Starting a business is never easy, but what about starting a social enterprise? Gelaine Santiago, founder of Cambio & Co, an ethical fashion company, is focused on creating a sustainable livelihood for artisans in the Philippines (her home country) while celebrating Filipino craftsmanship, culture and history. Tune in to our latest podcast episode to hear more on Gelaine’s journey as a woman entrepreneur of colour, reconnecting to one’s culture and history, and having courage to rise above the discouragements and criticism.
Sufyan: We live in a world where every voice is unique. The Acend Together podcast taps into these voices in open dialogues that cover personal and professional journeys, the power of human potential and emerging trends, and ideas within our communities. This is your co-host, Sufyan Shaikh, and I’m joined by Gelaine Santiago, co-founder of Cambio & Co, an eCommerce fashion company that sells accessories, designed and handcrafted by Filipino artisans to customers in Canada, the US, and elsewhere on the globe. Gelaine, thank you so much for joining us today.
Gelaine: Thank you for having me.
Sufyan: Tell us a little bit more about your company and what makes it so unique.
Gelaine: So Cambio & Co, we are an ethical fashion company that work specifically with artisans in Philippines. We created Cambio & Co specifically to create sustainable livelihood for Filipino artisans while celebrating Filipino craftsmanship and culture, but also as a means to use fashion as a way to actually reconnect Filipinos in the diaspora to our heritage and our culture. Personally, for myself I didn’t grow up very closely connected to my Filipino roots, we immigrated to Canada when I was very young and I didn’t really grow up with a lot of knowledge or immersion even in Filipino culture or history. And so it was really important to find a way to reconnect. And I found that reconnection through fashion and specifically through social enterprise.
So I think really what makes us unique is not only that we do have this mission of centering Filipino artisans and really celebrating Filipino craftsmanship, but also that we actually center Filipino stories like us as members of the diaspora and really sharing our stories in a way that is empowering and that also educates our community about our history, about our rich heritage of craftsmanship, and really just being loud, brown, and proud. I don’t think there’s many other businesses that really do that through fashion and I’m really proud of that.
Sufyan: Absolutely. And I think it is a really proud moment for you being a woman and in leadership, I’m sure you would be an inspiration to a lot of females in Philippines and even in Canada. What does it mean to be a Pan Asian woman of color in entrepreneurship?
Gelaine: That’s a really, really good question. It’s like a complicated question actually because there’s me being a woman, but also being a woman of color and also being an immigrant. And so there’s all of those different layers that come to it. And for me, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes to being a woman of color. Oftentimes I am one of the only few who are Filipino and within the sustainability social impact space and the eCommerce space. There aren’t always many other women who look like me, who even have businesses like ours that really try to have a social impacts at its core.
So for me, representation is really important and being able to show up in a space and to just be proud of my culture and be proud of my roots and also be proud of my lived experiences as a woman of color as well is something that I try to carry with me in every space that I go to. That comes with its own challenges and I have to really cultivate this sense of intention when I do come to conferences or go to networking events, for example, because I do often find that there aren’t many people who have my same background or who have the same even ideas or values of what a business is. And so it is a complicated thing.
At the same time I am really proud, but it does come with its own struggles being one of the few, but I’m super proud to represent my culture. And I love being able to connect with people who also have different backgrounds who can then take inspiration from Cambio & Co and what we’ve built and do that for their own communities whether they’re Filipino or Asian or not, that’s something that I’m really proud to be able to be that representation for someone else. And I definitely feel that there’s like a difference. There is a lot of like negative ways that I feel in terms of the ways that I do feel I get perceived in certain spaces.
So for example, really condescending things that people say to me, especially because I am young, we started our business when I was 25 years old. I didn’t have a lot of work experience. I only had worked one full-time job really before starting our business. So there’s also that bias, I feel that people will look at me, they all assume automatically that I need their advice or that they need to help me. And oftentimes that advice is not what I need or it’s not even solicited or asked for. And so I do feel that sometimes it has been a challenge to have to prove myself in certain spaces or just certain people.
And so for example, someone that I had met, he’s a white man in tech. I told him out what Cambio & Co is, what our advocacy is, about really centering Filipino community and really creating a platform essentially for Filipino stories and to reconnect Filipinos to our community in the Philippines as well. And his response was something like, oh, it’s smarter view to be minority woman in color and to make yourself the spokesperson. And those are the kind of things that I’ve had to respond to and to deal with for people who don’t have a lot of understanding of what it means to be a leader in this space. They look at it as we’re using our culture as a way to sell something like, in a way our culture becomes something that’s a commodity in a way.
