Host Christian Pearson discusses the origins of The Cambodia Project with the man who started it: Ben Beck. Ben shares valuable insights about the project ideation, his investigative rationale, and why he chose to conduct research in Cambodia.

Inside the Cambodia Project Episode 2 Podcast Transcript: Project Origins

with Ben Beck

[00:00:00.410] – Christian Pearson
Hello, I’m Christian, and you’re listening to inside the Cambodia Project, an educational podcast where we discuss cutting edge research on sustainable business in an emerging market. Welcome. Today we will be discussing the origins of the Cambodia project with the man who started it, Benjamin Beck. So, Ben B. Beck is an assistant professor of marketing in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University. Ben earned his PhD in marketing at the Pennsylvania State University, his MBA from Brigham Young University, and his BA in business information systems from the University of Utah. His research interests focused primarily on business as a force for good, and prior to his time in academia, Ben managed marketing for a number of small to medium tech companies in Utah. Despite his near addiction to tech and marketing, he also loves to get away from it all and spend time cycling in the mountains or hiking, rock climbing, and camping. Ben and his wife live in Orem, Utah, with their two rambunctiously entertaining boys. So, Ben, thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:01:17.100] – Ben Beck
Thanks for having me.

[00:01:18.230] – Christian Pearson
I wanted to kick things off with a quote from Albert Einstein. Okay, you ready?

[00:01:23.180] – Ben Beck

[00:01:23.660] – Christian Pearson
So he says, if we knew what it was we were doing, then it wouldn’t be called research, now, would it? And my follow up question after that quote is, what would you say to our good friend Albert about our research? Like, when we talk about the Cambodia project, what is it that we’re doing?

[00:01:43.650] – Ben Beck
Wow, I like that quote. We’re taught in research. I was taught at Penn State very closely that before I go into any research, I kind of need to have a really good idea of what I’m doing. So that kind of contrasts with what Albert Einstein quoted, if that was his quote. So I’m trying to go into this Cambodia project with a good idea of what I want to do. I’m sure we’ll discuss that on this podcast. But what I’m really trying to do is learn and grow and develop and hopefully open up the country of Cambodia for research. What’s fascinating is there’s a lot of research done for the global south or emerging markets in places like India, Mexico, South America, Southeast Asia is rather untapped. And of those countries, the one that’s probably the least benefited by research, international research, is Cambodia. So a large goal of this project is to simply open up the country for myself and others that are interested in doing research in that part of the world.

[00:02:52.180] – Christian Pearson
Interesting, Ben. So it’s. So you disagree with Albert, that research. Sometimes you do need to know what you’re doing, but maybe you agree in the fact that we don’t know a lot about Cambodia, right?

[00:03:06.460] – Ben Beck
Absolutely. We don’t know a lot about Cambodia. And honestly, I have the three letters PhD after my name. But that doesn’t make me, I’m not that different from you, Christian. I have no idea what’s going on either. I’m learning as I go. So in that regard I would agree with Albert.

[00:03:21.720] – Christian Pearson
I don’t know if that’s comforting or not.

[00:03:23.430] – Ben Beck
I’m sorry.

[00:03:25.010] – Christian Pearson
So one more question before we move on. Where do you see this going? Is this going to be a longer term research project for you? Is this just a one year thing? One and done. What are your hopes and dreams for this? Yeah.

[00:03:40.780] – Ben Beck
So from a purely academic side there’s the phrase publish or perish that anyone with those three letters PhD at the end of their name, they really worry about that. If I don’t get enough publications, I don’t get tenure. That’s what people think in this field. So a goal for myself is to get publications. This is actually a very risky project for me because I need to get enough publications in the first couple of years of my career to be able to get me tenure. And if I don’t get it I have to move to a different university. It’s kind of a risky spot. Cambodia, a project like this is very long term and it’s something that I know I’m not going to see a lot of fruits from my labor for several years working in this space.

[00:04:23.620] – Christian Pearson
So you would say this is more of a long term?

[00:04:25.900] – Ben Beck
Absolutely. Long term investment, high risk academically but high reward too. Because if I can show some of the things I’m hoping to show in Cambodia that will earn me tenure but more importantly it will help these people in Cambodia and help me feel good about my career. Right. And the research and the humanitarian things that I’m trying to do.

