Message at the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc. (AMCHAM)
General Membership Luncheon Meeting
Marriott Hotel, Pasay City
Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.
Mr. Ebb Hinchcliffe, the Executive Director of AmCham; Mr. Bruce Winton, President of AmCham and General Manager of Marriot Hotel; of course, Ms. Marife Zamora, Chairman of Convergys; the business leaders present; our dear students; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang hapon sa inyong lahat!
Magandang hapon! [laughter] Ebb, don’t tell me you can’t say “Magandang hapon” yet.
When I entered the room, I saw that there are many men in the audience, and I sort of panicked. I was told to speak about women, and women in economics. And of course I’m always biased towards women, but I saw that there are more men than women in the audience, so this is a sort of a warning to all the men here. [laughter]
Thank you very much for your warm welcome and for having me again. I was telling Ebb that I remember attending one of your breakfast sessions before. I am very pleased that in this gathering, you asked me to focus on women issues, a topic that is really very close to my heart. My work as a human rights lawyer for indigent clients, for many years before I entered politics, has led me to defend many women who were victims of all kinds of abuse. Through the years, the surprising reality is that economic empowerment is the most potent tool in protecting women—even more powerful than existing laws against domestic violence and abuse.
On the road pushing for my advocacies, I have worked with and collaborated with many women’s groups—from what we call “laylayan coalitions” to women CEOs—and one thing has stood out: the power dynamics affecting women in all segments of society are not that different. And the things that bind us together and make us stronger, as well as the problems that beset us, are also very, very similar. Whether you are talking about micro- entrepreneurs or well-heeled women executives, you will always come across the difficulties of living in a man’s world—inequality, discrimination, the push and pull of motherhood, among many others. There is also one thing that is common to all women: we are now all living in an age of disruption, technological upheaval, and innovation. And these disruptions are massively changing our conversations.
Data shows that throughout the world, women are getting richer—which is actually a good thing. According to the Boston Consulting Group, private wealth held by women grew from US$34 trillion to $51 trillion between 2010 and 2015. By 2020, women’s wealth is expected to reach $72 trillion. Among the 100 richest individuals in the world, there is a growing number of women, like the owners of L’Oreal, of Apple, and Disney.
In the extreme opposite of the wealth spectrum, many women in the Philippines have recently crossed over from subsistence poverty to above poverty threshold level due to the government’s Pantawid Pamilya Program. In general, Filipinas are learning how to start and run businesses of their own, sustain their career paths, and hold and keep leadership positions, among others.
The world, I believe, is finally embracing the fact that companies earn more and deal better with risks when more women are on board. With more diversity at the highest level of the organization, companies make lesser mistakes. If your board is made up mostly of men, it is very likely that you would be less in tune to the preferences of those who make purchasing and investment decisions. After all, half of the world’s population is female, and the other half is influenced significantly by their wives and their mothers! [laughter]
This dawning era of gender diversity is bound to shake up the power dynamics in any organization. And if we are to maximize the benefits of gender inclusivity, we must understand powerplay the way women do it. Not an easy task, but I assure you, it will be very interesting.
Someone once said—and I’m not sure if you would agree— if women ruled the world, there will be no wars. It’s just that countries will not talk to each other anymore. [laughter] Because women communicate differently from men, and I am looking at the men in this room to see who will roll their eyeballs first.
Never believe that the stereotype … Never believe the stereotype that women are more about feelings than numbers. That is not always true, especially in today’s world, where women are increasingly becoming much better in Math than before. But women do need to say what they mean, and mean what they say. Communication is the nucleus of successful operations. And collaboration is the zeitgeist of the corporate world.
There might come a time when women’s management decisions will be difficult to decode. The temptation to chalk that up to women’s fickle ways will be big, but realize that women essentially decide based on intuition, which can be very hard to explain. But intuition-based management can be very powerful, if used and done the right way.