And so that’s one thing that’s a challenge is that sometimes when you go into these spaces that are very capitalist driven and not very diverse in terms of different cultures and even in terms of different motivations like to be in a space where it’s like very just money focused and focused on the bottom line, like to have to prove and explain and educate is something that I feel I have to do all the time in those types of spaces.
And then at the same time, there are positives in terms of like how I do feel perceived differently in that because we are doing something that’s really different that not a lot of people have done and that not a lot of people have been able to like reach the scale that we have with Cambio & Co, we’ve been in business for five years and we’ve grown a lot. We have 20,000 advocates from around the world and we reached six figures last year without any outside investment, those are things I’m super proud of. And because we have been able to do these things in a way that not a lot of other businesses have been able to do, that already is also an edge in a sense of people look up to us and it does also have a positive because we’re doing something like we’re the first to do something. So that brings its own things too.
Sufyan: Yeah. Totally. Thank you so much for responding to that. And I’m so glad that you were able to turn this negative energy that you got from individuals into something really positive. And I think that is a great takeaway for our listeners, how you were able to focus on the positive and not let this bring you down. And eventually it’s the results that are going to shut people like this down, right? So you did a great job, as you mentioned, of bringing your business forward, showcasing what it’s about. So let’s talk about the social aspect of a social enterprise. What does that exactly mean?
Gelaine: Yeah. A social enterprise essentially, there’s different definitions of it, but at the most basic core is that social enterprise is a business that sells products or services, but that exists in order to fulfill some social purpose or mission. So instead of just the bottom line, which is about maximizing profit to your stakeholders or your shareholders, social enterprise instead has a triple bottom line which is based on not only financial sustainability, but also environmental sustainability and human impact.
So for us with Cambio & Co, we’re social enterprise because of course being financially sustainable is important because if we’re not paying the bills at the end of the day, we can’t survive and we can’t continue our impact. But at the same time for us the way that we source the materials that we source, the environmental impact of the products that we sell and the way that we all operate are key as well in addition to making sure that the people we work with and throughout our supply chains and the artisans and our customers are all being treated fairly and with dignity and with respect.
So that’s really what a social enterprise truly is. And I always think of it as, a true social enterprise is one that has layered social impact into different parts of their business. It’s like the analogy of cooking with salt is what I always say, which is like, if you cook something and then you just sprinkle salt on at the end, then it’s just salty. Whereas if you take the time to cook something and you sprinkle salt throughout the different timings of the cooking process, you end up with something that’s not salty, but that is actually nuanced and rich and has deeper flavors and more impact. And that’s the same thing with social enterprise and social impacts. So salt is like the impact itself and making sure that you sprinkle that in throughout the different layers of your business and the ways that you operate from how you source your materials to how you pay your people, to how you do your marketing and your sales, are all of those things aligned with your social purpose?
Sufyan: Yeah. Absolutely. And that’s a really beautiful analogy. Please don’t mind if I steal it and use it with my team. I wanted to talk about going back to your roots because as you mentioned, you grew up in Canada and you went to Philippines after quite a long time where you saw the communities and you wanted to help them out. So tell me the idea behind Cambio & Co like, how did you first up this idea and how did it come about?
Gelaine: It’s quite a long, so I wish I could say it was this clean sort of journey where we knew exactly what we wanted to do, but it was honestly like so many iterations and ups and downs. And we launched in 2015 so we’ve been in business for over five years now. And what we launched was very different from who we are today. Initially the real motivation was I was corporate, I was working in human resources for a FinTech company in Toronto and I was really, really unhappy. I just felt like this was just not what I wanted to do. It just didn’t feel like my work was impactful. And so I was really just in this process of soul searching and trying to figure out like, what is something meaningful?
And at the same time, my partner, who is also my husband, he is a tech consultant. And so he works for really large multinational corporations, essentially doing their tech. And he was also in the same boat as I was and we were both searching at the same time for something that was meaningful. We had traveled to Philippines a few years before and that was my first time getting back in Philippines since we left and moved to Canada when I was two years old.
