Weaving the American dream in the Philippines
(The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – My name is Chris Torrance, a 34-year-old American raised in Chicago; but calling the Philippines my home for the last 15 months. I am the general manager of Ambension Silk Enterprise, located at the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm in Brgy. Encanto, Angat, Bulacan.

Before 2015 I knew nothing about silk. Today, our talented weavers are creating finished scarves and shawls from our own eri silkworms raised at the farm.

I arrived in the Philippines in September of 2014 full of confidence that I could make a difference in the Philippines; and probably teach Gawad Kalinga a thing or two that I learned through higher education in the (more) developed world. Instead of ending up in the office of Gawad Kalinga HQ, I arrived at a farm in the middle of nowhere.

I had come from working on an agricultural development project in Tanzania, so I figured I could handle this farm. What I didn’t realize was that my previous experience mostly involved moving money from one place to another. At the GK Enchanted Farm I was part of a greater movement, not just a facilitator; working directly with the people on the ground.

After three months of trying to figure out the Farm, the Philippines and where I fit into all of it, a fateful encounter set me on my current path of silk discovery. Two Fil-Am women, also from Chicago, visited the farm on a mission to determine if the GK Enchanted Farm was a good fit for their new silk enterprise.

A simple “Hey, Chris, these women are also from Chicago” made me their tour guide around the Farm for the day. After explaining the value of starting a social enterprise at the Farm, and learning of their dedication to the Gawad Kalinga mission and vision for over a decade, the sparks of a partnership were lit. Together with a group of Fil-Am investors from Chicago, we started Ambension Silk Enterprise. Our Fil-Am investors are extremely active in the enterprise, and are working hard to open our ChicaGrow eri silk showcase center at the GK Enchanted Farm early this year.

Why silk? Why here? Working at the GK Enchanted Farm connected me with the local population and gave me an understanding of the social and economic issues endemic in the area. Bulacan was previously the textile capital of the Philippines. When operations became cheaper to outsource overseas, the textile industry crumbled. Ambension has charged itself with the task of reinvigorating the textile industry in Bulacan one silk scarf at a time.

Over the course of the 11 months I have been working with Ambension, we have hired five staff members and are working with two interns from the School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED). More importantly, as a foreigner in the Philippines, I have found a new family.

The seven people I work with on a daily basis inspire me with their work ethic, innovative nature, enthusiasm and ability to question and challenge authority. When thinking of the typical Filipino employee, these are probably not the traits that come to mind. However, when everyone from the team is invested in the mission and vision of the company, amazing things begin to happen.

What is amazing about our team? Marlon, our director of farm operations, knew as little about silk as I did when he started; in other words, literally nothing. However, he is currently innovating the processes by which silk worms are raised. He has complete autonomy to create new systems and processes to ensure that the worms are healthy and happy. For every challenge we have encountered while raising the silk worms, Marlon has had a creative solution to customize our process to the natural Filipino environment in which we work.

Marlon has recently taken on an assistant, Tito Toto, for worm raising operations. Toto was at the job for less than a week when he suggested a new method for cleaning our worm trays. This has since been incorporated into our process for raising healthy worms.

Our spinning and weaving mothers from the Farm community, Jenny Ann, Michelle and Lilibeth, had limited experience with textiles, mostly in the form of hand stitching. They received two trainings on weaving from our partners at the Philippine Textile Research Institute. These trainings gave them some basic knowledge on how to set up and use a loom. It took these women all of two weeks to start creating their own designs and hungrily asking for more materials and techniques with which to practice.

Our two SEED interns, Geno (17) and Nica (18), have directly applied what they are learning in the classroom to our social enterprise. Even though they are about half my age, Geno and Nica have no qualms about telling me what needs to be done or changed to make the enterprise run more effectively. The shy nature of Filipino youth in the face of authority was discarded quickly when they realized their value to the enterprise. They embraced their roles as equals in the decision making process, became assertive and never looked back.

What does all of this have to do with the American dream? Today, for the majority of Americans, the American dream consists of working as hard as possible with the goal of someday identifying as lower middle class. In decades and centuries past, the American dream was to innovate, explore, take risks and challenge the status quo to fundamentally change the way that business is done in America and around the world. Ambension would most likely never survive in America with the current business model. “There are more efficient ways to produce silk.” “A machine could do the work of three people.” “Why do you farm your own crops and raise your own worms? You can outsource all this for much cheaper!” These would be the common things we would hear when trying to start this silk business in America. But then we would be missing the point. We are encompassing the entire silk value chain within the Ambension business model. In this way, as we grow the industry, we embrace a walang iwanan economy with our entire team, from farmers to design specialists, as partners and not merely employees.

Ambension is not innovating on its own. We are simply creating the environment for rural Filipinos to let their ambition and creativity propel a resurgence of the textile industry in Bulacan – and soon the entire Philippines. My American dream can be realized here in the Philippines. But I can’t do it alone. I need the untapped genius of rural Filipinos to revolutionize how we farm, raise worms, create design innovations and start a successful business driven by profits AND purpose. It is these people, manifested brilliantly within our current Ambension team, that make me confident that, in the near future, the Filipino dream will be much more attractive than the American dream for an entire generation of Filipinos, as it already is for Geno and Nica.

Ambension’s products are featured at the 3rd Annual Social Business Summit at the GK Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan which ends today. Register at www.socialbusinesssummit.net.

SILK ROAD. Newly hatched eri silkworms (top). Fashion with and for a cause (middle left). Ambension’s farm team: Geno, Marlon, Lilibeth, Jenny Ann, Michelle and the author (middle right). Bright white eri silk cocoons look like puffs of cotton (above left). SEED intern Nica demonstrates how to weave eri silk to a group of foreign visitors (above right).


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