In the world of investments, it is well-documented that women do better than men. Since they are less risk -takers and less competitive, they do better during times of deep financial crises. As one columnist once wrote: Lehman Brothers would never have happened if it had been Lehman Sisters. [laughter] As a result of these studies and research, many of the world’s best companies are abandoning patriarchal structures into one that is more inclusive and collaborative.
The problem with women, however, is that they say we are power-shy. As Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook said in her best-selling book, “Lean In,” the leadership ambition gap can be an indication of women’s lack of confidence, insecurities, and self-doubt. She said, and I quote: “In afast-moving world, you cannot wait for perfectly tailored positions to open up; instead you must seize the initiative, grab opportunities, and make them work for you. In short, you must lean in to your career, not lean back or stand aside.”
To be very candid with you, this conflict is something that I have personally gone through and continue to go through.
Perhaps some of you know that it was my husband Jesse who was the politician in our family. I met him right after college, when I was just 21, and came in for my first job interview. He was seven years older than I was and he became my first boss. Shortly after that, we got married, and he ran for Mayor of our city, where he served as such for many years.
At that time, I was very young and quite impressionable. I would have been content to just keep house for him. But I guess I was lucky that my husband allowed me to pursue the dreams I had for myself before I met him. So I attended law school in the evenings, while working full-time during the day and raising a family with him. It was not easy, as some of you who might have treaded a similar path would agree.
When I finally became a lawyer, I went straight into alternative lawyering. We were the kind of lawyers who did not wait in airconditioned rooms for our clients, but would trek mountain trails or ride small boats to be with those who had little access to justice. We would teach them their rights, translate laws in the dialect for them, with hopes of empowering them. It was a very difficult life, but it was where I found myself. I spent many years doing that and I thought all along that that was going to be my life’s work.
But then the plane crash happened, and we lost my husband so unexpectedly. I was left alone with three children to raise. It was difficult enough to be both father and mother to them, but the responsibility to continue his legacy also rested on my shoulders.
Even before we could grieve properly, I was prevailed upon to run for a seat in Congress to protect the reforms that he worked his entire life to achieve. I ran and won against a well -entrenched political dynasty, but secure in the thought that I was going to serve only for a short while, and expecting that when things normalize, I can go back to the peace and quiet that was my former life.
How wrong I was, because three years after, I found myself running for the Vice Presidency instead, with all the odds stacked against me. I was in the race with five men, all well-seasoned politicians. It was one of the fiercest battles I ever had to undertake. And now, almost two years after, I still find myself staunchly defending my office from the machinations of power and political ambition of those who want to subvert the will of the people.
It has been almost six years since that fateful plane crash, and I now find myself at the opposite end of the spectrum. There are days when I wonder what I have gotten myself into. Perhaps this is what organizational behavior expert Jo Silvester meant when she wrote that women look at power and politics as the “dark side” of the workplace. But every time I go the poorest communities and see the faces of our people who are pinning their hopes on us, I try to remember that the judicious and responsible use of legitimate power is the one thing that is needed to protect the rights of those who do not have it.
We must always remember who we work for, who we collaborate for, who we wake up in the morning for—those who have less in life and are in critical need of an inclusive environment to survive.
This is the ethos that moves the Office of the Vice President. We are not defending our position simply to seek power or entitlement. We are here to fulfill the hopes of our people who have put their trust on their government.
Our office, as you might know, has one of the smallest budgets in the bureaucracy—traditionally considered a spare tire with no more than ceremonial functions. But I told my staff when I first assumed office that we cannot stand idly by for the rest of our term, just doing the ceremonial functions expected of us. We needed to disrupt and innovate, to find ways of doing more with what little resources we have.
So we launched an anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay, where we positioned ourselves as a sort of a conduit for communities needing help, and organizations and individuals wanting to help. The program seeks to bring together those in the development and corporate sectors, and bridge them with those in the margins of society.
Our only currency is trust, but in the last two years, our interventions in hunger and food security, universal healthcare, public education, rural development, women empowerment, and housing have borne fruit. Since its launch, Angat Buhay has served 99,198 families in 176 areas across the country, through some P182-million worth of projects—thanks in large part to corporate and development partners who have embraced disruption with us.
