Fair Trade, Fashion, and Philippines: Lessons From a 24 Year Old Social Entrepreneur

by Gelaine Santiago August 11, 2017

Fair Trade, Fashion, and Philippines: Lessons From a 24 Year Old Social Entrepreneur

We recently brought together over 100 of the most passionate people from Toronto's  Filipinx, sustainable fashion, and startup communities for our first-ever event: Fair Trade, Fashion, and Philippines. The night was all about highlighting the innovation and talent of young social entrepreneurs in the Philippines - and no Filipino event would be complete without delicious Filipino food! We also had a pop up shop featuring our favourite Cambio Market pieces, designed and crafted in the Philippines.

Gelaine welcoming the guests at the event
Gelaine welcoming the guests and introducing Cambio Market work in Canada with Filipino brands

But the real highlight of the evening was our keynote speaker EJ Isada Mariano, founder & CEO of AKABA Limited Design Co. We've been working with EJ and his team for the past year and a half, and when we found out he was coming to Toronto, we jumped at the chance to share his and his team's story.

About AKABA Limited Design Co.

AKABA is a sustainable fashion brand from the Philippines that's taking the world by storm. They work with weavers and local artisans across the country to create world-class, heritage bags and accessories rooted in Filipino custom and sustainable fashion. EJ, founder & CEO, spoke about the challenges and opportunities of working with artisans across the Philippines, how his team grew from 8 weavers to a whopping 100 within one year, and how they're taking on brand giants like Herschel while staying true to their social mission.

Oh, and by the way, EJ is only 24 years old. Crazy, right?

Read on for more highlights of this inspiring evening!

Photo credits Kevin Ramos.

Food vendors at Fair Trade, Fashion, and Philippines event
No Filipino event would be complete without delicious food! We had amazing local Filipino food vendors serving up unique twists to traditional Filipino dishes. Thank you Las Piñas Kusina (pictured), Merienda, Filipino Fusion Desserts and Kanto by Tita Flips

Sold-out room at Fair Trade, Fashion, and Philippines event by Cambio Market
Full room! It was a sold-out event. Can you tell?

EJ exudes confidence, but a lot of humility as well - both things you need as an entrepreneur. Here's his advice for all you fellow entrepreneurs out there.

1. Discover what drives you

Know your reasons why you're doing what you do, because when things get hard, your Why is what will keep you going on. So be true to yourself. Know what makes you most passionate, most angry, and most driven. And chase it with all your soul.

2. ...and what will sustain you

Financially, that is. It's one thing to have a cause you believe in, and it's another to make it financially viable. When it comes to conscious businesses, many of them stay small and niche. But the problem is that your impact also stays small. By focusing on scalability, AKABA has been able to employ more artisans, increase wages, and scale their entire social impact.

So figure out how you can survive and thrive as a social business. Otherwise, it will never be more than a passion project.

3. Never give up on the poor

Many of us fall into the trap of thinking we're saviours. That empowerment is as easy as going into a community, giving away money, free schools, or (among the more enlightened of us) giving jobs. But it's never that easy. EJ shared how, at first, he felt frustrated. "It's hard not to think, 'here I am, giving you a job. All you have to do is show up and work.' But the barriers people in poverty face are multiple and real." It's easy to place blame - chalk it up to them being lazy or incompetent. But the truth is, you never know what circumstances led someone to their current situation, or what barriers they overcome on a daily basis just to stay alive. So never give up on the poor, and never think you're better than anyone else.

4. Make an impact now

EJ shared, "Some people choose to work traditional, big money jobs. They choose to become wealthy first and then make a social impact later. And sometimes, I wonder if I should have done the same thing. I gave up job offers with Apple and a high-growth Google-backed venture in Asia in order to start AKABA. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have gone through that other path and become wealthy first. But then I think, 'If I can make an impact now, why wait?'"

5. Share the wealth

One of the most impactful things EJ said that night was one of the simplest. "People ask why I do this. I grew up and I had it easy. I had parents who worked hard so I could have a good future. I went to private school and graduated from one of the top universities in the Philippines. I had it easy. But there are lots of people out there who didn't. And who's going to help them, if not people like me?" Own your privilege. Don't deny it. And do something good with it, because you're one of the lucky ones.

6. Have fun

EJ started AKABA with his close friends from university, and they're all still best friends. Never forget the relationships you've built along the way, and make time to invest in the people in your life. Because those are just as important.

Cambio Market & AKABA TeamThe full organizing team of the event! Lauren, Jérôme, Gelaine, EJ and Rona!

AKABA's products available at the Cambio Market popup shopAKABA's products available at the Cambio Market Pop-Up Shop - Also available on our website


Gelaine Santiago
Gelaine Santiago


Gelaine is co-founder of Cambio Market – an online shop for handcrafted, ethical products that give back. She's also co-founder of ChooseSocial.PH – the go-to resource to learn about the social enterprise scene in the Philippines. She's pretty nerdy and loves to talk about all things social enterprises, careers, entrepreneurship, travel, start-ups, and (of course) food.

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