[00:04:49.550] – Christian Pearson
Gotcha. I think that’s really commendable. Before we get into talking more about Cambodia could you talk about just some of the basics of one of the topics that we have which is CSR or corporate social responsibility. Why is that our area of interest as far as the Cambodia project goes? Yeah.

[00:05:13.030] – Ben Beck
You know this rather well, Christian, because you’ve studied and you’ve been working with me on this project for some time. But corporate social responsibility, taking a step back is. Well, when I first did my business degree what was this? 1718 years ago? I graduated in 2009. When I did my business degree a lot of the classes I taught or I took from teachers, wonderful teachers. They were teaching us that businesses are all about making money.

[00:05:40.290] – Christian Pearson

[00:05:40.930] – Ben Beck
In 2023 that dynamic has changed interest, where consumers expect businesses to be about money and taking care of their stakeholders. And stakeholders include customers, of course, the investors in the company, those that hold the stock, but also the employees, the families of the employees, and the community in which they operate. So if businesses are doing that, that’s corporate social responsibility.

[00:06:05.990] – Christian Pearson
So it’s a lot harder maybe to be a business in 2023 than it was in 2003?

[00:06:13.030] – Ben Beck
Well, I’d say it’s harder, but a lot more rewarding. If you look at the companies that have truly engaged CSR, not just in name, because they want to get a marketing boost, but that’s really become a part of their identity. Companies like Cotopaxi and Patagonia, two amazing outdoor brands, their employees go to work, and they’re excited about going to work. The owner. Can you imagine running a company when you’re giving so much back to society, how good that feels?

[00:06:40.660] – Christian Pearson
It’s got to be great.

[00:06:41.540] – Ben Beck
Yeah. So probably more difficult, more barriers to entry, a little bit more risk, and yet so much more fulfilling for these companies.

[00:06:49.120] – Christian Pearson
Perfect. So that high risk, high reward you were talking about, I guess.

[00:06:52.680] – Ben Beck
Exactly, yeah. And in Cambodia, what we hope to show that the great thing about Cambodia is it’s still developing. Right. It’s not a United States or a Europe country. They have a lot of room for improvement. And with that, there’s a lot of really small businesses.

[00:07:13.610] – Christian Pearson

[00:07:14.140] – Ben Beck
There’s not a lot of big businesses like there are here in the states already. So that means that we’re kind of going on the ground floor, and I hope we can establish some business norms in their society.

[00:07:24.600] – Christian Pearson
Almost like a culture of culture. Responsibility.

[00:07:27.370] – Ben Beck
Exactly. A culture of social responsibility from the bottom up, which is really cool in academic research. Academics always, not always, have generally explored large businesses and what they’re doing with corporate social responsibility. So kind of a top down approach that actually has been shown to not be very successful. We’re encouraging small businesses to get involved and to engage in their societies and their communities and take a bottom up approach. And I hypothesize that we’ll see more benefits for the communities with an approach like that.

[00:08:00.640] – Christian Pearson
That’s really exciting, Ben. So I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about the process that you went through personally ideating the Cambodia project specifically. Like, when did you first consider doing research in Cambodia, of all places?

[00:08:15.960] – Ben Beck
Yeah. So when I was finishing my executive MBA program at Brigham Young University, one of the great things about that two year program is at the end, you get to spend about three weeks gallivanting different parts of the world, going and touring businesses, and seeing international perspectives. So I chose to go to Asia, and on Asia we see, we went to Beijing, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

[00:08:44.330] – Christian Pearson

[00:08:44.950] – Ben Beck
They were all amazing, eye opening countries. I had lived in Korea for two years on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, so I had that exposure. But Korea is very much like America. It’s like living in New York City to a large degree. So of all the countries we visited, Cambodia, Cambodia, and the Philippines are both very much developing, as well as our Vietnam and Thailand. But there was something unique about Cambodia that people were so kind. It just came across in all of their interactions. They do this thing where you can’t see it for anyone that’s listening to this podcast, but they take their hands and put them together kind of as if they’re praying. They hold it just like right below their chin, and they give a nice, humble bow. And that action, I think, represents their culture to a large degree. They’re very humble, kind people. This might sound horrible, but I actually thought when I was in Cambodia, if I was to go up to a cambodian on the street and just give them a big slap across the face, they would probably apologize for being in my way or something.

