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8 small and young enterprises operating on small budgets and big hearts

81Photos by Jovel Lorenzo

Special thanks to Marriott Hotel Manila

Small business with big visions, and an even bigger heart—these are the stories behind Panorama’s special feature on start-ups with a cause. For these entrepreneurs, earning is the not the only drive of these personal ventures.

Helping people, touching lives, and inspiring the young and young at heart—these businesses show us the things that really matter.


Joanne Endaya & Maan Sicamjoma

Happy Helpers: Happy Life

There’s a very noble idea behind the concept of Happy Helpers. Apart from providing part time services of home cleaning and assistance to households looking for someone who can work around the house, Happy Helpers aim to portray household personnel or ‘‘helpers’’ as professionals who take pride in what they do, and for clients to treat them as specialists in their field.

“We really want to uplift the image of helpers through what we’re doing. We want to present our happy helpers as someone they can rely on to provide professional services in their homes,” says Maan Sicam, one of the founders of Happy Helpers.

The almost two-year-old business is considered the only professional home cleaning services that is also a social enterprise. Most of their professional cleaning ladies are part of the Gawad Kalinga communities in Taguig, mothers who take care of their family full time, but still want to do something to help augment their finances.

The idea started when Sicam and partner Joanne Endaya went home after living overseas for almost a decade. Finding themselves full time moms in the Philippines, they realized that they could make do without a full time help. “We were the ones who came from abroad and yet our friends asked us if we knew anyone who could work as helper. That’s when we thought there’s a gap in the market, and we explored the idea of part-time help as a business model,” said Sicam.

Maan and Jo approached Gawad Kalinga through the Gkonomics initiative to see if they can offer jobs to promote their business. The partnership proved to be successful, and from five helpers, they now have 17 happy helpers under their helm.happy helper

Happy Helpers offer services such as deep cleaning, post construction, moving in service, upholstery and carpet cleaning, and a subscription package by which regular customers avail of their services in fixed schedules.

Most of the services are personalized, and they make use of cleaning items and solutions from Messy Bessy, as well as cleaning materials made exclusive for Happy Helpers. “Another aspect of our social enterprise is making use of environment friendly products,” said Endaya.

“Also, aside from the schedule of the client, we also take into consideration the schedule of our ladies. Some can work only in the morning, or only once a week, those things are being considered,” Jo said.

Currently, the company has happy helpers from five out of eight GK communities and they are hiring more. Helpers undergo training not only for the betterment of their skills, but for work ethics and values formation.

Maan and Jo believe that Happy Helpers is not just a business venture. It also promises to keep both clients and helpers happy.

“At the end of the day, we know that we’re not just getting into a business. We are going in someone’s home, someone’s safe haven and we want to keep that trust,” said Maan. “We also learned that in this type of business it’s not just about earning, what’s important as well is having the patience to understand the people you work with. We have learned to open our eyes not just on the business but on the lives of our happy helpers.” (Mae Lorraine Lorenzo)


Lui Castaneda and Janlee Dungcaluijan
Castro PR: When going straight won’t get you where you need to go

When Martin Castañeda started Castro & Associates Public Relations with friends whose last names formed the moniker Castro in 2011, he probably did not imagine what it would stand for today.

Today, in Book 2 of the PR firm, Martin is managing director and leads the company with both Janlee Dungca, senior PR manager, and Lui Castañeda who manages their accounts.

Janlee shares, “We pride ourselves on being an LGBT company now. Castro for us refers to Castro St., San Francisco where the gay pride parade started. We’re open to hiring members of the LGBT community and we support LGBT causes.” Janlee and Lui consider this branding as crucial.

“We haven’t communicated to everyone we are an LGBT company but we want to launch ourselves as that,” says Janlee. “It’s more identification, it’s part of our DNA and an advantage,” adds Lui. This and the fact that Castro is a boutique firm set them apart from the rest.