The idea for our push for women empowerment within Angat Buhay is actually a continuation of the work that I was doing, back when I was a simple lawyer protecting the rights of abused women. I remember that I would wake up in the middle of the night to cries for help from women who needed to be rescued from abusive relationships.
I would stay up with these wounded souls for many sleepless nights, preparing cases against their abusers. But when it was time to go to court, many of them would retreat and would simply go back to their places of abuse, because they were afraid they did not have the means to take care of their children on her own.
The issues of women empowerment and domestic abuse are difficult and multi-faceted, and they require more than one solution. I have said this before, and I will say it again: the best way to empower the Filipina is to provide her with better options for economic growth and participation.
Economic empowerment leads to freedom and equality. When women are given the opportunity to earn decent living and do well in it, they are stronger and more capable of avoiding a future of physical and emotional abuse.
With this realization, we continuously organize women’s groups to focus on entrepreneurship, education, and economic empowerment. We look for financing mechanisms, arrange business mentoring, create linkages between women’s businesses to markets, and strengthen supply chains. We cheer each other on, and create communities of women who embrace and celebrate their newfound power. For each one of you here who has already experienced the empowering influence of economic independence, there might be a hundred—maybe even a thousand more—who hide in the shadows.
Many of you here grapple with issues involving women in the corporate world. The challenge of our office is how to reach out to women who are not as fortunate, and offer help. The work is difficult and the reforms that we need to pursue are very intractable, given that we are fighting decades of high levels of inequality and poverty.
But today, the good side is that we live in very exciting times: never has the world seen more technological innovations and disruptions for fighting poverty than ever before. Fintech companies are sprouting up all over the place, a centralized credit database will finally be in place, and the players in the banking sector themselves are widening their reach to include the poor and the marginalized. We do what we can within the framework of our limited mandate and resources, but there have been headwinds, which inspire us to continue pushing forward.
One of our most inspiring examples of strength is Mocrimah Abdulrahman Mohammad, a 26-year-old aspiring teacher from Barangay Dayawan in Marawi. We visited her community last March 2017, and we discussed how we can help them produce more landap, a traditional textile known for its vibrant and colorful design. But in less than two months, the Marawi siege took place. Mocrimah and her family were among those who were affected by the clash. She, along with many other families, had to immediately evacuate, leaving everything else behind, including their source of livelihood.
Because of their situation, we had to be very creative and find new ways of helping them earn while they were essentially living in a war zone. Fortunately, through the generosity of our partners… our Angat Buhay partners—
Metrobank Foundation and our other Angat Buhay Partners—Mocrimah and some other Marawi women were granted weaving and sewing equipment and capital to start rebuilding their lives.
There is also the group of vegetable farmers of Kiangan in Ifugao. When Typhoon Lawin struck the Cordillera region in 2016, the community went hungry. It was a paradox: How can food producers go hungry? We chose Kiangan as one of our adopted communities and tried to find ways to innovate. We did not want them to fall into the trap of many other small farmers who break their backs tilling their land but, because they do not have access to markets, content themselves with the meager income they get from the scraps paid to them by traders. We connected them with Jollibee Corporation, with the hope that Jollibee can be their market, without them having to go through traders who capitalize on their poverty.
Last January, they received red bell pepper seedlings from Jollibee after undergoing intensive training. By the end of this month, they are expected to deliver to Jollibee their first batch of harvest. And if everything goes well, theirs will be a partnership that will well change their lives for the better.
This inclusive business model is a major disruptor in the agriculture sector, because it marries profit and social relevance, and creates food security for the country at the same time. It all started when Jollibee Group Foundation partnered with the Kalasag farmers of San Jose City in Nueva Ecija, allowing them to buy onions locally instead of importing them like they used to. This model is now in 11 communities in seven provinces, helping 12 farmer groups. Since Jollibee began this innovation in 2009, the farmer cooperatives have delivered 4 million kilos of vegetables to Jollibee, worth more than P160 million.
