When Kimsru Duth was a child, her mother moved her family from rural Cambodia to the capital, Phnom Penh, in the hope of sending her daughter to college. She took two grueling jobs, working days as a waitress and nights doing laundry, but she still couldn’t afford Duth’s education.
All that changed when Duth received a full scholarship to the Asian University for Women, a liberal arts college founded in 2008 in Chittagong, Bangladesh, with the mission of providing high-quality English education to young women from across Asia.
Duth eventually came to Japan in 2013 to help Kathy Matsui, co-head of Asian investment research at Goldman Sachs, sell Japanese businesses on an unusual investment opportunity — women’s education.
Although Japan “is blessed with an incredibly advanced education system,” that is not the case throughout Asia, where opportunities to attend university can be extremely limited for women, according to Matsui. In Duth’s country of Cambodia, for example, only 5 percent of women have the opportunity to pursue a college education, she said.
Improving Asian women’s access to universities is “smart investing” for Japanese companies, according to Matsui, whose research on “womenomics” inspired Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make increased female participation in the workforce a key part of his economic reform package known as “Abenomics.”
Asia, particularly South and Southeast Asia, is the future investment destination of choice for Japanese companies, Matsui said, and they need to ask themselves, “What am I doing to cultivate that market?”
“Educating women in developing countries is probably the highest return on one’s investment yen or dollar,” she said.
Buttressing this statement is a 2011 paper by World Bank economists Jad Chaaban and Wendy Cunningham that says investing in basic education for girls could increase developing countries’ gross domestic product by as much as 1.5 percentage points a year.
Goldman Sachs has put its money where its mouth is, donating millions of dollars to AUW since 2006. Matsui sees such investments as a win-win for companies that “are investing in future leaders . . . and at the same time growth markets for their businesses.”
Some Japanese companies agree. Last June, Fast Retailing Co., operator of clothing giant Uniqlo, dedicated $1 million for scholarships for women to attend AUW, and students have interned at manufacturer Toshiba Corp., ad agency Dentsu Inc. and staffing service firm Pasona Group Inc., among others.
The university has also earned the patronage of first lady Akie Abe, who became involved after visiting the campus in 2011.
Matsui’s relationship with AUW began eight years ago when Harvard classmate Muktadir Kamal Ahmad, an American lawyer of Bangladeshi origin, persuaded her to join the university’s Japan Committee and fundraising board.
“It was really just a dream, frankly, at that time,” Matsui said, remembering when she first heard Ahmad’s vision for the school.
That dream quickly became a reality after Bangladesh’s parliament ratified the university’s charter in 2006.
By the time Duth arrived at AUW in April 2008, there were 131 other students. Six years later, the school has 535 women from 12 countries living in leased dormitories and studying a wide range of subjects, all in English.
In 2011, the school’s chancellor, Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, joined Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to lay the foundation stone for the university’s new campus on 56 hectares in Chittagong granted to the school by the Bangladeshi government. The school needs to raise $50 million to complete the first phase of construction.
Meanwhile, as members of AUW’s first class, Duth and her fellow graduates have already met with success beyond their wildest childhood dreams.
The women have found employment at U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co., Swedish casual wear chain operator H&M, U.S. energy giant Chevron Corp. and charity organization Oxfam International. Others have gone on to prestigious graduate programs around the world.
So far, Matsui has been “very pleasantly surprised” by the reception she has received from Japanese companies, many of which are trying to increase their philanthropic activities in Asia.
“Some of them are planting trees and forests. Some of them are doing recycling,” she said. But unlike those activities, investing in women’s education has “a significant multiplier effect. It’s like the stone that’s thrown in the pond. Those ripples can last for generations.”