Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, the co-founder of fashion line Rags2Riches, used to have a clear-cut idea for an ideal career: graduate with the highest honors, get a high-paying job, do “amazing” things at work, get a master’s degree in business administration, retire, create a business, and when she became rich enough, give to charity. Although there is nothing wrong with following this path, Reese felt that it was not what she really wanted to do. Her calling actually started with a pet peeve. Reese is bothered by social inequality. She hates seeing people work hard their whole lives, only to end up at a dead end because they did not have the same opportunities that more privileged people have. Such “irritations”, according toher, can help people find their calling. Whether they are against involuntary hunger, racism, and other injustices, fighting for social justice can become a life profession. It was on a volunteering trip in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija that made Reece decide what she will choose as a life profession. She met some of people there who have stayed hopeful despite crippling poverty and lack of opportunities. Reece spent Sundays helping build homes for landslide survivors, which resulted to an entire village of 100 new houses for several affected families. After college graduation, she would visitthe depressed areas in Payatas with some young professionals. That is where she met ‘Ate Ning’, a trash collector for 14 years and a mother of five children. The woman collected scraps of cloth and weave the scraps of cloth she found into foot rugs. She would sell them everyday butshe earned less than Php20 a day despite her hard work. “When I saw this, I got really mad,” Reece remembers. Scrap cloth handwoven by women from indigent communities were normally used for ordinary rugsfor doorways and bathroom floors of Filipino homes. Rags2Richesthought that these very same materials can be used in making luxury bags, which can be marketed to the high fashionmarket. The company has elevated the status of these textiles. They have also uplifted the lives of the people who had previously been selling these items at Php1 to Php2 a piece, earning a miserable Php10 to Php16 a day. Reecethought that there is something wrong with the fact that poor people who work hard earn so very little from their efforts, while there are people who easily get money through corrupt means. Believing that she has to correct this wrong, she formed Rags2Riches with several business partners. Their business model is simple but meaningful: ‘people, profit, planet, and positive influence’.
The company was put together in 2007, and it partners with artisans from all over the country, from the “mountains” of Payatas to the mountains of southern Philippines, giving them not just skills-training, but lessons in health, finances, and well-being, so they can help themselves out of poverty. The families involved were not just able to support their families, they also take pride in their work.TV personalities Bianca Gonzalez, Ces Drilon, and Liz Uy are seen wearing and using their products. Rajo Laurel, Amina Aranaz-Aluna, Oliver Tolentino, Olivia d’Aboville, and other designers are some of those who collaborated with Reese and her business partners in Rags2Riches. The company’s designer bags are a combination of fabric, leather, and metal. The designs are also reminders of the amazing stories about the people that the brand wanted to empower.
Reece says that it was a simple solution to a social problem, and an effectiveway to lift Filipinos out of poverty. The business has enabled the artisans to access the fashion bags market. In six years, they were able to uplift the lives of 900 artisans, distributing the latter’s work through 70 retail outlets in the country and in the international market. The mother of five,‘Ate Ning’, is now an empowered community member who trains others to weave scrap cloth and make fashion bags from them. Reese, as the company’s CEO,shares gladly that she wakes up every Monday morning happy to work in the company that she helped build. Not all people can say the same for themselves.Which a shame, according to the young social entrepreneur, as working days take up the majority of the week. Reece wanted not to be just successful, but to become significant in changing people’s lives for the better. As a young girl, she remembers going around different churches with her mother, a Catholic missionary worker. She encountered street children in the parishes, who became her friends. They played together and shared their dreams with oneanother. Many of them wanted to become doctors, lawyers, and teachers when they grow up.That one little girl eventually became a social entrepreneur, while the world lost potential doctors, lawyers, and teachers.
Reece doesn’t think she was better than them, but only that she had better opportunities. She has her own amazing story to share: a group of anonymous people, probably involved in the parishes her mother was working in, gave her a scholarship so that she could attend the prestigious Ateneo de Manila University. To this day, she has no idea who they are, but she is thankful nonetheless. Now, it’s her turn to do the same thing to those less fortunate. “No matter what we do, our decisions will affect someone in a positive or negative way,” she says. Asked what advice she would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs, she says, “First of all, it is good to know that it is possible to be profitable and socially relevant at the same time. I would like to share to future social entrepreneurs that yes, it is possible. It is a viable life and career option for those who want to have a business and help others at the same time. If you do decide to take it on, the result could be world-changing! It may be daunting to start though so let me share with you some simple steps and tips. First, try to find your passion, then get together with a few like-minded friends, commit to some milestones (do not just have a vision, have a plan), and never, ever give up. It is not easy, but it is so worth it!”