HOTELS interview: Nonprofit founder brings hospitality training to Cambodia

For underprivileged youth in Cambodia, hospitality training could be the ticket to an independent career. The trouble is, many of them have never set foot in a hotel. That’s where EGBOK Mission steps in. The group, whose name is short for “Everything’s Gonna Be OK,” offers education to start Cambodian youth down that path. HOTELS caught up with Ben Justus, the group’s founder, to get more details.

HOTELS: How many students does EGBOK Mission work with? How many have moved on to careers in hospitality and/or vocational school at this point?

Justus: EGBOK Mission’s hospitality course has reached over 150 underprivileged youth throughout Cambodia. We now have seven partner sites in Cambodia: four orphanages, one center for at-risk young women, one junior high and one rural community center comprised of youth from 12 surrounding villages.

The 2010-2011 school year was the first year we supported scholarships; we sent 22 youth to the best hospitality schools in Cambodia. We will be supporting 25 youth for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year.

Each group of students we work with is at varying stages of the program, given school admissions are only once a year. Thus, the first group of students we worked with is the farthest along, and will be the first group of students to graduate this month. Several already have job offers at international hotels in Cambodia.

HOTELS: Why focus on hospitality skills?

Justus: Hospitality is a natural fit for launching EGBOK Mission students into lives of independence. It stresses the basics of friendliness, caring and serving others, reaching across the world and beyond cultural barriers, acting as a universal language that everyone understands.

EGBOK Mission sees the growing tourism industry of Cambodia as the perfect opportunity to educate underprivileged youth with practical hospitality skills. These practical skills will make them employable in an industry that is only growing and can provide high paying salaries, in healthy and safe work environments.

According to the Ministry of Tourism’s Tourism Statistics Report March 2010, Cambodia received 2,161,577 tourists in 2009, a 35% increase from just five years prior in 2005, when it received 1,421,615 tourists. The long-term goal is for these students to become the next generation of hospitality managers and executives of their country. As tourism continues to grow, so will their hospitality careers.

HOTELS: Based on the blogs on the EGBOK Mission site, it looks like many of these students have never set foot in a hotel before classes start. Where do you begin, and does this give them a significant disadvantage in the beginning and/or in the job search process?

Justus: Most of these students have never been inside a hotel, dined in a restaurant or seen a school of the caliber of the hospitality institutions available to them through our program. Our preliminary hospitality course at the students’ home sites introduces them to the simple concepts of hospitality such as customer service, jobs available and how to calculate a bill. These lessons supplemented by the field trips serve as a strong foundation to prepare them for vocational school. The vocational schools we support scholarships at equip the students to gain skill sets in specific areas, enabling them to become more qualified than the average person in their given hospitality field. Thus, this preparation ensures they are not at a disadvantage in the job process.

HOTELS: How old are these students, and how do you tailor the curriculum to their age?

Justus: The average student we introduce our course to is 16 to 22 years of age. Youth need to be 18 to work in Cambodia, so all of the students we connect with employment are of that age. Depending on the specific group of students we are introducing hospitality to, we change the English level of the curriculum to match that to theirs. We have different versions of the curriculum for higher and lower English levels to ensure the students comprehend and retain the information, while making it just challenging enough to build critical thinking skills.

HOTELS: What elements of bringing EGBOK Mission to life have surprised you?

Justus: I have been surprised by how much personal progress the students have made throughout their school programs. Six months into the last school year, it was so apparent how independent, resourceful and mature they had become since attending school and living on their own. The confidence and motivation they now embody can move mountains. When they started school I wasn’t quite sure what they were capable of, but it goes to show that investing in education and connecting them with opportunity has enabled them to flourish on personal, academic and professional levels.

HOTELS: I understand that EGBOK Mission is planning to branch out into Peru. Why Peru, and how is that going?

Justus: We are researching Peru as a possible destination to expand to as it is experiencing rapid growth in the tourism industry, however that is in the long-term future. We are focusing efforts on the Cambodia Project right now. 

Ben Justus provides hospitality training to Cambodian youth via EGBOK Mission, the nonprofit group he founded. Photo by EGBOK Mission
Ben Justus provides hospitality training to Cambodian youth via EGBOK Mission, the nonprofit group he founded. Photo by EGBOK Mission