Social Business Summit 2013: ‘Sosyal’ or social entrepreneur?
Thomas Graham (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It may sound like a high society event, like many others.

Inside a trendy showroom in Taguig, a group of glamorous, animated ladies show me a variety of beautifully designed and crafted products. However, I am not in Fort Bonifacio, but Barangay Pinagsama – the “other,” less developed side to Taguig. And these ladies are not exponents of Manila’s sosyal scene, but rather they are social entrepreneurs.

Five ladies, each having ventured abroad and achieved success in their respective lines of business, discovered that their search for true fulfilment in work lay in the Philippines. Initially inspired by Gawad Kalinga’s values-driven approach to community development, they were left pondering how best they could put their respective skills to the task of eradicating poverty.

In 2009, Tony Meloto, the founder of GK, brought them together to see how their individual business skills could unite to support social enterprise development in GK villages. Soon after, the ladies formed GKonomics, a non-profit organization which empowers poor communities to build enterprises that produce world-class products and services in partnership with social entrepreneurs. Thus far, Gkonomics is already supporting 50 enterprises in a total of 74 communities.

The Pinagsama showroom displays a number of products, from beautifully crafted chairs and tables to designer handbags. In terms of quality or originality, I might just as easily be visiting one of the high-end boutiques which line Taguig’s more affluent neighborhoods no more than a couple of kilometers up the road.

Typically, beauty and elegance are associated with posh and affluent neighborhoods, while cheap and cheerful products predominate in impoverished areas. GKonomics, through merging the creativity and skills of the rich with the willingness to learn of the poor, is trying to close that gap. According to the ladies, social entrepreneurship, where the pursuit of personal ambition merges with the desire to help others, brings meaning and balance to their own lives as well.

Pinky Poe, one of the five founders, gave up a successful career in finance in the US to return to the Philippines: “I just felt the time was right to put my love of country, and my faith, into action. I may have lived in nice parts of the world, but it is in the GK communities that I have truly found myself, my faith and even my own paradise.”

The president of GKonomics is Cecilia David Manheimer, an MBA graduate from Ateneo who established successful businesses in New York before returning to the Philippines. Cecilia has personally funded GKonomics’ administrative costs, while her rich business experience has been important in helping poor communities to attain sustainable livelihood. Other members of the team include Divine Duran, a management and communications expert who worked for some of the world’s leading corporations, and Marivic Poblador Pineda, whose management and boardroom skills today help ensure that products made by GK residents are both marketable and of high quality.

The fifth GKonomics’ lady is Rose Cabrera, who has established Mabuhay Restop Rizal Park, a social enterprise which promotes community-based “voluntourism” and unique shows. Rose has exchanged a high-flying career as a lawyer in Los Angeles to become a full-time social entrepreneur, but tells me she has no regrets: “Many years ago my dream was to become the first ever Filipina-American judge. However, this was not as radical as I first thought – sooner or later, one of the other successful Fil-Ams over there will achieve this, and have since already done so. Instead, I came to see true justice as social justice, and for me this begins by working towards it in the Philippines through GK.”

With over 2,000 GK Villages around the Philippines, GKonomics, with its lean staff, could not conceivably do it alone. Therefore, GKonomics offers a platform for people with different skills and experience to participate in social enterprise through a variety of entry points, whether on a full- or part-time basis.

“People can offer either their expertise or resources to support a social enterprise, or perhaps they can find a way to support the supply chain. Companies can do the same, and potentially can have an even greater impact than individuals,” Pinky explains.

After visiting their showroom, I visit one of the social enterprises Pinky Poe mentions during our meeting – the PLDT-Smart Amazing GK Village in Sooc, Iloilo – to witness how the GKonomics social business model works in practice.

As I arrive at the village, I am greeted by Herminia (Hermie) Pineda, a woman in her 60s who does not immediately strike me as much of a fashionista. As I walk inside the small yet airy workshop where both she and a small group of community members (mainly ladies) are working, I am surprised to see all manner of beautifully crafted bags and fashion accessories which they have produced.

This diverse array of fashionable items are made out of the unwanted tarpaulins donated by the telecommunications firm, SMART, and then recycled and handcrafted by the ladies of GK Sooc into the trendy products I see before me.

Despite slow beginnings, SMART has continued to support the project and, fortunately, more partners have arrived. In 2011, the Philippine Business for Social Progress trained the ladies on product development and financial management, while GKonomics provided the much needed business expertise and linkage to market.

A particularly decisive moment came when Iloilo-born PJ Arañador, the internationally renowned lifestyle fashion designer, collaborated with the ladies on new designs for the bags. He helped to provide a gateway for the bags to sell in one of the Philippines’ most exclusive markets – Boracay.

The ladies tell me that they are paid an average of P50 per piece, and are capable of doing around five pieces a day. As this income typically complements that of their husbands, the ladies insist that this can make a huge difference to the family income. Importantly, bolstering the family income hasn’t detracted from their family life: “We love the fact that we can work from home. It means we can look after the ids while also earning some extra money,” Hermie tells me.

By providing them the opportunity to earn money and look after their children at the same time, GK can promote both wealth creation and family life in the same community.

These ladies, many of whom previously were scavengers in the local dump, have had their dignity restored. A couple of them have even gained the confidence to design their own bags.

However, the highlight for these women so far, Hermie explains, has been a trip to Boracay: “That was a dream come true for us – not only were we in Boracay, but we could see the products that we ourselves had handmade, being bought by the tourists.”

A Philippines in which beauty and creativity are achieved not just by the privileged few, but by people of varied talents and backgrounds working together for a better society? Now that truly is a kind of “high society” which the entire world might envy.

The success of the GK Sooc village project was down to partnerships on multiple levels. Attend the Social Business Summit this Oct. 2-5 to meet the GKonomics ladies and learn about how you might become a change-maker in the Philippines. For more information, visit www.socialbusinesssummit.net.

The author is a British journalist who came to the Philippines on a short-term assignment. He has since stayed 20 months in the country, volunteering for Gawad Kalinga and other causes. His experiences will be documented in a book: “The Genius of the Poor.”

AS I BORACAY GAWAD KALINGA GKONOMICS LADIES PHILIPPINES PINKY POE SOCIAL SOOC
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