“Because we’re lean, we manage everyone and we’re hands-on,” says Janlee. “We have the upper hand in lifestyle and beauty industries because most of our friends are from there,” adds Lui. “Because of our size we are flexible, in terms of pricing, in terms of people.In a lot of what we do, the friendship card plays a role even in business transactions.”castro

The two consider their networks and circle of friends in publishing and brands as treasures. Lui shares the networks and friendships they’ve nurtured became the lifeblood of the business. Because of their positioning, Janlee is hopeful they can debunk myths about transgenders perceived to just be parloristas or sex workers. “There are more options,” she says. “We recently hired a new trans who just graduated and came from the call center industry, but we presented this opportunity to learn and for us to mentor someone who is outside our circle.”

Lui and Janlee are at the forefront of dialogues on LGBTs in the workplace through the work they do in Castro. The pair have complementary advice for anyone wishing to start a business.

Lui reveals, “Not everything is straightforward. My advice is for them to allow themselves to see the possibilities and different ways to get there, to be open to detours, to rerouting.” Janlee concludes that it’s time for the younger Millennials to prove they are not flighty.

“Try and stick around amid, difficulties,” she says. “A lot of the younger generation now are self-entitled, once they encounter hardship they can’t put up with, they quit. They have to work hard. There are multi-slashers, but they should take time to think what it is they really want to do and focus.” (Kaye Estoista-Koo)


Mariel San Agustin: Domesticity Starts At Home


For Mariel San Agustin, starting Domesticity wasn’t something that happened right away.

The Business and Communications Ateneo graduate worked for five years in a home retail shop where she was the merchandising manager for local products. It was here, attending trade shows and meeting local suppliers, that Mariel got the seed for Domesticity.mariel

“I felt there was so much talent,” she says. After gaining the experience she felt she needed, she decided to put up her own business in Negros Occidental, where her family is from.

She was excited and had positive plans for her business: handicrafts and home products she would design and produce. “I came in with a really big plan of setting up a business and providing employment to the families of sugar laborers who have been working for our family for several years.”

She did not expect the initial hardship of adjusting to the way of life in the province which she, having grown up and studied in Manila, simply wasn’t used to. The hesitation of the people to her business opened her eyes. “When you introduce something new to a community, especially if they have been used to sugar farming all their lives and their old ways, they will resist it, resisting change at the start because of doubts in their mind,” she says. “I didn’t know I also had to change the mindset.”

But Mariel felt that with a little more prodding they would catch on, because she knew they wanted something better but were afraid to try something new because they liked their status quo. Eight of the 14 years have been an uphill climb. “Many years ago out of frustration, I wanted to quit the business,” she recalls. “This was before Domesticity became a social enterprise, and it was just a handicrafts business.”

She decided to take a trip to France, which ultimately refocused everything for her. The partnership with Gawad Kalinga also happened around this time. Through GKonomics, Domesticity transformed into a social enterprise. Mariel’s family donated some of its land in Negros Occidental to GK and through this partnership, they were able to provide proper seminars for the people, and slowly the workers were being motivated, their work ethic was being developed and changed.


Mariel says the transformation made positive changes in the lives of her 20 loyal employees and their attitude towards work, so much so that they are still with her to this day. “Domesticity is not only a company that produces gifts and products for the home, but we became a social enterprise that gives back to every single person behind a Domesticity product,” she says.

They do so by giving part of their profit toward building more homes in more GK villages, holding seminars, giving free community clinic health and nutrition services through Gawad Kalusugan, and providing free daycare and preschool through Sibol.

Now that Domesticity is a full-blown social enterprise, Mariel believes that with any business, there will always be a social aspect. “You just have to decide what your priorities are:  Do you want to make more money or do you want to make a bigger impact in people’s lives? I found my calling and without the people who have been working with me, I don’t think Domesticity would still be alive. I think it’s really the people you employ who are the backbone of the business.” (Kaye Estoista-Koo)


Rose Isada Cabrera and Marilyn Salvacion
Mabuhay Restop: Promoting Cultural Heroism


Rose Isada Cabrera and Marilyn Salvacion have one of the most successful stories between mentor and apprentice: Rose, the supportive teacher, Marilyn, the passionate student.

The end product, or the start of their great relationship at the very least, is Mabuhay Restop, a unique one-stop shop that combines food, arts, culture, and entertainment to promote Philippine tourism.