So we traveled back with my family to Philippines and that was my first time being back, meeting family, learning so much about this history and this culture that’s like a part of me, but honestly that I just felt so disconnected from that woke something in me to realize like there’s so much that I don’t know about myself and how do I just explore this more? So that was the initial parts of it. And then through exploring more Filipino culture and Filipino history and what’s happening in Philippines, we ended up learning about social enterprises in Philippines that were using fashion to eradicate or to address poverty and inequality.
And by learning about those social enterprises in Philippines, that’s when Jerome and I got the idea of like there are so many amazing social enterprises in Philippines, they’re doing these incredible things that are so advanced even compared to what we’re seeing in Canada or in the US and why don’t more people know about it and how can we support that? So really Cambio was created through an experiment of, let’s just see and figure out how do we amplify their stories? What can we possibly do based on our skillsets. And we created Cambio through this convoluted journey of trying different things. And at first when we launched, it was really a global marketplace of products from all around the world because to choose to focus on one country, especially a country that most people don’t know very much about or that even people from our own community had told us… There wasn’t a lot of knowledge about Filipino craftsmanship.
There was just like a lot of people discouraging us from focusing only on Philippines at first. And so that’s why we launched at first with this global marketplace with products from Peru and Uganda and Philippines, and then eventually realized this is not the impact that we want to make. And how do we go back to the real inspiration of why we even began this journey of entrepreneurship in the first place. And so over the last five years we’ve really evolved. And that’s how we really found our story now, which is about creating livelihood for Filipino artisans and honoring Filipino heritage through our history and our culture while also really empowering Filipinos in the diaspora. People like myself who maybe are just seeking that sense of connection and using the means that we have the platform that we have to create those connections.
Sufyan: That’s beautiful. So not only you have courage to shut people down who are doubting you, but you also have the courage to quit your full-time job and start something that you wanted to pursue. So talk to me a little bit about that, how did you find the courage? What purposes did you have when you were like, no, I’m done with this, I don’t want to do my full-time job, I want to pursue something for myself, for my community. How did that drive come about and what actually made you make that decision?
Gelaine: So the question is like, how did you find the conviction to first quit my job and then go all in, in this direction? In terms of quitting my job, I can’t even say it was courageous. I don’t think it was a decision made from a place of courage. It was honestly a made from like a place of desperation because I was just so unhappy and I would come home and I would cry every day. I was just in this really bad place where I was like, is this really all there is in my life? I’ve worked so hard and gone through school and volunteered and done all these things and end in this job that I just feel so miserable. And so honestly, I can’t even say that that was like a courageous decision to quit.
And at the same time starting our business, it was also a decision that was made without really knowing even what we were getting into. I honestly did not realize how hard it would be, like, you know that starting a business will be hard, but I really didn’t realize, neither of us realized like just how hard and what a personal journey that would be. You hear things often about like marketing or sales strategies or people focus and hone in on building a website, but truly the work that you put into building a business, 95% of that is outside of your website. The website is the small thing or the website is the easy part.
So I can’t even say that that was really courageous. I think the real courage did come in using to pursue this direction of centering Filipino artisans of choosing to let go of all the products we had. We had a lot of products from like Peru, our best selling products at the time were from India, those products were generating like 90% of our sales at the time. And so it did take a lot of courage to finally realize like, even though this is where we’re making the most money right now, this is not the impact that we want to be creating. And this is not the reason that we initially created our business. We created it specifically because I wanted to really amplify and help grow these specific businesses in Philippines and reconnect with my culture and help other people do the same thing.
And so that did require a lot of conviction and courage to go in that direction. And truly it was an experiment, it was like, let’s do this, let’s try it and see for the next year five to six months or whatever, see what the reception is. If it doesn’t work, then we know and at least we did it the way that we truly wanted to do it. If it doesn’t work then at least we can say that we did everything that we could.
Sufyan: The reason why I say courage is because we look at a lot of minorities who are immigrants, they’re doing jobs that necessarily don’t give them a lot of pleasure. I’m sure there might be a lot of individuals out there who are unhappy with their job like yourself, like coming home and really figuring it out like what I really want to do in life. And because of some financial constraints or maybe their families is dependent on them, they cannot really take that risk of starting a new business and they don’t even have that luxury to figure that out, but it’s something that you decided that you want the control of, your happiness, I’ve had enough and today I’m going to take this leap of faith and hard my own thing.
Gelaine: Yeah. Thank you for saying that. And it’s really important to acknowledge also that to be able to make the decision that we did and to quit my job without having anything lined up, that’s privilege on its own. There are lots of people who don’t have that same situation and who don’t have that option like that’s just not an option that a lot of people have. And it was the same thing for my parents growing up.
