He said, she said: 2 tales of social entrepreneurs

Candice Lopez-quimpo
Mark Ruiz and Reese Fernandez are social entrepreneurs changing the world, with hands held together

MARK AND REESE. Husband and wife are doing their bit to make a difference.

MANILA, Philippines – Mark Ruiz is surrounded by women a lot. Strong, opinionated, tough women. And he can’t be happier.

He is one of the co-founders of Hapinoy, which has been making a lot of waves as a successful model for a social enterprise. The venture utilizes an aggregated purchasing power model and introduces innovative distribution systems to benefit independently-owned sari-sari stores.

It’s a lot of big words that try to encapsulate the vision of uplifting poverty through business by moving away from the more traditional dole-out paradigm. Hapinoy’s venture works with an expansive network of sari-sari stores that represents their low-income owners, resulting in better systems and, consequently, larger profit margins

But profit is only one part of the business plan.

“The simplest thing to do,” Mark explains, “is to own and run all of the stores. But that’s not very empowering. So we have to go with this model that works with the nanays, and the nanays own the stores.”

World of Hapinoy

In Hapinoy’s world, the sari-sari owners – the nanays – have a voice and a role in business operations. “The nanays debate with us, argue with us, and complain!” Mark laughs. “But that’s part of it. It means na hindi sila, ‘Sir, please, tulungan nyo na lang kami.’ (Sir, please just help us.) It’s not passive. Too aggressive nga, if you ask me. But then you’ll see that that’s more sustainable, when they have that kind of empowerment. When they know they can take charge of their destiny. And it’s not because Hapinoy is there, or not because Bam (Aquino) is there or Mark is there. The continuance or the growth of the sustainability of your own store is all largely up to you.”

HAPPY PINOYS. That's what they are, thanks to Mark Ruiz.

There are two words that come up often in our conversation: empowerment and sustainability. They’re almost like a mantra. Perhaps, in Mark’s thinking, they sort of are.

The idea of social entrepreneurship, after all, was something Mark didn’t understand until he was elbow deep into it.

When he left the corporate world (he was in Uniliver for seven years) because he “wanted to have a greater impact in the country, as corny as it my sound, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it inside the company. I wanted to do social development work. I also knew that I didn’t want to be a starving social worker, quite frankly. I wanted to have something that was sustainable.”

There’s that word again, and it carries the weight of the push-and-pull that comes when one straddles the world of idealism and the world of practicality.

Mark explains, “A lot of people urge you to follow your heart. But sometimes, following your heart means letting go of your own stability, or your own sustainability. And I thought that wasn’t the model I wanted to follow. I knew I didn’t want to be charity mode lang. I wanted a business. When we merged those two – social mission plus business – people started telling us, ‘Social enterprise yan.’”

Because social entrepreneurship is still a new and evolving idea in the country, finding like-minded collaborators can be difficult. Mark’s exploration of the concept has put him in a position that advocates for the development of more social enterprises in the Philippines.

One of his latest achievements include being named, with Hapinoy business partner Bam Aquino, as Asian Social Entrepreneur of the Year (2011) by the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation for Social Enterprises.

The Hapinoy Program also won the UN’s Project Inspire Award 2011, beating more than 400 other social enterprises from around the world. Project Inspire recognizes efforts towards the empowerment of women.

It’s a thrust Mark is dedicated to. Mark certainly does not shy away from the type. In fact, he is married to one who is redefining, on her own terms, what empowerment means.

Her Story

Reese Fernandez is late. She has sent her apologies. She is still wrapping up her workday.

Mark waits patiently with me, a few doors away from her office. He also sidesteps questions about Reese; it would be better if she tells her story. He does affirm that they met while putting up another social enterprise, Rags2Riches, years ago.

“We started Rags2Riches with a group of young professionals,” Reese shares. “And that’s where –”

“Love blossomed,” Mark interjects.

“The magic happened,” Reese finishes.

Mark and Reese are married.

RICHER NANAYS. Reese's Rags2Riches has empowered women who were once marginalized. 

Rags2Riches

Rags2Riches (RIIR) is another social enterprise that Mark has helped set up, but has since left the day-to-day operations with Reese, while he stayed on as one of its board members.

Like Hapinoy, Rags2Riches works with economically marginalized nanays.

