The Philippines: Introducing Big Spoons

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I think I’ve put off writing this blog about my time in the Philippines simply because I knew I’d struggle to put it into words. Little could I have ever imagined how transformative this journey would be not only for the students and Filipino community members I worked with but also for me.

I came across this Big Spoons opportunity by chance through a Facebook post by a friend. Apparently, Shanghai-based Ryan Kretch and Peter MacFarlane, entrepreneurs and social enterprise consultants, were looking for international professionals to help kickstart and co-found a social enterprise consultancy specializing in bootcamps and programs for aspiring entrepreneur university students around the world. Fast forward a month and I was Manila-bound to meet my new Big Spoons teammates from the US, UK, Chile, and Australia.

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In line with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and partnering with the British Council and De La Salle University, a Catholic Ivy League-esque university in the Philippines, we’d be running a three-week boot camp to develop four student-led social enterprises. After settling into our Malate skyscraper condo digs in Manila, we hit the ground running with the Lasallian Social Enterprise and Economic Development team. The process involved daily collaboration with the Lasallian Social Enterprise Bootcamp team members – selected students, social enterprise committee members, faculty members, local pre-selected community members from nearby neighborhoods, and us as Big Spoons international mentors and consultants. My Big Spoons colleagues and I spread out across the four social enterprises based on our own interests with my pick being the education-focused Busog Iskolar initiative!

My new Busog Iskolar team included two impressive student fellows, another student partner they pulled in, three female SME-owning community members, one faculty mentor, and myself. We clicked interpersonally from the start and as we progressed through the gamified, task-based workshops, we bonded even more as a team, understanding one another and the valuable perspectives and expertise we all brought individually to the table. Over the course of the three weeks, based on our experience and expertise, my fellow Big Spoons teammates and I took turns leading a plethora of workshops on business model design, minimum viable product, prototyping, testing, design thinking, social business logistics, branding, storytelling pitching, and project management among others.

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As time went on, the social enterprise teams moved at different paces, evolved their products, and even changed names. For example, my Busog Iskolar team, dedicated to selling snacks to raise money for food vouchers to keep hungry kids in school, opted to rebrand as “Takamin”, a play on a Filipino word in multiple ways, that more clearly indicated we were selling traditional, healthy Filipino snacks. Furthermore, having a multifunctional, multifaceted team attempting to reduce school dropouts and increase school retention in Manila made our creativity flow more easily. If one team member suggested a tactic or strategy implementation, other team members were there to provide input representing their stakeholder group and the consequences of that specific approach, thus at times leading to new ideas and solutions.

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We weren’t constantly in workshops, seminars, and team brainstorming session as part of the bootcamp though. The LSEED team lead and his staff had also helped arrange a variety of relevant speakers for us throughout the journey. Our bootcamp family heard from social entrepreneurs Prim Paypon of The Dream Project PH, Lynn Pinugu of Mano Amiga, Erika Ng Wong of Karabella, and Bernadee Uy of Habi Footwear along with Gomer Padong of the Philippine Social Enterprise Network. Each speaker contributed invaluable words of wisdom for our young aspiring student entrepreneurs and shared fascinating insight into how they brought their dream to fruition.

Our group also greatly benefited from our off-De La Salle campus adventures. Early on, our community members and LSEED staff invited us to visit their homes and ‘sari-sari’ small convenience stories in their local neighborhoods. It was incredibly meaningful to be able to see and understand their every day environments and challenges and of course, experience the legendary Fiipino hospitality! Towards the end of the program, we ventured a few hours outside of the city to Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm, a community of people living and growing together through a cluster of social enterprises. In a nutshell, Gawad Kalinga recruits high-potential youth from marginalized communities, gives them to the tools to build their own socially-minded businesses, and then empowers them to do so within the farm. It’s also home to a mini-hotel, excellent farm-to-table restaurant, and conference center. We took a tour, met a few young people in the program, sampled some candy ice, indulged in a traditional Filipino buffet, splashed in the pool, and were privileged to watch a local entrepreneur give us a cooking demonstration.

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While our social enterprise bootcamp tasks fell primarily during regular work hours, simultaneously, I found myself bonding with my Big Spoons colleagues, coincidently all male! Admittedly, it was a bit tricky as times as we were all based in different time zones at home and were juggling responsibilities remotely, but we managed to find plenty of time to bond as a team as well. When President Duterte announced a surprise 5-day holiday during our stay, one colleague’s Filipino friend organized and took us up to Baler, the surfing capital of the Philippines. We chowed down on some epic seafood, walked along a hanging bridge, went surfing, tried Tanduay, climbed among the massive Millennium Tree’s vines, hiked up to and went swimming in a waterfall, and wolfed down BBQ grilled in a revamped VW Beetle. We all went out together a few times each week whether it was an Impact Hub FU Night, eating adobo at Bamboo Garden down the street, or having a few San Migs and Red Horses at a local bar.

