Last month, MIC delivered our third Breakfast with an Entrepreneur event as a part of the IGNITE Program. Run in partnership with the City of Whittlesea, this breakfast series features a local successful startup each month and provides the opportunity for like-minded individuals at different stages of their venture to listen and learn about their journey.  

Our guest entrepreneur in April was social entrepreneur and captivating storyteller, Koky Saly.

Koky is founder of social enterprise BeeKeeper Parade and the charity BabyTree Projects. His mission is to improve education in Cambodia and assist in creating a sustainable planet.

BeeKeeper Parade upcycles textile waste by re-imagining it into unique backpacks and bags. The sale of every backpack contributes to the education of children in Cambodia—in one of the 5 schools Koky has set up through BabyTree Projects. His passion for providing quality education for Cambodian children arises from his experience as a refugee during Cambodia’s civil war.

To open, Koky reminded our audience about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. “People will pass my shop and see a guy who’s selling bags,” he said. “And they think I’m a person who designs and sells bags. But it’s not true. We need to look past the surface, because when we walk into these shops, we’re treading on people’s dreams. Try not to walk in with a frown and not acknowledge that person in the shop. Take a step back and remember that you’re walking on people’s dreams. Tread softly.”

He shared the story of his childhood, from being born in prison to getting out as some of the few survivors. His dream was to be strong and courageous like his mum—and that meant getting Cambodian kids into school. With the help of friends, he raised almost $100k to build his first school.

“It’s still one of the most beautiful things I’ve had the privilege of living and working through.”

In 2006, he started the BabyTree Projects charity and that set him on this path. Initial marketing involved using his existing network of donors. The charity has built 5 schools since then.

Koky shared advice regarding the challenges that face charities and social enterprises. “Expect challenges,” he said. “Don’t let them surprise you—they’re meant to come. Expecting them will allow you to strategically and calmly deal with them. Bring it on.”

He experienced his greatest challenge when he lost his sister to cancer. Her belief in him gave him the drive to succeed at the charity they’d started together. That meant finding a sustainable way to fund BabyTree Projects.

He observed businesses that were successful, but not doing anything to help people or the planet. He asked himself, “How can I use business to my advantage? How can I navigate this world of buying and selling in a way that sits right in my heart? The answer was to use profits for good, and to do things ethically along the way. As hard as that is, in the long-term it’s the reason people buy from us.”

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When starting BeeKeeper Parade, he wanted to find an ethical factory to produce the bags. He struggled so much that he started his own factory in Cambodia. “I hired one woman. And I had one sewing machine, one room, and we made two bags a day together. Then I had to come back to Australia to sell them. And then we grew to three people, and six, and now we’re sitting at thirteen people. So we directly employ all our workers. We see all the contracts, how much everyone is getting paid, all the conditions. It is the longer process, initially the harder thing to do, to train people. But long-term, it is much better than a factory that doesn’t care about you.”

One audience member claimed that she researched his business for a university assignment in Applied Positive Psychology, and needed to include some negative things, but was struggling to find any in her online research. Koky replied, “Let me tell you some!”

Firstly, birthing a social enterprise from the loss of his sister has meant that sharing the story of his business also means sharing his trauma. There was a time when he was doing up to four talks a week and it took him to a bad place. “So I’ve learned to limit myself to one a week, but when I say no to people, they get really angry. It can be a problem and has caused bad blood with some organisations.”

The other big challenge for Koky is human resource. It isn’t easy for him to find the right people to add to his team who he can rely on and trust to share his values.

The breakfast event was a success as Koky shared both his professional and personal experiences that have shaped the way he does business today. He strongly believes in keeping promises—and he made a promise to his sister that he would make change in the world, which he keeps every day.

We thank Koky for saying yes to speaking at this event. We acknowledge it’s a difficult conversation for him to have, so we thank him for providing our audience with those insights, for sharing his story, and for carrying on his business with such honesty and greatness.


This event was delivered as part of the Ignite program in partnership with the City of Whittlesea. Join us for the next Breakfast with an Entrepreneur. Visit www.ignitestartups.com.au/our-events