[Executive Edge] Empowering artisans in the Philippines

The story of Rags 2 Riches (or R2R for short) is as much about the business itself as it is about the two people who founded the company.

“R2R started because of an irritation and a social problem,” Reese Fernandez-Ruiz said. “The co-founders (including Mark and myself) were very disturbed with the unfair trade and social injustice in the community where we started: Payatas.”

The Mark she mentions above is Mark Ruiz, who also co-founded Hapinoy with (now senator) Bam Aquino, and is fittingly the subject of the other Executive Edge feature this weekend. The two Ruiz’s are – you guessed it – husband and wife.

But the two started R2R as friends, as Ruiz notes, “from an irritation and disturbance, we were able to discover something really beautiful. We discovered the amazing skills of urban artisans, their hopeful spirit, and their deep desire to lift themselves, their families, and communities out of poverty. So what started as anger (with the injustices) turned into inspiration and love for our artisans and country (and each other!).”

THE WINNING TEAM. Reese Fernandez-Ruiz (extreme left) with her R2R team

THE WINNING TEAM.

Reese Fernandez-Ruiz (extreme left) with her R2R team

While most people would want to classify R2R as a social enterprise, Ruiz demures from the term. “I prefer to just say that R2R is a fashion and design house empowering community artisans. We provide secure livelihood, access to design, access to market, and access to quality of life programs for our artisans,” Ruiz said.

She believes this value extends far beyond the artisans themselves, too. “Our advocates, team members, and partners, all get to contribute to creating positive impact through design,” she said. “Our customers all get beautiful products they would want to walk around with and use, while supporting lives.”

Ruiz takes most pride in the fact that R2R can possibly inspire people to think in terms of the social impact that they can have on others. “Best of all, I believe more people from around the world can explore how they too can build their existing or future businesses to become catalysts of positive change and inclusive development (I think this has already started and R2R is just one of many examples).”

Given that R2R was one of the first companies in the Philippines specifically founded to make a positive impact, Ruiz has seen how the social entrepreneurial landscape has changed over time. “When we started, social entrepreneurship was on the fringe and it was probably considered a ‘third way,” Ruiz said. “Today, it is more of a philosophy, a way of life and business.”

She thinks the ascension of social entrepreneurship in the Philippines shows just how interconnected we all are. “I think the growth of social enterprises in the country for the past few years, is an indicator of the even bigger communal realization that we are all connected and that our decisions are powerful and could impact the world in a positive way.”

As she navigates this landscape, Ruiz has her husband Mark to share notes with and ideate new strategies. She says they do this often as it is inevitable in their line of work. Still, they like to set a work-life balance. “We realized that we should still maintain our personal lives and try not to talk about the operations side of work during dates or the like,” Ruiz said, adding, “But we love talking about the principles of what we do!”

In describing the challenges that she’s faced to take R2R to where it is today, Ruiz singles out one challenge in particular. “All of the challenges, as they were happening, were truly challenging,” she said. “There were usual challenges such as managing inventory, cash flow, raising more capital, opening new markets, and building capacity.”

She continued, “But one particular challenge that I remember so well is the challenge of gaining the trust of our community artisans. Our artisans are at the heart of what we do and they are the ones who weave our products with great care and dedication.”

What interactions with her artisans give her the most pride? Ruiz said there are a lot of great experiences, so it’s difficult to choose just one.

She elaborated, “We have great moments almost daily when artisans come to us with inputs of their own, when some of our community members learn new things (like making fancy excel files, using our ERP, making their own powerpoint presentations, etc.), when our team members volunteer to do extra things and go the extra mile because they believe in what we do, when customers visit us and make the effort to get to know the artisan who made their product (since we put the names of the artisans on a card with each product), and when we see artisans and advocates getting together, talking to each other, and building relationships.”

Given her success and experience with scaling R2R, does Ruiz want to eventually become a serial social entrepreneur? She says she hyperventilates a little thinking of the prospect. “I’m very passionate and very focused and once I set my mind on something, I don’t really add anything else to my plate,” she said.

However, she conceded, “I am not saying ‘never’ but I don’t see myself as a serial social entrepreneur just yet. Perhaps in the future, when R2R outgrows me, I’ll look for something similar (also in sustainable design and artisan empowerment), focus on that, and grow it. For now, I am quite happy where I am.”

As successful as R2R has been, Ruiz still has ambitions for the company, most of which relate to representing the talent of the Philippines on a global scale. “As for the long-term goals for R2R, I can see Rags2Riches in the (very) near future as the leading fashion and design house empowering community artisans, that represents the Philippines in the best way possible,” Ruiz said, adding, “We are a country of greatness, innovation, resilience, and love for one another. Rags2Riches will be honored to show these values to the world.” – Rappler.com