Rags2Riches helping empower women in the Philippines

Philippines social entrepreneur Therese Fernandez-Ruiz openly confesses that before her first visit, her sum knowledge about New Zealand was “cows, Lorde, Xero, and Lord of the Rings”. That was all to change.

Therese: “One of our favourite quotes that we came up with is this: ‘If it is not inclusive, it is not progress’."

Therese was one of eight leading social entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia to spend a week in New Zealand in 2017 learning about the country and engaging with local counterparts.

The trip was part of the Foundation’s ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative (ASEAN YBLI), designed to build connections between the next generation of entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia and New Zealand.

“It was such a rich and enriching experience and community,” she says. “Being part of the ASAEAN YIBLI is eye-opening and heart-opening. It’s made me realise that even if we are from different parts of the world, we are still part of one community.”

Therese having coffee with fellow Southeast Asian entrepreneurs and Foundation staff

Therese (far left) having coffee with fellow Southeast Asian entrepreneurs and Foundation staff while visiting New Zealand in 2017

Therese is the founding partner of Rags2Riches, a fashion and design house empowering community artisans from impoverished communities in Patayas, Quezon City in the Philippines.

She says most organisations marketing and selling cottage industry products are aggregators of goods which are exported. Once abroad they must compete with craft products from around the world and without a recognised brand it’s difficult to sustain sales.

“Rags2Riches is different in that it has an end-to-end inclusive supply chain with community training and product design expertise,” Therese explains. “It’s quite rare to have all of these in one enterprise but we got to this point because of years of trying to fill up the gaps – and then realising that we should do more than just filling up the gaps.

“Sure, we can link communities to markets, we can provide design expertise to these communities, and we can provide some aid in some form,” she says.

“However, each of these initiatives if done in silos will not be sustainable. We realised that we needed to also connect the dots and maintain this connection for the long-term.”

Therese holding one of Rags2Riches recycled handbags

Rags2Riches partners with local artisans across the Philippines to create eco-ethical fashion and home accessories out of up-cycled cloth

Connecting the dots means that Rags2Riches not only pays fair wages to its artisan suppliers, it also provides opportunities to earn and learn through training or full-time employment. Training includes business development, values formation, financial literacy, nutrition and skills development.

“We’ve been around for over a decade, so we have hundreds of stories to share,” Therese says. "There are artisans who have been able to support their children throughout high school and even college or university. There are artisans who’ve been able to build their homes, purchase motorcycles, and fund side businesses as well.

“We have about 200 artisans and all their stories of transformation and going beyond survival are amazing and inspiring. But the common factor we realised is that all our artisans are now more confident about their skills and their capacity to achieve.” 

A group shot of women sitting at sewing table and other staff standing behind them

Therese says the ethos of Rags2Riches is about empowering a community of artisans

Before Rag2Riches came into being in 2007, the women artisans were crafting rugs from cloth scraps foraged from the Quezon City dump site. Rags2Riches worked with them to improve their simple basket weave in order to make a range of high quality and high value bags.

Today the company recycles over 800 tonnes of factory scrap material as well as using indigenous fabrics sourced from communities from all over the Philippines. Rags2Riches is also preparing the company and its corporate structure to welcome artisan shareholders. 

“In the beginning, the problems were supply and artisan training. But now, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are more challenged to learn fast, pivot some of our products, and use our existing skills and assets to continue creating opportunities for our artisans,” Therese says. 

 “One of our favourite quotes that we came up with is this: ‘If it is not inclusive, it is not progress’. Our vision for Rags2Riches is to become a truly inclusive design house empowering community artisans and co-owned by community artisans.

“This means that we need to build this company to become more sustainable, more intentional, and sustainably scalable.” 

Back in 2017 Therese was pondering the possibility of New Zealand-based entrepreneurs collaborating with Rags2Riches and its community artisans. 

“We’ve all been in touch with each other, but we have not yet collaborated,” she admits. “It was challenging to think of collaboration opportunities and actually act on them because of our distance. But I would definitely love to work with New Zealanders soon, maybe even especially now when the world is going through this very challenging time.

“It may be a good time to reconnect and start conversations or even hold virtual conferences with New Zealand-based entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs from all over Asia.” 

Reese will be speaking as part of a Festival for the Future event bringing together social entrepreneurs from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines to discuss sustainability and Southeast Asia as a hub of innovation and creativity.