“I got to travel all over the country that I only used to dream of. It was more than I could ever imagine when I got this job, and I am forever grateful. This is the fulfillment of my dreams,”says Marilyn, a resident of Smokey Mountain who used to be one of the volunteers for Mabuhay Restop.roma

Today, she is not only the manager of this charming restaurant/tourist spot/events place but also part owner—all thanks to Rose, who is also the social enterprise director and one of the founders of Gkonomics, the enterprise arm of Gawad Kalinga.

Mabuhay Restop, located in the iconic Rizal Park, is a “shop for visitors in the Philippines, where guests get to sample Philippine culture and enjoy exceptional Philippine experiences in a one-stop destination through local home-style dishes, cultural shows with a modern twist, and eye-opening social tours.“The establishment also promotes Filipino artworks, and community merchandise made by Gawad Kalinga communities.

What’s beautiful about this business venture, is that the team running Mabuhay Restop are mostly volunteers and residents of Gawad Kalinga, people closest to the heart of Rose Cabrera, a lawyer by profession who was based in the US for more than 20 years. “Living in the US for more than half my life, I still look forward to coming home and I felt there was a dearth of places where you can celebrate Philippine arts and culture. I set up Mabuhay Restop to promote cultural heroism, where people can enjoy and experience how it is to be a Filipino.”

Cultural heroism encompasses so many things, but basically it’s a chance to recognize Pinoy culture at the same time being able to make a difference in the life of others. Mabuhay Restop’s partnership with Gawad Kalinga do just that.

Aside from the restaurant staff, members of the Mabuhay Performing Arts Group who perform regularly are also from GK communities, and they are being trained by notable groups such as the Bayanihan Folkloric Dance Company, Ballet Philippines, Nestor U. Torre, Ryan Cayabyab and the Ryan Cayabyab Singers, and Professor Rico Toledo.

This partnership has proven to be truly successful, with some of the members of their performing group have become scholars majoring in Theater Arts at prestigious MINT College.

“Our main goal is quite simple. We want to promote Filipino culture at the same time facilitate opportunities where we can help,” said Rose. (Mae Lorraine Lorenzo)


Alex Fong
Akaba: Weaving Traditionalex

Twenty-two-year-old Alex Fong looks fresh out of college. Looks, however, can be deceiving. Alex is already the CFO and business development manager of a successful social enterprise—Akaba, a fashion bag brand conceptualized to embrace a deep social impact on Philippine communities.

It started out as a school project at Ateneo De Manila University. Friends Alex; EJ Mariano, creative director; and Daniel Lumain, social enterprise director found it was fulfilling to be doing something that allowed them to earn, at the same time help the marginalized sectors of society.

“It was a big risk for us. We left lucrative careers, a family business, because we wanted to do something we believed in. It was hard, specially for someone like me who came from a line of Chinese businessmen,” he says.

“Akaba was founded on years of research, community development work, and creative collaboration between industry professionals, aspiring social entrepreneurs, and designers from all over the world. We take pride in the quality of our products and the social impact that we provide, especially for our weaving communities and manufacturing partners.”

The company has partnered with various weaving communities throughout the Philippines and they show support by using these weaves as the main element of the bags they create—casual bags and accessories sold online, in specialty shops, and even exported abroad.

In Ilocos Norte, for example, the company has spearheaded a livelihood program that educates residents of Gawad Kalinga Namnama Village in the art of inabel.akaba

The group has also partnered with master loom weaver Charito Carriaga and the Philippine Textile Research Institute to teach the GK community to create fabric for them to be used in the bags. The outcomes are travel bags, duffel bags, and totes with intricate designs that are truly Filipino.

Akaba also supports existing weaving communities in Ilocos Norte, Isabela, Oriental Mindoro, Zamboanga, Basilan, and Sulu through fair trade—with the company directly sourcing from the weavers and buying them at more than market price to encourage communities to preserve their traditional weave. This assures the continuity of their colorful future. (Mae Lorraine Lorenzo)

bsp;such as the Bayanihan Folkloric Dance Company, Ballet Philippines, Nestor U. Torre, Ryan Cayabyab and the Ryan Cayabyab Singers, and Professor Rico Toledo.

