A thesis project that grew into a booming business

Ezra Ferraz
A thesis project that grew into a booming business
Janine Chiong turned her thesis project into a viable business, and she wants to show you how you can do the same

MANILA, Philippines – Brands such as TOMs Shoes and Warby Parker have popularized socially conscious clothing in the United States and abroad. This concept, however, is much less known in the Philippines.

Janine Chiong, the founder of Habi Footwear, wants to change all that.

Habi Footwear began as Chiong’s thesis project at Ateneo de Manila University. She said, “During my senior year, my groupmates (now business partners – Paola Savillo and Bernadee Uy) and I were assigned to a community in Q.C. for our social entrepreneurship thesis project.”

“This is where we met our Habi Footwear community moms,” Chiong said. “We saw the need to aid in the lack of livelihood opportunities and observed that even the rag weavers earn so little despite of the extensive labor.”

Chiong continued, “We wanted to help the mothers grow out of their lack of empowerment and productivity, and so the opportunity of improving their rag weaving skills came about. They soon became our main suppliers for the woven upcycled cloth that we use for our shoes, making them earn at least four times what they were paid for before.”

Despite this early success, Chiong waited 6 months after graduating from Ateneo to make the leap into managing Habi Footwear full-time. It was then that she began to transform Habi Footwear into the social enterprise it is today.

Refining the concept

Many businesses, no doubt, have availed of the “socially conscious” tag as merely a marketing gimmick for their products. Chiong later describes this as getting “stuck with a charity complex.” In sharp contrast, Chiong makes it a point to distinguish Habi Footwear first and foremost through the quality, craftsmanship, and style of her shoes; the social good comes second.

She said, “We don’t outright say that our products have a social benefit to avoid pity-buying so the shoes mainly appeal due to its style and comfort. It’s always an added plus for our customers upon knowing its social and environmental value.”

That added value is not merely an after-thought, however – Habi Footwear is really built from the bottom up in a way that benefits “people, planet, and profit.” As said earlier, Chiong is supplied woven upcycled cloth from a community of underprivileged women in Quezon City.

Of partnering with groups like them, Chiong said, “We value the ingenuity of Filipino communities around the Philippines. They have so much talent but lack the opportunities to showcase them. We want to highlight their talents and skills and assure that they can also live better lives through their own merits. We’ve been partnered with our community for almost two years now, developing skills and aiding in financial development through livelihood opportunities.”

Habi footwear serves the “planet” because most, if not all, of the materials that go into making a pair of their shoes are materials that most other people (and businesses!) would discard as waste. In making use of them, Chiong “upcycles” them. What’s most interesting here is that many of these materials are quintessentially Filipino.

Chiong said, “We continue to find ways to make our product good for the environment through making use of upcycled woven cloth (made from scraps or retaso) as our main material. We are also developing several other materials to be incorporated in our shoes (i.e recycled rubber, abaca fiber, flour sacks, etc)”

The “profit” aspect is where things get tricky. Chiong discussed this issue at length: “Doing business with communities should not be seen as exploitative. Rather, it is in the main essence of a social enterprise to make sure that they do not use their community partners as marketing tools, but rather as a significant part of their value chain.”

She continued, “We always maintain a partner-supplier mentality with our members, they are equal to us and we don’t see them as employees. That being said, we do business and work together for mutual benefits.”

Chiong appealed to other business people to buy into this thinking as well. “It’s time for business and social development to work together because it’s not enough to just earn money by ourselves, it’s equally fulfilling and lucrative to work together with artisans, communities, etc. Products or services should be seen as opportunities to develop other people.”

“There are so many marginalized sectors and industries In the Philippines and all over the world,” she went on. “Why not find a way to bridge the gap and solve the problems that have been plaguing us? That’s what SE’s are trying to do, and hopefully in time, this will be the framework of other businesses.”

Remaining true to who you are

Chiong admitted candidly that there have been opportunities to focus exclusively on “profit,” at the cost of not being true to their original vision. She said, “The biggest challenge is being a “social enterprise” in the truest sense of the word. Social enterprises deal with a lot of stakeholders (customers, investors, government, communities, the environment, etc.) who have different needs.”

She explained, “Whenever we are faced with a problem that threatens to compromise our being a “social enterprise” (i.g not paying the right taxes, paying less wages to our communities, dealing with suppliers who subscontract), we go back and ask ourselves why we are doing this in the first place. This has guided us in deciding which path to take next.”

In making the “right” business decisions, Chiong and her team are guided both by their original vision as well as their vision for what Habi Footwear can be. Uy said, “Habi Footwear is just the start. Our company, “Sosyal Revolution, Inc.” has the vision of revolutionizing the fashion world by using sustainable and Filipino materials from all around the country.

“We want to join the other SEs who have conquered the market here and abroad. Moreover, we want Habi and our other lines to be a household name that is accessible to the lower end market, proving that you don’t have to be rich to be socially conscious.”

In making Habi Footwear as successful as it can be, Chiong hopes to provide a business model for entrepreneurs across all industries, not just fashion. She said, “Hopefully, we can also be one of the pioneers for social entrepreneurship to become the framework for doing business. That’s the big dream – that eventually, people will stop thinking of doing SE as just an option, but as the main goal for business development.”

For this to happen, Chiong thinks that the focus of social enterprises should be on business development. She said, “I think another challenge for SE’s is to grow out of marketing just because of its social relevance. It’s nice to slowly inject the idea but it shouldn’t be all about the story. It’s best to look at your SE as something that aspires to grow big not just through its social cause, but also through its strength as a whole.”

She advised, “Always offer something new and never get stuck with a charity complex. Look at your community not as people you help because they need you, but as your partners in business that you seek to develop alongside with. Show that it’s just as serious about business as everyone else is, just with a good amount of solidarity and heart through offering the best.”

Chiong concluded her advice in adding, “That way, your business becomes more sustainable and can prove that it can compete effectively without having to “guilt people with problems” to patronize you.”

If enough social enterprises take their business development more seriously, Chiong thinks that consumers will catch on. She said, “I believe that observing the consumer behavior now, people are becoming wiser in their choices in our society, and in time, it will be a natural decision to buy responsibly.”

For more information on Habi Footwear, feel free to check out their website at www.habifootwear.com or follow them at twitter at @walkhabi. – Rappler.com

Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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