si­tion of land.

“You have to do site-spe­cific projects in real es­tate. This idea that you can just say: ‘Oh

yeah, I want to build the Eif­fel Tower, let me just go and buy some land for it,' is a myth, even though con­cep­tu­ally you can think about what you're go­ing to build,” she says.

While not par­tic­u­larly ground­break­ing in a global con­text, Ng said a lot of Rain­tree's con­cepts were new to Cam­bo­dia. “Even open­plan work­ing, what I would call a col­lab­o­ra­tive aes­thetic" was dif­fer­ent, she says. The no­tion of ‘in­dus­trial de­sign' suf­fered from neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions and ex­posed ceil­ings were viewed as ev­i­dence of cut­ting costs rather than pro­gres­sive de­sign el­e­ments. Out­siders saw the de­signs and pre­dicted that only ex­pa­tri­ate work­ers or tech com­pa­nies would be in­ter­ested in the space; oth­ers wrote off the de­vel­op­ment en­tirely.

“The re­al­ity is the mar­ket's just not like that… When we opened the doors, we were al­ready two-thirds full,” she says. Since then, the oc­cu­pancy rate has risen to 85% and is pro­jected to reach 90% by the end of the year, ac­cord­ing to Ng. No­table oc­cu­pants in­clude Mi­crosoft, Havas Riverorchid and Emi­rates Air­lines, who share the space with a raft of lo­cal com­pa­nies span­ning a range of in­dus­tries.

Ng, though, is not one to rest on her lau­rels. “With Rain­tree, ev­ery­body looks at it and thinks it is done, which, in my opin­ion, is ab­so­lutely not the case. The hard­ware is done, but the soft­ware isn't. Build­ing or con­tribut­ing to a com­mu­nity, it takes a long time to get there. It re­quires re­silience,” she says with en­thu­si­asm.

“I def­i­nitely have a sec­ond project in mind, but there's still so much to do here, par­tic­u­larly around the themes of ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­a­bil­ity, which is where I want to con­trib­ute in the long-term.”

Af­ter the in­ter­view, Ng heads up to the terrace to be pho­tographed. The spec­tre of a storm looms men­ac­ingly over­head and, as the wind picks up speed, she quips that “this is go­ing to look like a Pan­tene ad­vert”. She hates pho­to­graphs, she says.

While our pho­tog­ra­pher takes more pic­tures of the build­ing's in­te­ri­ors on our way out, Ng, a nat­u­ral con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, asks me about my in­ter­ests and my ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist thus far. As we dis­cuss how rapid tech­no­log­i­cal change is ask­ing ques­tions of Cam­bo­dia's labour­in­ten­sive econ­omy and how the coun­try can adapt, I'm re­minded of what she pre­vi­ously said was her per­sonal mantra: “Eyes open, all the time.”

A charis­matic busi­ness­woman who seems to have a gen­uine in­ter­est in con­tribut­ing to the world, Ng ap­pears to be stock­pil­ing hu­man jig­saw pieces in the event that, one day, they may be needed to solve a puz­zle. And while there is no box to con­sult to see how the fi­nal pic­ture should look, the more pieces that come to­gether, the more the jig­saw be­gins to take shape.

A meet­ing area in an of­fice-for-rent at Rain­tree

An art­work adorns an of­fice wall

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