This partnership has proven to be truly successful, with some of the members of their performing group have become scholars majoring in Theater Arts at prestigious MINT College.

“Our main goal is quite simple. We want to promote Filipino culture at the same time facilitate opportunities where we can help,” said Rose. (Mae Lorraine Lorenzo)


Dr. Rogel Sese
Regulus Space Tech: A future in space


A career in space science a.k.a “how to be an astronaut,” would seem like a farfetched dream for young dreamers in the country. But Dr. Rogel Mari Sese aims to change all that, and let dreamers, young and old, believe that there’s indeed an opportunity to be found in space. His brave venture, Regulus Space Tech, the only start-up space technology and research business in the Philippines, is a proof of this seemingly impossible journey.Dr Rogel

One of the only three astrophysicists in the Philippines, Dr. Sese is quite active in promoting space science education and development in the country, spearheading various initiatives that tackle and promote the intriguing and mysterious world of space. These include projects such as the Universe Awareness Program and the Galileo Teacher Training Program. His area of expertise includes the following: astrophysical instrumentation, stellar astrophysics, nano-satellite development and, of course, space science in the academe.

“It’s quite hard to discuss what we really do, in terms of business. But it’s an interesting field with so much potential, which allows me and my company to work with various sectors both private and with the government,” Dr. Sese said.

“It’s an exciting business where we push for commercial and space science application. This includes development of local space technology, part of which is complementary tech such as UAVS (unmanned area vehicles) or drones, and of course, provide consultancy to the government in terms of developing our space capabilities.”

Aside from development of tech, Dr. Sese is very much involved in Space Science Ed program, partnering with Diliman Preparatory School wherein his company teaches and encourages students from preschool to high school when it comes to space science.

“We basically pique their interest and show them endless possibilities of a career in space science,” he said.

Dr. Sese finds the most fulfillment in this part of his business but aside from this, he shares that his team also works on various projects with the government such as developing drones for mapping and surveillance. Want to feel what it’s like to float in space? Regulus Space Tech is working on that!

“It’s more of an attraction, but it’ll also be an educational experience. Soon!”

And though challenging, Dr. Sese finds so much fulfillment in what he does, especially knowing that he is able to instill inspiration among kids who really enjoy Science. “That’s where I see the CSR of my company. We try to make the young ones interested in something worthwhile.” (Mae Lorraine Lorenzo)


Tessa Nieto Villalon
Florence Fling: From fun to fulltimetessa

What started out as something just for fun turned into a full-blown store. Tessa Nieto-Villalon, a former model, wanted to spend more time with her husband as they were newly married. Her job at a local fashion company kept her away from their home most of the day, so she decided to try putting up a business online. “I wanted to do something at home, something with fashion, something that would allow me to create,” she says. “I value time and with this job I’ll be able to have control of that.”

Fashion has always been close to Tessa’s heart, having modeled full-time before and setting up her home base in Singapore.

“I felt there was something lacking in the market, something that’s a little bit more classic with a touch of fun, something I liked that I couldn’t find.” Whenever Tessa would shop for clothes, she always found herself disappointed with the options. “Opening my closet would always be a difficult time for me,” she avers. “I’m not picky, and I wanted good quality, timeless pieces that I can mix and match again and again.”

It helped that she finished a Masters Degree in Florence where she studied Fashion Merchandising and Management in 2007. From her desire to create timeless classic pieces and have fun while at it, Florence Fling was born in 2011.

Tessa recalls, “It was just me, just a few pieces. I was doing everything, I had my sowing outsourced, but the raw materials, design, I had to do everything, and it was a very organic growth.”

She started selling to friends and family, and word of mouth spread. She would get feedback on the pieces because she was interacting directly with her first set of customers.Fling

As Florence Fling grew, the same quality control people who started with her, to the assistant who deliver house to house, to the sales ladies who tended sales at the bazaars—this same team stayed with Tessa.

She shares, “Part of the goal was not just for the brand to grow but for the people with us to grow as well.”

They went on Facebook and started reaching more clients. Tessa then went commercial and consigned her items in Crossings Department Store. Her team are still with Florence Fling manning their stand-alone store located in Megamall.