[00:09:50.560] – Ben Beck
Right? I’m not trying to say they’re a demure people, but they’re kind and good, and that came across in the culture, and I loved it, and I thought, I want to give back to this country in some way, if possible, down the road.

[00:10:02.840] – Christian Pearson
I think that’s a really cool perspective that you bring for so many of us who haven’t had that experience. I’ve never been to Cambodia personally, but thank you for sharing that insight. That is really cool. And I could see why you’d want to invest in this country with such great people. What experiences have you had that you feel qualify you to be undertaking what I would call a pretty ambitious research project?

[00:10:33.550] – Ben Beck
It is ambitious, and there’s probably two sources that I would go to just with gratitude, right? That I think have given me some of the skills I need. One absolutely is Penn State University. They taught me some really great research skills. They taught me what I needed to know to run a study like this. But second, working for businesses I worked, before coming back to academia, I worked for about ten years consulting businesses and working in house in marketing teams. And when you’re doing marketing, you wear lots of hats and you manage a lot of things, and it’s an exciting, fun, crazy process. But with that, you increase in your ability to manage a lot of things at once. And so this project is very multifaceted. I think that’s the couple skills I have. I’m sure I’m going to grow a lot, but the couple skills I have come from industry and then also my training at Penn State.

[00:11:29.080] – Christian Pearson
That’s awesome. We’re lucky to have you and the skill set you bring to this project. I do want to ask, with those skill sets that you have, I’m sure that there have been, I’m sure, some challenges already just in this first year of the Cambodia project. Would you mind discussing with me just a few of the most significant challenges you’ve encountered so far and what you’re doing to overcome them. As we’re talking about the research that we’re doing, how it’s international, what are some of the biggest challenges?

[00:12:01.050] – Ben Beck
There’s so many challenges, and anyone who’s done international research, especially if it’s in a developing world context, have probably run into similar frustrations. I’ll give you a couple of examples. The first one is it’s hard to get money to Cambodia. I hired people this last summer, the last couple of months on the ground in Cambodia to go out and start laying the groundwork for our research, doing some interviews and things. But just getting money to them is very difficult because their banking system is not as developed as it is here in the states. So I had to work through some crazy things. Ultimately, the best way to get money was have one of my research assistants go there. He was already traveling there and send him with a whole bunch of cash or his debit card so he could withdraw money from his atm.

[00:12:49.020] – Christian Pearson

[00:12:49.400] – Ben Beck
Right? Very backwards.

[00:12:50.990] – Christian Pearson
That is very different.

[00:12:52.170] – Ben Beck
Different. Not backwards, just different. Another thing is, Cambodians are not used to filling out surveys, and surveys are a big part of research.

[00:13:04.010] – Christian Pearson
They are.

[00:13:04.700] – Ben Beck
So how do you get someone who hasn’t filled out a survey before to understand what a survey means? And there’s something in research called a liquor scale. This is the scale that you’ve seen. That’s maybe one to seven. One to seven. One is, like, highly unsatisfied. Seven is highly satisfied.

[00:13:19.270] – Christian Pearson
I’m sure most of us have taken one survey with.

[00:13:22.850] – Ben Beck
Most of the listeners have probably taken a survey with a scale like that, and that’s called a liquor scale. Cambodians have not seen that. So we had to put together a little guide that the interviewers were using to explain how a liquor scale works before then asking the question, that’s kind of crazy.

[00:13:45.300] – Christian Pearson
I mean, does that mean that are we one of the first research projects taking place in Cambodia with surveys is.

[00:13:54.650] – Ben Beck
That, sadly, we are.

[00:13:57.530] – Christian Pearson
That’s, like, unprecedented in our country.