When Reese and her team came into the picture, these nanays were recycling scrap fabric to make rugs. They belong to the community of Payatas, a dumpsite in Manila. The idea was enterprising, but the earnings were negligible.

That changed when Rags2Riches got involved and changed the business practice by eliminating the middlemen and connecting the women with retailers.

“We usually think: machines is equal to efficiency is equal to earning more,” Reese points out.  “But really, when we spread the wealth, get more communities involved, it can make sense for everyone and it can make the world a better place in so many ways.”

Reese’s mission to make the world a better place began early in childhood. Her mother was a missionary and they moved around a lot. Seeing a lot of suffering first hand, Reese knew that she wanted to be an agent of change. Her business degree has helped her create what is now what she calls a dream job.

Making change happen

“Changing the world is idealistic,” admits Reese. “I want to be pragmatic at the same time about it. Using my lifestyle — the way I live —  in order to create change, has been a dream. Creating change and seeing change happen with communities: that’s what I do on a day-to-day basis and not just part-time. It’s very integrated to my lifestyle and it’s definitely a dream come true.”

Rags2Riches is changing perspectives in business and fashion. More than transforming the operations of the nanays’ old ways, RIIR has also elevated the vision. Bringing in the expertise and influence of noted fashion designers — beginning with Rajo Laurel, and lately including names like Amina Aranaz and Oliver Tolentino — R2R is a whole new enterprise.

The products have been transformed into highend designer bags, sold in boutiques and specialty shops. The craftsmanship has been honed in ways that the eco-friendly value of using recycled materials is outshone by the elegance of the end products.

It’s like a fairy tales story with an economic twist, and the nanays are the modern Cinderellas. About 300 women work for Rags2Riches today. They work from their homes, are able to take care of their children, and they get a sizable share of their work’s retail price. Many of them are now part of a cooperative which owns a share in the company.

Reese’s role as godmother is far from unnoticed. One of her biggest accolades came in the form of a Rolex Award for Enterprise: Young Laureates Programme in 2010 for her work with RIIR. It came with a US$50,000 prize for the support of RIIR’s projects.

Their Story

Perhaps it was only natural that Mark and Ruiz would end up marrying each other.

Reese says, “We can talk about the concepts, and the ideals, and the values behind the social entrepreneurship, and changing the world in general. Like how we look at the issues of poverty, the issues of inequality, we are basically on the same wavelength. So we understand each other. We don’t get on each other’s nerves because of our values.”

The couple admits that while they weren’t on the lookout for social entrepreneurs as life partners, their fate has been a happy and welcome development. Life as social entrepreneurs take a lot of their days, requires a strong sense of commitment and benefits from a good dose of faith.

Mark says, “The good thing about loving our work is we don’t mind working all the time!” Reese heartily agrees.

He adds, “It’s different when you’re with a person who understands the troubles you go through. Iba yung social entrepreneur eh. It’s like a 24/7 job. (There are) unique challenges, compared to the traditional enterprises.”

They do issue warnings for couples who find that work and personal lives intersect. Adamantly, they insist on the rule of keeping work out of home, the comfort zone.

Shared values

Mark and Reese also share the need to verbalize the values they both hold dear. For their wedding video, they identified the things that mattered to them most and they go back to those words often.

“She made a drawing about it, but hindi pa na-frame,” Mark shares. They name each item, finishing each other’s sentences: Love of country. Excellence. Integrity. Sense of justice. Fun. Play.

While work hours are prohibited at home, the way of the social enterprise has permeated their personal lives and plans.

Reese sees the connection quite clearly. “I think we’re building, aside from building sustainable business for communities and our future children, we’re also building ourselves to be the best possible parents, who love what they’re doing, who won’t be cranky when they get home, who will have time, you know, it’s like a lifestyle that you’re building.”

Mark sees their children going to good schools, living off a comfortable income, while transforming his social enterprises into “global sources of inspiration. Right now, I have a happy partnership with my wife. I want to be a good husband. To enjoy life. Pursue passions. We’re not filthy rich, but it’s not a concern.”

“And that suits us just fine,” Reese affirms. “We live within our values.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said that “love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” Mark and Reese seem to agree, and even add on to it: they are not just looking in the same direction, they are determinedly charging ahead with their own ventures. – Rappler.com