A fighting spirit

Saran Ouk launches conNEXTions to match employers to diverse workers.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, Saran Ouk, 38, founder and CEO of conNEXTions in Madison, was kidnapped as a toddler and placed in a rice bag destined to be sold, or worse. Thankfully, she was saved by an astute guard who quickly realized the bag contained much more than rice.

“I was too young to remember it, so I’m not traumatized, but my mom still gets upset when my [siblings] tease me about being put in a rice bag,” she chuckles.

With the help of a nonprofit sponsorship, the family made it to the United States and moved to Madison in the mid-1980s. They lived in a refugee community near Allied Drive and frequented the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin for food and clothing.

“My family was always on the receiving end of philanthropy,” Ouk says.

As the eldest daughter, she worked multiple jobs to support the family. Her parents, who still live with her, did not speak English and couldn’t understand her drive to succeed.

“In the Cambodian culture, a woman’s sole purpose is to get married and have children. My parents knew someone who wanted to marry me when I was 13!”

She had other plans yet felt torn between two cultures. “It was a confusing time to be 18. Going to college was a big deal to me, but not to my parents.

“When you turn 18 in America, you’re expected to work, do your taxes, get insurance, budget money, build credit to rent or save for a house, and those things aren’t necessarily taught in school.”

For 15 years, Ouk advanced in the credit union industry, rising from teller to branch manager. Along the way she also earned a degree from UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology in community and nonprofit leadership.

She launched conNEXTions, a 501(c)(3), in 2016 with a mission to match professional mentors with disenfranchised or low-income mentees chasing the American dream and focusing on women and people of color in the 18 to 29 age group.

“Many employers have trouble diversifying because they don’t know how to recruit or retain women and people of color; conNEXTions fills that gap,” she explains. It provides workshops and trains mentees in financial literacy, resume writing, and proper interviewing before they are matched with business mentors.

Anyone can be a mentor, Ouk explains, if they are open-minded, can provide job shadowing, and are able to introduce mentees to their professional network.

conNEXTions also provides training on multicultural differences. “For example, in Asia, you shouldn’t look people directly in the eye, but in the U.S., eye contact is very important,” she explains.

Mentors can log their volunteer hours with the Dane County Time Bank, though most are happy to just give back.

The nonprofit has 30 mentees currently, and about 50 professionals in its mentor pool. Feedback has been positive, according to a recent third-party survey, which found 93 percent of participants either satisfied or very satisfied.

Initially, Ouk bootstrapped conNEXTions from her credit union paycheck. Since then, the organization has attracted corporate support and grants. Last year, the board hired a program director and Ouk received a salary for the first time.

(608) 215-4651

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