[00:13:59.900] – Ben Beck
I’ve looked so heavy to find other research in Cambodia. One of the most highly cited pieces, and there’s not a lot of citations, was there was a company in Japan, an actual company, working with some academics to show the importance of brown rice consumption in Cambodia. They ate lots of white rice, and it’s actually leading to diabetes. So they were trying to show that brown rice is important. They had a publication in a very. It wasn’t a great journal, but they did some research, and that was one of the few pieces of research I’ve even been able to find coming out of Cambodia.

[00:14:32.290] – Christian Pearson

[00:14:32.740] – Ben Beck

[00:14:33.100] – Christian Pearson
That is astounding. It’s way different.

[00:14:35.460] – Ben Beck

[00:14:36.020] – Christian Pearson
What are some other challenges that you’ve encountered? So you mentioned the surveying and obviously just the cultural difference as far as getting money there.

[00:14:45.840] – Ben Beck
Cultural differences. These people in Cambodia are wonderful, and I think that they would be. The nice thing was in interviewing. They’re happy to talk to you. So my interviewers in Cambodia had no problem finding people to interview.

[00:15:00.130] – Christian Pearson

[00:15:00.660] – Ben Beck
But you have to be careful from a cultural perspective, the questions you might ask. Right. I’ve read a lot of books about the Khmer Rouge and how horrible that history was. Right.

[00:15:15.350] – Christian Pearson
We’ll probably talk about that a little bit more in a different episode.

[00:15:18.860] – Ben Beck
Yeah. And we’ll have to be careful about how we talk about it because it’s a sore subject for them. And there’s a lot of.

[00:15:24.490] – Christian Pearson
Definitely delicate.

[00:15:25.490] – Ben Beck
Yeah. There’s a lot of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder that people there are facing. And so we want, as researchers to ask questions about that. But we have to be very culturally minded that if we’re asking questions about that or delving into it, we’re doing it in culturally appropriate ways because a lot of the people we’re interviewing may have had family members that were killed during that time. So that’s another. There’s so much going on culturally there. Southeast Asia is already a very different part of the world, and then Cambodia is even more different because of their recent past. What’s happened to them?

[00:16:03.590] – Christian Pearson
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. This has been great. I feel like we’ve gone over so much, and it hasn’t been that long, actually. But before we go, I do have one last question. So in most research papers, Ben, there’s usually, like a rationale section where the primary researcher, you would defend his study and explain to the world, really, why it’s important to a specific field, to the research or the world at large. And so I know we haven’t written up any reports or official documents about this research study. It’s still very much on the first few phases before publication. But even so, could you give me, like, a rough draft as far as the rationale section goes, how would you defend the Cambodia project to another academic, maybe a board? And why would you say that the Cambodia project is worth doing?

[00:17:08.410] – Ben Beck
That is a great question, and it’s important to think about the rationale perspective right now. I’m actually, the nice thing about academic research in the world of business is as a business professor and in business school, we send a lot of really smart, sharp individuals into the world, and they make a lot of money in business, and they donate that money back to business schools. So business schools have money for research, which is exciting.

[00:17:34.380] – Christian Pearson
That is nice.

[00:17:35.080] – Ben Beck
So normally, business school professors don’t go after grants. However, I want my research assistants, such as you, to be able to go to Cambodia with me, be on the ground, make a difference there. So we need funds. So I’m actually applying to grants right now, and thinking through that rationale is very important. You have to explain that in your grant process, or else you don’t get those funds that you need for sure. So my rationale is multifaceted for sure. But I would say let’s start as global as possible. Let’s talk about the world. How is this beneficial to the world, even if the project is not successful? I’m hoping at the end of the day, my research shows that businesses who engage in social good see increased revenue. That is so hard to show, though. First of all, tracking revenue for companies that might not want to disclose that for taxation reasons.

[00:18:37.640] – Christian Pearson
Yeah, especially in Cambodia.

[00:18:40.400] – Ben Beck
Yeah, especially in Cambodia, where maybe they’re not too worried about tracking, because they just are. Like, I think you mentioned in the first podcast that we did, that survival mentality, they’re still in the survival mentality. So they’re not too worried about bookkeeping, right?

[00:18:53.820] – Christian Pearson
For sure.

