Through the Pratthanadee Foundation, Enrique Cuan is harnessing the power of education to make a difference in the lives of women in Thailand.
Business travelers often go from hotel room to car to conference room and back again, barely registering the rhythms and patterns of everyday life in a foreign city. In 1995, Enrique Cuan ‘85 was stuck in such a pattern.
Based in Singapore and working for Merrill Lynch, he was traveling to Thailand for four to five days every month. But, increasingly, he began to notice aspects of Thai culture that bothered him deeply. “Like a lot of poor countries, women are the backbone of the family in Thailand, and they have a resilience about them that is inspiring,” he notes. However, these women are often abandoned and left with children and aging parents to support. They have few attractive options to earn money and little prospect of bettering their circumstances. Enrique felt a responsibility to help, but what can a “salary-guy” do to make a real difference?
Enrique placed an ad in the Bangkok Post, advertising an open house for a new non-profit (NGO) that was looking to hire some staff. In 2000, the Pratthanadee Foundation opened its doors as a free school, teaching English and computer skills to underprivileged women in Bangkok. Pratthanadee, which means Goodwill in Thai, was funded entirely by Enrique. “If you are in a position to help someone, whether it’s one person, or a hundred, that’s a privilege.”
The school was popular, and, through word of mouth, Pratthanadee attracted lots of young women eager to learn marketable skills. But Enrique questioned whether what they were doing was really helping. “What good is knowing how to use Hotmail if you don’t have enough to eat? I felt that we weren't really dealing with the reality that these women were living every day,” he says.
In 2005, Pratthanadee broadened its focus to include career and personal development workshops with a goal of increasing women’s overall economic earning power. The majority of Pratthanadee’s clients come from low-end service industry jobs working as maids, nannies, and even prostitutes. The workshops offer concrete skills that make women compelling applicants for better and safer employment, such as negotiating and knowing how to ask for a raise, practicing self-defense, and presentation skills like dressing and applying makeup for the workplace.
“We put together a program that focused on building a women’s self-esteem and confidence,” says Enrique, “because if you are confident in how you look and how you present yourself, that manifests in the way that you are able to make a living and what you can earn for that work.”
The other benefit of focusing on building women’s self-esteem and confidence is the trickle-down effect that these efforts have on the entire family structure. Enrique echoes the sentiments of Ghanaian educational scholar Dr. James Emman Kwegyir-Aggrey, who famously posited that “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family.”
Pratthanadee is making a startling difference in the lives of its clients. According to Enrique, almost half of the women who take the workshops report an increase in salary of 30%. For many, that difference enables them to put their children in school, provide healthcare for a parent, or save money for the first time in their lives. The difference is also clearly visible in the women themselves. When women first come to Pratthanadee, they are videotaped answering a few basic questions about who they are what they want to do with their lives. Six to nine months later, the staff videotapes them again, and Enrique notes that the confidence they have gained manifests in the way they look, speak, and carry themselves.
While Pratthanadee is still funded largely by Enrique, it is educating 2,500-3,000 women a year in Bangkok and rural Ubon Ratchathani, a poor province in northeast Thailand. Enrique hopes to build the program to a national scale. In 2014, Pratthanadee was awarded the Mid-Sized Thai NGO of the Year by the Resource Alliance and Rockefeller Foundation. This summer they honored Pratthanadee again with their 2017 “Big Impact, Small Budget” Social Impact Award. “We do as much as we can with what little we have,” says Enrique.