Janine Chiong (extreme right), like so many of our featured heroines, is a social entrepreneur. She, together with two other friends, Paola Savillo and Bernadee Uy, turned Habi from a thesis project into a full-fledged footwear company.

It should seem overwhelming considering that Janine is currently the only full-time manager around (P.S. She also helps out in the family business), but when we met with her at a coffee shop near Habi’s Katipunan showroom, we found someone completely at ease with herself (and, of course, someone wearing a pair of well-loved Habi slip-ons).

Get to know more about this goal-oriented go-getter below:

Female Network (FN): Could you tell us more about Habi and how it started?

Janine Chiong (JC): "It actually started as a thesis project in Ateneo, so when we were in senior year, all the management students were required to put up their own enterprises. In our case, we joined the special social entrep track, so through that track, we were 21 students, we were assigned to different communities."

"We were assigned to Commonwealth so basically, we didn’t start out with an idea. We wanted to start out muna with what the community knows how to do, so we spent three days in an immersion to somehow gauge kung ano 'yung skills na pwede naming i-capitalize."

"We found out that a lot of the mothers knew how to weave pero ang catch is they only get paid P10 to P15 for a big rag floormat that you buy. And we felt na parang masyado atang madaya ‘yon, hindi siya fair trade given that it’s actually very difficult to do kaya makikita mo na ’yung ibang mga kamay nila ay nanginginig-nginig na kasi mabusisi talag siya, so we found that there’s already a bag company that does it."

"We didn’t want to copy another company because you don’t want to go head to head naman with the biggest one around, so we decided what kind or product ang pwedeng magamit using ang retaso, so why not shoes? "

"Because shoes are very customizable, you can play around with different designs, we have the classic espradille. We figured wala pang Filipino brand that offers the same quality and comfort, so we decided for shoes. We consulted with a few designers. How can we play around with retaso because it’s thick eh. We started selling within the community, around November 2011. But it wasn’t until we got funding for a competition that we went full scale. "


FN: Have you always been inclined to volunteer work?

JC: "Personally, yes! Actually when when I joined the class, I was the only one from my group of friends na talagang pinalitan ko ‘yung buong schedule ko just to be able to take that track. SE (Social Entrepreneurship) kasi is very difficult kasi aside from problems internally, you can deal pa with problems sa community, so sabay-sabay siya. Eh ako talaga, I’m really inclined to work pro-poor development. It’s a passion of mine. I was a member of Musmos organization. It’s a holistic development for street kids, urban pool social in general. I just took it a step further, from kids to mother"s.

FN: Do you have any tips for those who want to start their own social enterprise?

JC: "Ako talaga ‘yung tip ko is start with something organic to the community you want to partner with or never ever force something sa isang group na alam mong hindi nila willingly tatanggapin like you can have the best idea in the world, best business concept, but ask yourself if it’s really something that would help a community or something that would only help you."

"Be ready to really suffer kasi, I mean, I’ll be honest, it’s not easy kasi a lot of communities, it’s really hard to gain their trust. Talagang manliligaw ka kasi there was a time na every week bumibisita kami kasi you have to show them that you’re serious kasi ang daming beses na rin silang naloloko."

"Approach a church, approach the city hall, they’d be willing, approach me [laughs] because I’m connected with the city hall. They have a roster of communities waiting for entrepreneurs. I’ll be honest, talagang ang dami pa."

FN: What are your plans for the future?

JC: "We want to start making our other side of operations more fair trade through putting up our own facility. Limited resources pa pero we’re already scanning cheaper houses in Marikina to start a facility. We start with five shoemakers, so ‘yun ‘yung pre-occupied kami ngayon. We’re looking for that kasi para alam mo ‘yon, the whole system of Habi is really very fair trade, not oppressing in any way. Although siyempre hindi naman namin lahat kaya ‘yon na gawin at the same time. Ang hirap din kas ‘yung may factory ka na, may community ka pa pero it’s a good challenge since we wanna prove to Filipinos and even the rest of the world that it’s possible na i-highlight 'yung ingenuity of communities."

(Photos courtesy of Habi)

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