Careers as a social entrepreneur – the dreams and reality
The co-founder of Filipino social
enterprise Rags2Riches compares her
interview answers when starting out in
2007 to her feelings now
The below interview with Reese Fernandez first published on theguardian.com in Jan, 2015.
I was initially charmed by the term "social entrepreneurship". Sure, I knew it had the proverbial thorns, but I was focused on the roses. After all, it merged the concepts of social cause and business. The term itself seemed like I could hit two birds with one stone, allowing me to have my cake and eat it too (guilt free!), earning a living while doing something I would do for free. Today, I couldn't say I was completely misguided. I would still do what I do for free, and I’d probably even pay to continue doing what I’m doing. But this love for the work is no longer one that is giddy and romantic. It is steady, grounded and hard working.
Seven years ago, a group of idealistic young professionals started R2R (Rags2Riches). I was privileged and honoured to be part of this group. We started in Payatas, one of the Philippines’ largest urban poor communities. An informal cottage industry of rug-weavers grew from the many artisans, mostly women, who developed a means to earn a living by recycling factory end-cuts and rejects, into hand-woven foot rugs. Over time, the industry became exploited by a series of middlemen who controlled both the supply of scrap fabric and the artisans’ access to the market, which created an unfair value chain for the artisans who earned only pennies per finished product, or less than 13p per day.
We built R2R to become a fashion and design house that would not only integrate these artisans into the supply chain, but also be their long-term enterprise partners. R2R is now seven years old, and we have trained 900 artisans, partnered with the most celebrated designers of the Philippines, and distribute in 12 cities from all over the world. Our social enterprise has also gained some awards and recognition locally and globally. Just by looking at where we started and where we are now, it is perhaps easy to assume that we have somehow "made it". Perhaps we'd proven that social entrepreneurship is fun, exciting and romantic. If I didn’t keep all of my journal entries, cold emails, and some interviews, I could fool myself just by looking at R2R from the outside.
So during the last few days of 2014, I unearthed some of my earlier interviews with the media and some researchers, to not just help me reflect and put our current stage in perspective, but to hopefully share some of the lessons I have learned personally and the lessons we have learned as a social enterprise, to aspiring young social entrepreneurs. I still get at least one email a day from a hopeful and optimistic young social entrepreneur who wants me to answer a lot of starting-up questions. And honestly, I still don't have all the answers. What I do have is the same set of questions (they really tend to be the same ones even after all these years) I have been asked or I asked myself throughout these years. The differences of my answers 2007 and today in 2015 could give you some insights on the journey of a social entrepreneur and the evolution of our social enterprise.
Social enterprises evolve over time… but what will never change is the reason we get up every single day
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST BENEFIT OF R2R TO YOUR PARTNER ARTISANS?
2007 answer: We provide our artisans the opportunity to earn additional income as well as giving them training for values formation, and artisanal and business skills.
2015 answer: Today, our artisans get beyond just additional income. Over the years, we have realised that higher income does not necessarily lead to higher quality of life. To provide opportunities for our artisans and their families to truly get out and stay out of poverty, we collaborated with several local institutions and developed our Quality of Life Programme. This includes a savings plan, micro-insurance, financial literacy, values formation and business development training.
What we've learned: Poverty is a complicated problem that needs a multi-disciplinary and collaborative solution. Social enterprises that are trying to solve the problem of poverty should be able to connect the larger dots, rather than just the local ones within the specific industries or areas they are participating in. In building R2R, we realised that even if our goal was to provide livelihood, we are actually part of the bigger solution to solve the problem of poverty in our country. Our recognition of this fact required us to connect and collaborate with other social enterprises, government agencies, corporations and foundations. As social entrepreneurs, we are caught between wanting to do everything and needing to focus on a solution that works. Working on the art of collaboration is invaluable for us to truly be part of the bigger, longer-term solution. After all, the long-lasting, sustainable solution is the one that matters.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN R2R TODAY?
2007 answer: The biggest challenge of R2R is building trust with our community of artisans.
2015 answer: Cash flow, inventory, logistics, HR, scaling, raising equity
What we’ve learned: Don’t get me wrong, we are still working on building that trust with our community artisans. Trust, after all, is a never-ending process. However, from the beginning, we realised that if we did not address our trust issues, we could not move on. Our community artisans come from some of the poorest areas of our country and they have been through a lot. They have been cheated on and neglected for most of their lives and yet they emerged strong, resilient and determined. In order to build trust in such a wounded community, we had to leave behind our business books, and listen intently with no entitlement. It took a good three years to establish the basis of this trust and as I’ve said, we continue to work on it. Today, we have a different set of challenges, some of which we had ever since we started, that are the same as the challenges of any other business. These challenges have existed in varying degrees, since the beginning of R2R, but the challenge of building trust was the pre-requisite before we could face any other challenge.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU, AND KEEPS YOU GOING?
2007 answer: When the going gets tough we always remember our "why": The main reason why we are doing this in the first place. Our answer to that “why” goes beyond the artisans we are in partnership with now. We think of them as family and we would do anything for family. We believe that the decisions we make today to care more and share more will reverberate to our bigger community, country and world. Quite simply, we want to actively contribute to a better world and future. And we believe we must, because we can.
2015 answer: Same as above.
What we’ve learned: Social enterprises evolve over time. Our problems, people, processes, and maybe even business models, will change. But what will never change is the reason we get up every single day, the reason that keeps us up at night, and the reason that keeps us going. I have learned that an enduring why is the key to never giving up. That why cannot and should not be easily diminished or forgotten. The quality of this reason will determine the evolution of a social enterprise from one that is romantic, to one that is grounded and long-lasting. This why, could indeed, change the world.
Reese Fernandez is the cofounder of social enterprise Rags2Riches. She was made a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Young Laureate in 2010 for her work supporting the environment.