SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Pocket-size wallets. Bird toys. Reusable bags printed with images such as the faces of Frida Kahlo and David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.
Inside her warehouse, Sunchea Phou opens boxes of products she designs, manufactures and sells internationally through her business YaY Novelty. Phou said she hopes to soon secure a deal with a large national supplier.
That would help her achieve her goal — to build a nursing home in her native country of Cambodia — and help seniors, including those who survived the Cambodian genocide.
The 43-year-old herself is a survivor of the genocide, in which an estimated 1.7 million people were killed from 1975-79.
Phou said surviving that experience prepared her for the worst that can happen in life, including the hardships of running a business. And taught her to waste no time.
“Life and death walk parallel,” she said. “I make every second valuable.”
From Cambodia to the U.S.
Phou lost her father and two brothers to the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. At 7, Phou and her mother walked for a month to reach a refugee camp in Thailand, Phou said.
During the five years they spent in the camp, Phou said she remembers living in deplorable conditions and under constant fear she and her mother would be sent back to Cambodia.
When Phou was 12, she and her mother were able to immigrate to Montreal. There she learned French and was taught to sew, helping her mother run a cottage industry in their home.
While Phou swore to herself at the time she wouldn’t end up in the garment industry, she ended up studying fashion design in college.
In 2000, she moved to the United States to take a job with sporting goods retailer REI. Later she worked for Eddie Bauer and Nike, where she helped design NFL uniforms, including those worn in the Super Bowl by the Seattle Seahawks.
Shortly before the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014, she quit to start her own business, YaY Novelty.
“I have bigger plans in life than just 9 to 5,” Phou said of her thoughts at the time.
In 2018, Phou relocated her business from Seattle to north of Sedro-Woolley. There, she takes care of her 74-year-old mother while running her manufacturing, wholesale and online retail business.
Twenty percent of the proceeds go to the YaY Foundation and Phou’s project to build a nursing home in Cambodia. Previously, she helped build a school in a remote area of the country.
Phou said YaY Novelty stands for “why” and “why” — why create the company (to provide resources to those in Cambodia), and why create the products (to make something functional and of quality).
“Even if it’s a simple bag, I engineer it,” Phou said, explaining how she has worked to improve the design of reusable bags, which are an alternative to single-use plastic bags.
Under her brand YayPet, she manufactures bird toys — used to give birds something to chew on — with a focus on quality materials.
“I’m trying to change the mentality of consumers to not choose the cheap one,” she said.
Phou said she believes small businesses need to be more active online.
She said she is familiar with two relatively new wholesale online marketplaces, Faire and Tundra, that can help suppliers sell their products, and local retailers find new merchandise.
“(Businesses) have to be more active in digital, not just waiting for customers to come in,” she said.
When she moved to Canada and later the United States, Phou learned French and then English, and sewing from her mother.
Now she is helping other Cambodian women in the area do the same.
She has contracted with three in Snohomish County to help sew and create her products, and encourages them to learn English through the method she used — watching cartoons.
With little education or skills, it’s difficult for the women to earn income, she said. Another reason to reach out to them has to do with boosting their sense of independence.
“(I teach them) not only skills, but how the system here works, and what is a woman’s right, and to be more confident,” she said.
Sedro-Woolley Chamber of Commerce Director Pola Kelley said Phou has shared her story at recent chamber and community meetings.
“I think she inspires,” Kelley said. “I think the biggest thing she brings to the community is that you can do more, and don’t be limited by your story. I see how that story could have evolved, and I see how it did evolve, and it’s amazing.”
Phou said her mother, who lived through the death of her husband, sons and brother during the genocide, is her “big hero.”
“It taught me that a woman can handle a lot,” she said. “I have all the power I want.”