REESE FERNADEZ-RUIZ: Social Entrepreneur Fights Poverty with Fashion
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!”
Richard Sanz: The Emperor of Iced Tea and Bibingka
Young entrepreneur Richard Sanz started out with nothing but a business concept and his gut feel. Going by personal instinct and intuition has been considered too risky by many business people. In Richard’s case, it has proven him right in the long run, because he now rules one of the most successful food businesses in the country.
He started his venture in 2004. “I was 23 years old when I resigned from my engineering job in a multinational firm. It was a risky decision as I had a family to provide for, but I went ahead because I was young and excited to have my own business.” He remembers his mother making iced tea from tea leaves and water. With that dearly-held childhood memory, Sanz collected Php120,000 worth of capital from personal loans and created Tea Square, the Philippines’ first specialty iced tea brand.The first Tea Square branch was opened at the Alabang Town Center in Muntinlupa City.
“We are confident that through focused development and brand-building, we can get a respectable market share in three to five years,” he shares. Despite the fact that most food businesses rely on the tried-and-tested iced tea prepared from powder, Richard Sanz has successfully popularized a line of all-natural tea beverages. Food Asia Corporation, his company, currently has four brands and 80 retail outlets nationwide, and has experienced revenue growth of over 1,000 percent during the past years.
“My target was the upscale, health-conscious AB market. Since I had a low budget, I developed my own products based on what I felt the market would enjoy. I also designed the cart, and learned how to use Adobe Photoshop to create my company’s logo and marketing materials. The entire setup took two weeks,” Richard narrates.
“Since I only had one employee, I did all the marketing, accounting, and other tasks myself. But it made me so proud to see people frequenting the store–between 50 to 100 customers came each day, probably out of curiosity. The good thing, though, is we were able to translate that curiosity into continuous sales.”
One way to ensure business success is to to educate the public about one’s products. Richarddid taste tests and set up in-mall posters informing the consumer of tea’s health benefits, such as boosting one’s immune system, preventing cancer, and reducing high blood pressure. He also had the creative idea to use ‘LoyalTea’ cardsto attract more customers. Richard believes in excellent customer service. To show his dedication in satisfying customer demand, he printed his personal cellular phone number on all packaging materials. If that isn’t engaging with your market on a very personal, down-to-earth manner, we don’t know what is.
Tea Square has grown to twenty branches nationwide. “I was able to recover my initial investment in only six months and repay my loans within a year,”Sanz proudly says.
In 2006, not wanting to rest on his laurels, Sanz sought to venture into the bibingka business. His idea is so simple and yet quite effective. “My family likes eating bibingka, but sometimes, we can’t finish a whole serving. So I thought of making smaller portions.” He called it as Bibingkinitan!, a combination of‘bibingka’ with ‘balingkinitan’, which means small or petite in Filipino.
At Php20 per piece, Bibingkinitan! rice-flour cakes are accessible to the mass-based broad C market. It has classic and flavored variants of the classic bibingka recipe, including chocolate, cream cheese, and macapuno.The mini-bibingkas sold like hotcakes. According to Richard, “Bibingkinitan! is the country’s leading bibingka chain today in terms of revenue and store number. It’s also our bestselling brand. We now have over 60 Bibingkinitan! branches.”
One would think that another business success would leave an entrepreneur to settle down, but not Richard, who seems to be quite a natural in handling a business venture. One year after Bibingkinitan!’s launch, he opened another upscale outlet called Bibingka Cafe at the Alabang Town Center in December 2007. Its menu consists of bibingka ala mode, champorado, salabat, tsokolate,and barako coffee, all classic Filipino comfort food and beverages,offered at very affordable prices. Not to be stopped, he opens three more branchesin 2008 at SM North EDSA, SM Clark, and SM Mall of Asia.
To further grow his flourishing business empire, Richardcreated another business division. Calling it Fresh-Foods, its first product offerings are ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook frozen foods, like Stuffees stuffed bread and tilapia ala pobre, as well as fresh poultry produce, like fresh white eggs, red duck eggs, and fresh chicken.
SM Supermarket was impressed with the company’s products and marketing efforts, and offered the opportunity for Richard to develop a brand of consumer food products for the broad C market. These products are now being distributed in major SM supermarkets and hypermarkets nationwide.
Richard notes that FreshFoods’s competition is much more formidable than those of their retail brands, but he remains confident about it. “We are confident that through focused development and brand-building, we can get a respectable market share in three to five years.”
FoodAsia presently has a workforce of almost 100 employees and occupies a 100square meter office in Muntinlupa City. Both Tea Square and Bibingkinitan! have begun franchising, with its combined 20 franchised outlets comprising roughly 25 percent of the current total stores. “We want to establish a presence in all towns in the Philippines,” Sanz says.
In today’s globally-oriented world, an entrepreneur should be able to think in more global perspective. “Innovation is part of our strategy. The product itself is an innovation because we changed the landscape for bibingka. I want to make Bibingkinitan a global brand. All the other food from other countries like Italy, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand are available locally but we have to establish distribution of Filipino food abroad. My dream is to make this Philippine delicacy known globally through Bibingkinitan. We have inquiries in Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong today. Hopefully it’s a first step,” the founder of the country’s first bibingka empire says.