[00:18:54.720] – Ben Beck
But the end goal is show that there’s a revenue lift. But even if we don’t hit that goal, we’re going to show that doing this kind of research in the developing world, like Cambodia, it lifts, it benefits. We gain insights that will add to other academic research and to nonprofits and ngos that are working in these countries. They can borrow from what we’re going to do from a worldwide perspective. That’s how I would justify it. A more local justification. How am I justified in spending my time on this, I think about my own family. Right. Thinking about my wife and my two boys. They’re amazing, and they’re so supportive, and they supported me getting my phd in all the long hours that entailed. Now they’re supporting me on this Cambodia project. I’m flying out there probably in January, flying out again, hopefully with you and some other research assistants in April, late April. How do I justify weeks at a time away from my family? That’s something that I think about regularly. This research, selfishly, is making me a better person. I’m learning, I’m exploring, I’m growing.

[00:20:09.610] – Christian Pearson
Yeah, we’re definitely pushing boundaries.

[00:20:11.290] – Ben Beck
We’re pushing boundaries. Yeah. But it’s good for my two boys to see. Right. One of our new research assistants, Oliza, she actually just came from Cambodia. She’s studying here at Brigham Young University. We recently hired her. It’s awesome. We had her and her husband and their toddler son over for dinner. That is my family. Yeah. It was so fun. Yeah. For my boys to just get to see different perspectives. Right. So this kind of research is beneficial for the families of the researchers, it’s beneficial for the universities. Hopefully, this will shine a light on some of the good things that Brigham Young university is working on, and it helps lift the world. So even if I don’t get my top tier journal publications out of this, I’m still up for doing it because I feel like it’s going to have an impact somewhere, somewhere along that line.

[00:21:05.190] – Christian Pearson
That makes a lot of sense. And I know it can be difficult to do this high risk, high reward kind of research, but the way you’re describing the Cambodia project, it makes it sound like it’s just a force for good and for everyone that is involved, for everyone that it touches. We’re hoping that it lifts and expands and breaks down barriers and is a force for good, like you were saying.

[00:21:28.670] – Ben Beck
Yeah. So I mentioned Cotopaxi. They’re a company local here in Utah. They do these really cool bags. Right. That they use kind of sustainable fabrics to make the bags.

[00:21:40.750] – Christian Pearson
They’re very in style right now.

[00:21:43.710] – Ben Beck
They’re in style, yeah. And anyone who, if you ever, for any of our listeners, if you are out there and see if our listeners are traveling and they see a really colorful bag with lots of different colors of fabric that made that bag, that’s Kodapaxi. Right. So as a brand, they’re very recognizable. But Davis Smith, the founder, it is so cool what he has done. He started on day one, requiring that a certain percentage of not profits but revenue go towards social good. And for the. I believe it was the first four years he disclosed this when he’s sharing it himself. So I can share this. But during the first four years of his operation, they were not making money. As is the case with most small businesses. They were losing money.

[00:22:29.490] – Christian Pearson

[00:22:29.920] – Ben Beck
And so the investors kept coming to him and saying, wait, you want another round of funding, but you’re going to give away x percent for charitable good and you’re not even profitable. He had to convince them to do that. And now look at him. For the last several years, the company’s booming, making a lot of money, and they’ve shown that social good inside of a business setting can be fruitful. And it’s part of who they are. And people buy their bags and pay a premium for them, in large part because of the social good that they’re. Yeah, that’s. I hope we can shine a light on this and help find some applicable findings to make more companies out there want to be the next Cotopaxi.

[00:23:10.530] – Christian Pearson
I love that. Ben, thank you so much for sharing what you did about the Cambodia project, about Cotopaxi. It’s all very inspiring, and thank you for being vulnerable with me and with our listeners as we dive into something that’s very personal for you. Hopefully we will talk again soon. And I just want to thank you one more time for your time today and for discussing these highly important topics with me on inside the Cambodia project. So today I had the amazing opportunity to interview Ben and hear some of his insights as to the why behind the Cambodia project. I really enjoyed his vulnerability and the way he talked about the rationale behind the project. And I also really enjoyed hearing some of his insights as far as the implications it could have for BYU, for research, and for the rest of the world. Next time on inside the Cambodia project, I will be interviewing Kylie Soug, a student, researcher and employee at the Ballard center for Social Impact here at BYU. Until then, lift where you stand.