And I think this is something that many listeners can relate to is that entrepreneurship is often not a choice. In many of the countries that our families have immigrated from, entrepreneurship is often the last resort because there’s no pathways to formal employment for many people. And that was the same thing for my parents as well to make the decisions we did. Also, came from privilege that I had, and I acknowledged that, to have savings, to have that safety net as well. I’m very grateful for that, but also for anyone listening, if you are in that position where you’re really miserable, there are ways to be able to take those steps forward though, of course, it’s a privilege to be able to do it in the way that I did and I fully acknowledge that.
Sufyan: Absolutely. So if I was to ask you to go back to your shoes back then and fill in those shoes, what advice would you give on taking that big step towards building something of their own?
Gelaine: That’s a really good question. The first thing I would say is be in it for the long haul. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. And oftentimes the people that we see who are successful who just seem like they shot out of nowhere, oftentimes they have like a string of failed businesses behind them. And I have friends also who followed the same paths and they quit their jobs and they started their businesses. But then they found that after two months that it wasn’t working and they returned to their job which is completely fine, but at the same time if you truly are serious about building a business and truly building something to serve your community, you have to be in it for the long haul. And that means making plans for yourself, whether that’s having a savings target of like how much you need to save before you can safely quit your job and once you do launch your business, then be able to come from a place of service rather than like scarcity and fear of like where your next paycheck is coming from.
It’s like a very, very honorable thing to also be working on your business and building out your business while you’re also working full time. And honestly, that’s what I would recommend if I was the more responsible like looking back if I could give that to my younger self, that’s totally the advice I would give of, instead of putting the pressure on yourself to need to earn money right away, because that’s like such a difficult thing to do. It’s such a difficult thing to expect of yourself when launching something brand new, set up steps for yourself, take the steps that you need now. So that in a year you can be able to really build out your business the way that you want to build it instead of just like building it out and searching for the next source of income because that’s a really hard place to be and that’s going to take a lot of the joy out of building something and serving your community as well.
Sufyan: Absolutely. No, I totally agree. And I’m sure our listeners would appreciate this advice. I wanted to go back to actually you talking about working with your partner, tell me what that’s like.
Gelaine: Yeah. That’s a fun question. I love working with my partner. Honestly I can’t imagine working with anyone else and that’s not to say though that it hasn’t been really hard. The first two years of our business I think were super hard for our relationship in addition to being the hardest years of our business and probably the hardest years of my life so far. And it’s funny because a lot of people when they find out that I work with my husband, they often are like, oh, I could never work with my partner, that would just drive me crazy.
Building a business is truly like one of the most hardest and biggest journeys that you can take as a human being that I couldn’t imagine going through that with anyone else. And what I’ve loved about being able to work together is that it’s really deepened our relationship so much and really allowed us to just trust each other in this whole other level that I don’t think we would’ve been able to really understand without the business. And then at the same time, we’ve just also been able to evolve together as people. I’m a very different person than who I was five years ago and so is he. Yeah, I’m really thankful that we’re doing this together because it would be super hard to not be on this journey with your significant other to be honest.
Sufyan: And I’m glad that you were able to find that mix of working together and living together as well because I know some of my friends who would pull each other’s hair out if they were working together. So it’s really nice to still work with your partner. I think it’s a blessing.
Gelaine: Yeah. Having a pet helps as well.
Sufyan: For sure. Definitely. I think we should plug in the cat as well that being a cat family is really important.
Gelaine: Yes. The cat has definitely helped.
Sufyan: I want to talk about recent times, obviously we’re living in unprecedented times being so involved in community work like yourself, how has that affected your business? What are some of the steps that you’re taking to make sure that you’re still delivering not only your promise to your client in Canada, but also the vendors that you’re working at in Philippines?
Gelaine: Really good question. With the pandemic, it’s definitely been interesting and it’s been this weird year of having the highest highs for our business and also the lowest lows. And I think that’s probably true for a lot of people even outside of entrepreneurship. For us, some of the biggest impacts that we saw right away is obviously like supply chains were really hard hit. The Philippines were really hit hard by COVID and continued to be hit hard. On top of that, there were also a series of very major typhoons that happened last year as well. And so a lot of that impacted not only our supply chains and the artisans themselves, but also our team because we do have team members in Philippines.