Lastly, I would like to tell you the story of Bajekjek Merida Orquillas, whom I first met in 2007. She was the youngest Sumilao farmer to march 1,700 kilometers, to Manila from Bukidnon, to fight for the group’s rights to their ancestral land. Bajekjek was then just in Grade 5, and I was still a human rights lawyer who was among those who gave them food and shelter when they passed by our city.
Years after that march, the farmers successfully got back their ancestral land, but they remained poor and hungry. They put in long days and were forced to sell their produce at very low prices. Last year, we linked them with our Angat Buhay partner, Pilipinas Shell Foundation, which taught them modern ways of farming, enabling them to coax more produce out of their land. They now grow more than one crop, and raise livestock in their farms, giving them better earnings and protection from disasters.
And let me close this with one final story—one that I do not get tired of repeating.
A few miles south of Manila, in Northern Palawan, there’s a cluster of very small islands called Agutaya. Agutayacan be reached only after a 10-hour boat ride from Coron. I’m sure you have heard of Coron, or have been there.
About a year ago, I went there with my team. When I got there, I was surprised to see people crying. It turns out that their remote location has made it very difficult for people in government to go to their place, and our visit made them feel that they had not been forgotten.
It was obvious that Agutaya’s beaches could rival the best beaches in the world. But ironically, people there were very poor. There was no electricity anywhere on the island, there was very little source of potable water, and its only school had been ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda— which happened many years ago—but was still dilapidated.
Most of the fishermen who lived there lost their boats during the typhoon, so to be able to fish and earn a living, they had to pay to rent a boat from other fishermen , and wait a long time for their turn. Many of the children were stunted, a condition caused by severe malnutrition, which affects the mind as well as the body, and is irreversible after the first five years of life. And guess what passed off as their toys? Real, live crabs tied to a string.
We met Mildred, a bubbly woman in her 50s, during our first visit . Like most women in the area, Mildred was a farmer by day and a weaver by night. On most evenings, Mildred and her friends would weave hats and baskets under the moonlight, with much difficulty , because the entire island did not have electricity. Hearing her story left us with broken hearts, so we promised to return with help.
Our team has gone back to Agutaya several times since that first visit. We were accompanied by representatives from our partners—like ASA Philippines, who installed 120 solar panels, and Team Energy, who installed 149 solar panels—in lighting up around 400 households in the area.
You can imagine the wonder and excitement in the people’s eyes when solar panels were installed in their houses and they were taught how to maintain them. It was truly a magical moment. After a few months, we were told that women weavers like Mildred started producing more bags and more hats, because they can work with much more ease even after the sun goes down. Their products are now sold in the nearby Amanpulo Resort and other Aman luxury hotels around the world.
But that is not all. Another Angat Buhay partner, the Andres Soriano Foundation, had health caravans, livelihood trainings, and water testing so that a water system level II could be put up as soon as possible. The St. Theresa’s [College] Alumni Association donated motorized boats, for the fishermen who had been unable to replace their boats destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda five years ago. Children’s Hour and Canvass PH, also our Angat Buhay partners, gave books and school kits to children who had never before enjoyed the sight of that many books.
And as for the live crab, it is still a well-loved toy, but the children now also enjoy other educational toys donated by the Philippine Toy Library, which give them a window to the world beyond Agutaya’s beaches.
These are just a few examples of what we are doing in the Office of the Vice President’s anti-poverty program—there are more. And I hope I would be able to invite you to join our Angat Buhay program. Because now, more than ever, we need more partners in nation-building to blaze the trail for the benefit of the last, the least, and the lost.
So, ladies and gentlemen, each one of us holds a key in unlocking a brighter future not just for women, but for every Filipino, which, as many studies show, leads to a more inclusive future. Remember that genuine progress is not just about the creation of wealth; it is also about the ability of organizations to push for reforms that will allow that wealth to trickle down to the poorest of the poor.
So once again, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to present to you our programs, and we look forward to partnerships with many of you.
Mabuhay po kayong lahat!