Escaping the 9 to 5 with Cécile Terraz

Cambodia volunteer work with Cécile Terraz

When I heard about Cécile, I was immediately keen to find out more of her story to share with you in the career transition interview series. What a contrast, to move from Procter & Gamble in Geneva to work in an NGO in Cambodia, bringing her two young children along for the adventure.

Her insightful message about making decisions from a place of conviction rather than fear is one that I think we could all do well to listen to. Completely coincidentally, Cécile talks a lot about stepping outside of your comfort zone, an area that I’ve been exploring a lot recently in my blog and something I’ve been putting at the heart of my new coaching business.

Read on to hear about how Cécile moved to the other side of the world, and in doing so changed her own life and that of her family – not to mention the lives of the children that they are helping…

Cambodia volunteer work

CecileAfter more than ten years in the corporate world in Geneva, Cécile decided to leave everything behind and move to Cambodia to volunteer in an NGO. The whole family (with two kids of six and five) left their comfortable lifestyle and moved to one of the poorer countries in the world. Cécile joined Elevate Campus NGO, its mission to create immediate and lasting solutions to provide health care, education and a place to experience carefree moments, appreciation and love. In a country of widespread poverty and a low level of human development, Elevate NGO wants to elevate the younger generations to a better future.

1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?

Cecile's family
A happy family!

When I started my job at Procter & Gamble, my husband and I also started building a church in Geneva; we were very young at the time. After a few years, we had two children and David was working full time for the church while I was a volunteer pastor on top of my business job in a multinational company. In 2014, the church went through a big leadership renewal and at that moment it was time for us to move on; we had committed exactly ten years to this project! David knew he had to resign and I was also at a turning point in my career. We knew it was time for a new adventure but we had no idea what….

Cambodia suddenly opened up but it was a big step for us with important consequences. We sought confirmation from close friends around us and we also agreed that a financial miracle would have to happen for us to move. Somehow, everything fell into place. When the right project happens at the right time, the doors will open!

2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?

Cecile holding a baby
This little baby came with his mum to get first aid care

Even if everything fell into place, it was hard for us to leave. It was a huge challenge to quit our house, our city, our family and our friends; to leave everything we had built over the years, and get out of our comfort zone. We had never been to Asia before and had no idea what it would be like for our kids.

I decided to go to Siem Reap for a week, to experience life there and get a feel for the whole thing. On my second day in the city, I saw a guy get hit by a car, dying right next to me on the road. I was in shock and came back home scared… I was so scared that I developed a skin rash all over my body for two months! Nobody could tell me what it was but David one morning talked to me: he recognised that this accident I had seen had shocked me deep into my soul and now I had to let go and trust that God would protect us. That morning we prayed together, and the following day I started to recover.

Little girl
A little girl in the back of the truck on Sunday morning, on the way from the village to the Elevate Campus

I realised that day that actually, whatever choice you make in life, you always make that choice out of one of the following motivations: Condemnation (fear), Comfort (convenience) or Conviction. You can take a decision based on your fear of failing, fear of being hurt, fear of your past, fear of being without money; or based on your comfort zone, your easy lifestyle, to please someone else; or you can choose out of conviction. And at that point we had to choose out of conviction. We had to step out of our comfort zone and into the world, and decide with conviction that our place was in Cambodia and that everything would work out.

Of course, it was also a lot of work to move out of the house, sell our furniture and belongings, create a blog and manage all the administrative work. A lot of things could have gone really wrong, but somehow all of this went smoothly.

3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?

Elevate Campus
Sunday fun with the Elevate kids

Some of our close friends supported us in this transition, they provided their advice but also their practical support. Our families were a bit shocked by the news but then they too helped us. Lots of people sent us letters and encouraging notes, saying we were an inspiration for them. Some friends even gave us money to express their support and communicate that they believe in us. It was really moving how much love we had during that time!

We also prayed a lot during that transition period so that we would not get overwhelmed. We could always feel that God was caring for us, and we felt a deep peace; we experienced many miracles all along the way to help us keep our focus and know that we were doing the right thing. In that leap of faith, we also developed deeper relationships with our friends, having profound conversations about life and purpose. Suddenly our step into the wild opened new doors for other people as well, and new levels of relationships around us. When you’re moving to the other side of the world, every moment left together counts and all the little details and hurt from the past become less important, and you only focus on the best bits!

4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?

We’ve been in Cambodia for four months now. We are amazed by everything we have been through over these last months; our lives have totally changed. Before we left, people were saying that we were heroes leaving everything and moving to one of the poorest countries in the world – but we actually think that we are blessed to have had such an opportunity. This is such a life experience for the whole family, and we’ll never be the same.

Elevate first aid station
The first aid station in the village

In Asia, people are not focused on completing tasks or being more productive; they’re focused on relationships. In the beginning, I found this to be a pain… You never get what you need and there’s no logical process to anything! But now I start to embrace it. People have time for you, they want to get to know you, they are interested in you. Even if you buy nothing from them in their shop, they will take two hours just to talk to you. Actually this has helped me to understand the difference between being busy (thinking we are productive) and truly bearing fruit.

Life in the West is so fast that we don’t have time to stop anymore; we multitask to be able to manage the work, the kids, the food, our relationships. Over the last six years, we almost never had time together just my husband and I, and now we take one morning every week. Our relationship with each other is the most important, of course, but we had no time before to take care of it… we were too busy doing the wrong things.

Of course we also face challenges in this new lifestyle, I have ups and downs, but I always focus back on why we are here and what role we have to play. David is now in charge of the whole campus and I manage the workforce. With our fresh external view we were able to help this NGO transition into a new structure, as they continue their fast growth.

5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change? 

Do it for the right reasons, at the right time. Running away from something or changing because you just feel like you’ve had enough is not a good reason, in my opinion. I found myself often wanting to give up on my corporate role, as I could see that I didn’t fit anymore – I always had my resignation letter ready! – but I stayed until the right opportunity came along, at the right time.

Change is about conviction, and time. To change, you will need to endure, you’ll need to be clear on your new purpose, and that will take character and courage. The grass is not greener on the other side, the grass is just the same and if you change for the wrong reason, things are not going to get better. Cut your grass and water it, be satisfied with it for now, and be audacious when the right opportunity comes along!


You can follow Cécile and her family in their new adventure on their blog.

Elevate bike race
The first Elevate Campus bike race, for 150 children!

The Elevate-Campus NGO provides first aid, prevention, hygiene, access to healthcare and medical care, clean water, education, and activities for the children. Elevate Campus also wants to go beyond basic needs, for every child and young adult to find a place where they can grow in a positive environment, be encouraged & cared for.

“Every kid in Cambodia deserves to have a healthy, safe, stimulating and caring environment to be able to grow and build a better future for their country.”


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