Two local businesses, the Foundation and COF&, have joined forces to bring the city something new: Downtown Bellingham’s first-ever coffee event lounge. The space is the newest addition to Owner Brian Womack’s collective of businesses—and it’s just one small piece of his entrepreneurial and philanthropic efforts.
It can sometimes be easy to forget that little choices and actions everyday are what build up into lasting change. For Sunchea Phou, an entrepreneur in Sedro-Woolley, making a lasting positive impact has been a guiding principle.
Photo Courtesy of Sunchea Phou
Phou’s life began in Cambodia, where she and her mother survived the Cambodian genocide. They left the country when Phou was 7 years old, and spent five years in a refugee camp before immigrating to Montreal in the late ‘80s. Despite arriving with very little means and education, Phou went on to study fashion engineering (which integrates computer sciences and fashion design), and began a successful corporate career.
“It’s the technical side of fashion,” Phou explains. “I basically execute [designs] from 2-D to 3-D.”
Phou worked for large brands like REI, Eddie Bauer, and Nike. She built a heart-monitoring harness for use by NASA, and helped to bring the Seattle Seahawks’ NFL uniforms to life. But in this corporate playing field, Phou felt that something was missing.
“Being in the industry, personally I noticed that it is all about money … Everything is all about the bottom line,” she says. “I want to use my experience and skill to be more beneficial to humanity and the environment. Because I already have the connections and the skill to do it, if I don’t, then it’s ‘shame on me,’ in a way.”
This personal mission is partially motivated by Phou’s visit to Cambodia in 2001. It was the first time she had been able to return to her home country, and she realized that “there was a lot of need, especially for genocide survivors.” In order to generate enough income and be able to help, she needed to start her own business– YaY Novelty.
“The name, YaY Novelty, stands for ‘why and why’,” says Phou. “Why create the company and why create the products. I created Intentional Choices for Positive Change Sunchea Phou of YaY Novelty the company so I can generate more resources to help the genocide survivors, and… I created the product because I saw that a lot of cheap products had been made [and] flooded the market, and contributed to more problems, especially for the environment.”
Phou’s first products, the YaYwallet and the YaYbag, were carefully created to be durable, reusable, and handy for everyone. Phou is aiming to reduce the waste generated by cheap reusable products, like the $1 or $2 reusable bags that usually break after a few uses and end up in the trash. That, as Phou points out, “is not better than the plastic bag.”
YaY Novelty has since diversified into many other products, including stationery, self-care, reusable household goods, and even some consumable products that use Cambodian flavor profiles. One of Phou’s hopes for YaY Novelty is to remind, or even teach people for the first time, that Cambodia exists, has a long history and culture, and is still in need of help.
“I try to… bring awareness of where Cambodia is and what’s happening,” says Phou, who says that people who ask her where she’s from often don’t know where Cambodia is. “It’s just like, if they don’t even know the country or where it is, most likely they [don’t know] what’s going on in the country, [or what is] happening there.”
Sunchea donates resources to Cambodia as she can, including money, food, and even at one point helping to build a simple school. But lasting changes for people and the environment can also be made by making choices that add up over time.
“[My YaYbag] might seem expensive, but it’s a long-term investment,” she says.
She also notes that although her products can be purchased through large online retailers, purchasing directly from small businesses is another small choice that makes a large positive impact. Sedro-Woolley, yaynovelty.com