MANILA, Philippines – A quick scan through the Cambio Market website tells you that it’s not your usual online shop.
‘Ethical jewelry,’ ‘fair trade greeting cards,’ and ‘accessories that give’ – these are just some of the many unique products you can buy on this relatively new shop offering handmade, ethically-sourced products with real social impact.
When you buy from Cambio Market, you also contribute to various social causes, such as wildlife conservation and helping victims of abuses, among others.
Buying one of their handcrafted greeting cards, for example, will help support Good Paper, a social enterprise in the Philippines that produces greeting cards made by female victims of human trafficking. By purchasing these cards, you don’t only get to channel your love to your family and friends; you also help provide income to these women as they try to stand up again.
This is because all the products Cambio Market sells come from different social enterprises around the world, carefully filtered to make sure that every worker and artisan involved in the production are paid properly, that only sustainable materials are used, and that they all have a unique and positive social impact.
Bringing these “socially responsible” products to the North American market is no easy task. But you’d be surprised to learn that only two people are behind this start-up.
For Gelaine Santiago and Jerome Gagnon-Voyer, a couple from Canada, this is a passion project brought about by their desire to help people.
The two are no strangers to volunteer work. Gelaine and Jerome both met on AIESEC, an international non-governmental organization for young leaders and cross-cultural exchange experiences, and have been doing volunteer work regularly even while working.
Before starting Cambio, Gelaine worked in the human resources department of a financial company while Jerome was an IT consultant working with various non-profit organizations.
The idea for Cambio Market, according to the couple, was sparked by their 2012 visit to the Philippines.
Gelaine, who was born to Filipino parents but grew up in Canada, shared that it was her first visit to her home country after leaving when she was only 2 years old.
“Before, I wasn’t really connected with the Filipino culture. I grew up in a Filipino household but I never really had a very strong connection with it until we came back in 2012,” said Gelaine.
But the trip turned out to be an enlightening experience for the couple, especially for Gelaine who was finally discovering a side of her that she had not been in touch with for so long.
“We had a wonderful time in the Philippines and we realized there’s so much I am missing out on by not getting in touch with my cultural roots and a part of my identity,” she shared.
During the trip, the couple started researching more about the country and eventually came across various social enterprises in the Philippines.
“We were very impressed with the social enterprise landscape in the Philippines… The culture of social enterprise in the Philippines is very strong,” said Jerome.
This led to their first passion project: Choose Social.
Choose Social is a directory of various social enterprises in the Philippines that teaches people about social entrepreneurship and shares stories of people in the field.
The idea came after their survey of the social enterprise landscape in the Philippines showed a big problem: Information on these companies was scarce to come by, or worse, outdated.
The project, according to Jerome, was one they did as a hobby.
Eventually, people started inquiring about the products they were describing on their website. That led to their idea for a shop that would help increase the reach of these social enterprises.
In October 2015, Cambio Market was born.
The initial response to their venture, according to Jerome, went beyond their expectations. But just like other start-ups, getting their name out there remains the biggest challenge for Gelaine and Jerome.
“It’s a very challenging field – e-commerce in general. There’s so much competition out there, it’s very difficult to attract the right people. We’ve been satisfied with the response but we are hoping for way, way higher,” said Jerome.
Gelaine shares the same sentiments.
“Marketing has been a big challenge – getting people to know you. The online component is super challenging. It’s really challenging to get people into your website and increasing traffic… Even understanding customers,” she said.
With only the two of them on board, another challenge is research. Gelaine and Jerome research every single partner they work with and every product they sell.
“The products need to look a certain way – they should be modern and appeal to the market here in North America, but at the same time, having ethical business practices and giving back to social cause,” Gelaine shared.
Want to be a social entrepreneur?
For those who also want to be social entrepreneurs, Gelaine said it’s important that you first start to understand the problems you want to solve.
“You really need to understand what’s the problem you’re trying to address. To be successful, you really need to know why you’re doing it. Once you understand the problem you’re trying to address, you can now develop all the solutions,” she said.
Gelaine also said that you should avoid getting stuck on just one type of product or one type of business model.
“If you’re trying to bring change and have a real social impact, you need to be willing to throw everything out when you realize it’s not working and be willing to make changes, however drastic… You can’t be stuck in one direction.”
Jerome on the other hand emphasizes the importance of getting some experience first by learning from other social entrepreneurs.
“Start by learing from existing social entrepreneurs. Go meet with them, work with them, learn what they do. It’s one thing to start a social enterprise but you need some experience, you need some business experience. A lot of people try to start on their own and give up in the end,” he shared.
Social enterprise sure is a tough road for entrepreneurs to take, but one that’s definitely worth it.
So the next time you feel like redecorating your house, treating yourself with a cute new accessory, or sending your special someone an equally special gift, consider getting them from Cambio Market and help social enterprises grow. – Rappler.com
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