And so being able to manage the logistics, but also the emotional heaviness of all that was super hard, but then at the same time from how we were able to manage it really forced us to focus on what are the most important things, really just going back to the basics again, like what are the things that we really can actually focus on or that are the most important because there’s so many things that are going on that we truly can only focus our energy and our resources on these core things. So what are those going to be?
So in that way, it actually helped us to refine what are the most important things. It also initiated a lot of innovation because the artisans now they’re not able to go to the workshop so they had to transition to working from home. What are the products that they can actually make? They’re no longer able to produce the same kind of bags because bags themselves are actually super challenging to make and require multiple types of craftsmanship and multiple artisans and multiple types of materials and tools. So instead like how do we simplify the products, they started making face masks right away, for example, which ended up obviously being really popular because people need face masks.
So it actually produced a lot of product innovation and supply chain innovation, it forced us to really streamline our processes. And then at the same time it forced us to really go back to our why as a company because we sell jewelry and we sell bags and who really needs jewelry or bags in the middle of a pandemic when you think about it. So what we also had to do from like a storytelling perspective as a brand is like, what is the real reason people are coming to us? They can buy jewelry anywhere. So why do they come here? And what we realize is there’s a deeper meaning. There’s a deeper story of heritage and staying connected and finding strength in our heritage and where we come from.
And so we really did lean into that and it forced us to also just think about like, how do we serve our community? Even if no one’s buying, what can we really do to still help people like help our community? So that actually helped a lot. And at the end of the day, ended up being this surprise of a year, especially for eCommerce brands it ended up being our biggest year ever as a business. And we were able to hire someone full time permanent with full benefits in the middle of the pandemic and also expand and launch a brand new website and a brand new partnership. Also, we’re in the process of hiring more team members. So it turned out to be this insane surprise, but I don’t think any of that would’ve come about if we didn’t stick to our reason for being a business and really forcing ourselves to ask the questions of like, why are we doing this and why are we relevant?
Sufyan: What is the code that you live by?
Gelaine: Yeah. That’s a really good question. There’s two. Which one will I choose?
Sufyan: You can choose both.
Gelaine: Yeah. Okay. Fine. I’ll choose both. You can choose whichever one resonates better. So the first quote is you can’t do everything, but you can do anything. So what are you going to choose to do? Because we have really limited time, energy, money, resources, when we try to do everything for everyone, we end up just really stressing ourselves very, very thin. And so if you acknowledge that you can’t do everything that you want to do or even serve all the customers that you want to serve, who are you going to choose to invest all your energy into instead. And that’s really like the philosophy that we’ve chose to live by as a business and that I also choose to live by in my personal life. What relationships will I invest in? What businesses am I going to choose to spend my money with? So that’s the first one. The other quote is something that I’ve heard Terry Crews say.
Sufyan: I love Terry Crews.
Gelaine: Yeah. I love Terry Crews. I love his book also. So he has a quote that he quoted from someone else, but it’s, to have is to do and to do is to be. So if you want to have success, you have to do the things that successful people do. And in order to do the things successful people do, you have to truly channel and believe that you are already successful and that’s not to be fake or anything or to pretend you’re something you’re not, but it’s really about digging deep and to understand like, who am I already? What are the things that I already have and in what ways am I already enough?
So that’s the kind of things that I do ask myself often, especially when I have to show up to certain spaces where they see me and they’re like, a young Asian woman, not much experience. Often I have to remind myself of like, I already have the knowledge. I already have the experience, like there’s definitely more things I can learn, but I don’t have to prove myself to anyone because I already embody these things in my life. And so that’s something that I have chosen to live by and it’s definitely gotten me through.
Sufyan: Absolutely. Well, Gelaine, it has been absolute pleasure speaking with you and thank you so much for joining us in today’s podcast. For anyone who’s listening to us, where can they find you? Do you want to plug your social channels?
Gelaine: Sure. So you can follow Cambio & Co at our Instagram which is, cambio_co and signup for our email newsletter on the website shop cambio.co. I am also on Instagram @gelainesantiago and my website is gelainesantiago.com. And I also have a newsletter called Fierce Fans Forever which is all about content marketing for BIPOC owned brand and eCommerce.
Sufyan: Absolutely. Perfect. I’ll make sure everyone’s following that, any of our listeners, but thank you so much again for joining us. It has been an absolute pleasure and to our listeners, stay safe out there. Stay at home order is out now, so hopefully everyone stays safe and stay blessed. Thank you so much for listening. Take care.
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