Eco-fashion heroine

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By Prim Paypon

Imagineer

Friday, April 11, 2014


FOR many Filipinos, Payatas in Quezon City is just one of the biggest receptacles of garbage in the country. The situation has worsened that for years, it became the grand poster of hopelessness and poverty.

But for more than half a million Filipinos, it is the only place they can call home: where children, with their makeshift rakes, brave the deathly noxious air of garbage to find sellable scraps for a few pennies to get by; where mothers weave rugs from fabric scraps for a few pennies to have food on the table.

When no one was noticing the growing but exploited cottage industry of rug-weaving in Payatas, one young, beautiful and generous Filipina co-founded a movement that has forever changed the value of a rag; trained more than 800 mothers to be artisans across 21 communities in Metro Manila, and gave glory and pride to the Philippines by beautifully creating riches out of the rags.

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And her story is as exquisite as the handcrafted bags her social enterprise creates; her soul as great, innovative, resilient and loving as how she describes the Philippines.

One of the most celebrated social entrepreneurs in the world, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz is the founder-partner and current CEO of Rags2Riches, a social enterprise which created its eco-ethical business model in Payatas in 2007, and forged artistic collaboration between the artisan communities and the country’s top fashion designers like Rajo Laurel, Amina Aranaz-Alunan and Oliver Tolentino.

In the years when traditional business models were proliferating, she was challenging the status quo to create one of the earliest business model canvasses for a local social enterprise, to give artisan communities fair access to market and formal economy for long-term financial wellness and sustainability.

Seven years after, she is the young face of the thriving Philippine social entrepreneurship who has launched more than a thousand statement bags and purses, but always comes home with new, inspiring accolades for the country that celebrate the local artisan communities.

From being the Young Social Entrepreneur of the World by the International Youth Foundation in 2008 to Rolex Young Laureate by Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2010 to Entrepreneur of the Year by the World Entrepreneurship Forum in 2011 to Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2012 to last year’s Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year, almost all the highest award programs and institutions for social enterprise took notice of her rags-to-riches leadership and management.

Despite the uncertainty of the future, she always has that feeling of certainty because she was blessed to know her personal mission early in life, formed by several buckets of life moments and small disturbances.

At the age of 3, she was going around different churches with her freelance missionary worker mother.

“As a result, very early on, I understood that there was no such thing as divisions or walls between people. I was friends with the grandchildren of rich businessmen and politicians, and I was friends with street children as well. We were all children. But today, some of us had better lives and others are still in poverty. But our situations were not because we are better or worse than others. These are because of the lack of opportunities for those who were born poor to dream bigger and better,” she wrote in an email interview for The Dream Project PH (Editor’s note: The writer is founder of The Dream Project PH.)

Because of this early exposure to poverty and inequality, Reese developed an immense empathy for people who experience hunger, pain, and hopelessness. At some points in her life, she experienced these, too.

With the generous support of her family, and generous scholarship grants, she attended the Ateneo de Manila University.

“Because I have been blessed, I made it a point to give back every time, and think about the consequences of my actions,” she shared.

As one of the first volunteers of Gawad Kalinga for Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija, she spent around nine consecutive weekends there during her Junior year, and found herself connected with her roots for servant leadership.

It is the same brand of leadership that allowed her to foster trust in the artisan communities in Payatas, and build Rags2Riches as a proud Filipino global lifestyle brand.

“Our end goal is to lift Filipino artisans out of poverty, and in effect, rebuild the Philippines into the creative, resilient, rich, and sustainable country that it really is. There are a lot of Filipino artisans in the Philippines who are able and willing to train on skills that will enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. Rags2Riches is a platform to empower them to do so because the greatest asset of our country is our people,” Reese said.

While the Philippine economy continues to grow and improve, the incremental success of Rags2Riches to bring Filipino artisans out of poverty has been inspiring Filipino youth and communities to serve the country and the world as social entrepreneurs.

Despite the inspiring and globally recognized success of Rags2Riches, not an item – handbag, purse, home accessory – is less of a statement or conversation piece.

Each is a story piece which comes with tag personally signed by the community artisan who carefully and uniquely handmade the product with the “highest regard for quality and artisan craft.”

A servant leader for the rest of her life, she says she continues to be bold and generous with her dreams because what she dreams for herself are the same things she dreams for Rags2Riches and the Philippines.

“Dream big, but not just for yourself, but for others. Because if your dream involves your country and your world, more people can and will share it with you. A shared dream can become a shared reality,” Reese adds.

With a global Filipino like Reese and a global lifestyle brand like Rags2Riches, the Philippines as a country of greatness, innovation, resilience and love for one another is now becoming an inspiring reality.

An eco-fashion heroine whose youth has been dedicated in service to country, her story is a tale that heroes are born to make others heroes themselves.

Because at 28, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz has proven to the world that the Filipinos are worth weaving for.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on April 11, 2014.

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