“I used to have two to three sewers, now I have 10,” she says. Tessa is glad that with Florence Fling’s growth, she is able to give back to the people who have journeyed with her. She would tell her sewers, “It’s up to you what cost you’ll give me, I am fair and in return I want good quality.”

Tessa hopes to have at least two more stand-alone stores in the next two years.

“Stand-alone operations is really tough, I am still learning,” she avers. “I want to branch out to the provinces and other countries.”

Tessa, who is a self-taught artist, could not have imagined that what started as something fun at home would turn into Florence Fling today. A maternity line is in the horizon. Accessories are in the offing, and a line for shoes will be launched next summer.

To those who want to get into retail, she says, “It’s really blood, sweat and tears. You have to be strong because there are times you will make mistakes, it could be a few times or all the time but you have to be strong, be resilient. As long as you believe in your brand, don’t stop.” (Kaye Estoista-Koo)


Guia Bulanhagui
Cocosuelo: Waste product to sole comfortguia

Sometimes, a college thesis can turn into a lifelong business.

Guia Bulanhagui and her four Ateneo classmates had to come up with a business product centered on solving a social problem and they decided on waste management when they discovered that the top agricultural waste comes from coconut husks.

Guia wanted to sell clothes or shoes. After researching, they found a way to use coconut coir, the processed fiber from coconut husks, as an insole of footwear, and named their brand Coconelas.

“It’s cushiony, it has spaces so airy, anti-bacterial, odor-resistant, overwhelming with the many benefits,” she says.

The group discovered that Pilipinas Eco Fiber manufactures coir. They could now make prototypes. By the summer of 2013, the group decided to join GKonomics’ “Be The Next GKonomist,” which was on its second run looking for social entrepreneurs.

They simply thought of it as a good avenue to sell shoes outside Ateneo.

“It was basically an experiment for us, and we did not expect to win because there were a lot of other social entrepreneurs who had good ideas,” adds Guia.

The group ended up getting angel investors Bong and Rose Cabrera. “Our advantage was that we worked on it during our thesis, we had prototypes, and we were more ready to start the business than the others who simply had business ideas,” Guia says.

The group continued until after their graduation in 2014. They partnered with GK community Christ the King where the nanays would sew and make the packaging of canvas bags. The group’s intention was to transfer the shoemaking skills to the

“I don’t know if it’s a Millennial thing when, after you graduate, you’re unsure about what you really want to do, so we all went to full-time or corporate jobs,” she says. “It was overwhelming for us as fresh graduates so we decided to stop the business.”

Yet even in the corporate world, Guia felt something was missing.

“After more than a year working, I felt there was something. I think it’s good and bad that I got to try the social entrepreneur world because I had something to compare to,”

Guia recalls. She soon initiated a meeting of the original fibe.

“Initially everyone was yeah, let’s start again, but after a few months, the level of commitment to the business was not the same. I knew if we continued this way it would be difficult in the long run. In the end, only Lia Chua and I wanted to continue.”

Coconelas became Cocosuelo and the girls are now in production of their first run to be launched in November.

After finding out that the local shoe industry isn’t faring well, the girls partnered with local artisans from Marikina and Laguna.

“We’re also trying to enliven the shoe industry, and it’s difficult now because of China-made products,” Guia says she wouldn’t exchange social entrepreneurship for anything: “There’s really something different when you know your business is helping other people; it gives you more drive to keep going.”

The break period and eventual dismantling of the original group was also necessary. “We have no regrets because if I didn’t work corporate, I would have always wondered, what if,” says Guia. Her parents also weren’t on board when she decided to pursue Cocosuelo again.

“They would motivate me but you feel they are not 100 percent there,” she says. “Recently, I noticed my parents had a change of heart. They see I have been putting a lot of time and effort and I tell them how fulfilling it is for me to do the business.”

Cocosuelo will also focus on export because the girls would like to meet the demand for locally-made craft products. Her advice to young entrepreneurs? “Whatever you want to do, try it. If it’s not for you, it’s easy to do something else. What’s worse is not trying.” (Kaye Estoista-Koo)