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In addition to getting to know my Big Spoons peers, my time implementing the bootcamp in Manila brought new meaningful relationships and experiences with those in my Takamin team and the other social enterprise groups. Upon learning that I’d been wanting to learn how to fire a gun safely and properly, a Filipino colleague offered that her husband, a certified firearm instructor and head of their local shooting association, could give me an impromptu lesson. A few weeks later, I was down in a Manila suburb with them learning how to shoot and learning about their family. Another faculty member who became a friend invited me to her jiu jitsu class for my very first experience with martial arts. My two Takamin student fellows took me to a local cafe to try a special kind of pork and knowing I loved Japanese food, one of them even recommended a place where I could try pesto ramen! When they heard I was dying to ride in a jeepney (google it!), a couple of the exemplary student fellows took me one afternoon for a couple rides in one to another part of town. We walked around the historic Intramuros neighborhood and enjoyed sunset drinks on a rooftop bar with 360 degree views of Manila. One night, several members of the entire group took us to the fish market where they picked out of fish to be cooked for our dinner just as we began a memorable multicultural session of K-TV (karaoke). I am still overwhelmed by my new Filipino family’s kindness and generosity. Spoiler alert: Yes, I cried when saying my goodbyes.

Of course, in the midst of all that fun, all four social enterprises were humming along. My Takamin group distributed online surveys to gauge customer motivations and received additional feedback from customers who tried their Takamin snacks, prepared by one of our community mothers. The Katad group learned how to stitch and craft their own leather laptop cases. The Casalo mobile app/healthy eating group partnered with their first local chef. The Lumina solar providers group created a pilot program. With the high failure rate among all entrepreneurial ventures, if just one group succeeds, I think we all win!

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On top of these quick wins throughout the three weeks, the teams developed their business models through the social business model canvas, came up with rough financial figures, determined their branding strategies, outlined key stakeholder groups, cultivated their product offerings, and created plans of action. The next, not final, step would be presenting and pitching these social enterprises to successful social entrepreneurs and to De La Salle University bigwigs, such as the President, Dean of the Business School, and Chancellor in order to gain seed capital to fund their burgeoning enterprises. Catering to their respective audiences, the teams prepared a different presentation for each session and blew everyone away with their preparation, innovation, creativity, thoughtfulness, and emotional intelligence. As one of the Big Spoons international mentors and consultants, it was beyond rewarding to see how far these teams had all come. In the end, each team received 30,000 Pesos in funding from the university.

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With the bootcamp all wrapped up, it was beginning to set in that I’d be flying out of Manila in only a few hours. In spending all day, four days a week with my team and living and working with my Big Spoons colleagues, I knew the ‘see you laters’ weren’t going to be easy. In thinking about the community mothers in my Takamin group, I cried tears of laughter when one later threw a joke back at me that I had told earlier, I smiled when one of them would always ask, “Miss Amelia, can I ask you a personal question?,” and I was grateful when they surprised me with small tokens and snacks to eat from their hometown. I constantly joked that they would need to give me a list of all the foods they kept telling me to try in the Philippines. By the end of the bootcamp, I was recommending Korean dramas to one and another one inviting me to visit her island paradise of a hometown. But it wasn’t just the community mothers in my group who had a positive impact on me, the entire group inspired me to remember all of the positive work I can still do after leaving the Philippines.

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As I write this, Takamin has completed an even more specific cost analysis and come up with an indicative budget. They’ll go through an accounting department orientation at the university in the coming weeks and further develop their enterprise timeline. I’m also proud to say that they created a brief to distribute to potential partners, such as Barako Haus, a small traditional Filipino coffeehouse chain that has already offered to collaborate with the team. While I am not there to push them on in person, I am able to ask powerful questions and to help hold them accountable from afar. At the same time, I remain incredibly grateful for the entire LSEED family and my “Big Spoons brothers”.

What’s next for Big Spoons? Although we’ve dispersed to our various corners of the world – Palawan, Shanghai, London, and for me, soon-to-be Bishkek, we are currently looking to develop new social enterprise consultancy programs with universities around the globe – whether they’re in Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Vietnam, or even here in the US. I’m particularly keen on exploring opportunities that will support, foster, and mentor female entrepreneurs from emerging economies. Please don’t hesitate to pass along the names of any organizations or universities you reckon would make a good match.

In the meantime, look out for more from Big Spoons and the Philippines! In a place where President Duterte seems to make the most news these days, there are countless people working tirelessly to make a better Philippines by reducing poverty – including my “Filipino grandma”, who repeatedly reminded me to “get married within the next 10 years before her US visa runs out” so she can attend the wedding 😉

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