Power of the Pack: Philippines' Rags2riches Empowers Women via Fashion
Reese Fernandez-Ruiz founded Rags2Riches - or R2R - with the simple mission of trying to alleviate poverty in the Philippines, whilst running a for-profit company. She stumbled upon the idea for her company on a teaching stint in Payatas - one of the most impoverished regions in the country - where she witnessed indigent women hunting scrap cloth in the district’s garbage dump, to weave into foot rugs, bags, and other products that were popular among locals in the area.
But, Fernandez-Ruiz found, that despite working hard every day, these women earned very little because of middlemen who had started controlling both ends of the supply chain - the scrap materials the women foraged for and used to weave into items, as well as sales to local merchants.
R2R, set up in 2015, is, essentially, a solution to this problem. It doesn’t eliminate middlemen but works as a more ethical, fair, and empowering intermediary by sourcing extra, leftover fabric directly from manufacturers and suppliers, to provide to the weavers and artisans, while also managing marketing and sales of the finished products on behalf of the artisans, via an online marketplace.
“It was not really that hard to cut out the middlemen as there were actually so many middlemen in one chain that most of them were also not earning enough for their own families, even though some of them were artisans themselves,” says Fernandez-Ruiz in an interview with Entrepreneur Asia Pacific.
“The unfair trade happening was not just because of unscrupulous people, but largely because of a supply chain that is not transparent, and insecure access to the market and supply of raw materials,” she adds.
Making transparency a core value of the company was one of the ways it was able to cut out existing dealers, but R2R did involve some of them in mapping out the supply chain, thus creating employment for many that would have otherwise been left behind.
Currently, the company employs more than 200 artisans in the Philippines, as per a CNBC story, with 30 per cent working at the company’s main manufacturing site, and the rest, from their homes in Payatas.
For Rags2Riches, becoming successful took a lot of changing local perceptions about handmade products.
To appeal to Filipinos who trust imported-brand products more than local, handmade items, the company collaborated with fashion designers such as Amina Aranaz-Alunan and Rajo Laurel, whose handbags have become a cult-favorite of Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of Belgium.
The partnership with the two fashion designers not only helped spread the word about the company, but also gave its product lines - such as apparel, handbags, and home accessories - a more upscale, fashion cred.
The company has said previously it hopes to continue to build its presence in the Philippines, and help nearly 4,000 artisans in the region.
On Being a Businesswoman
Fernandez-Ruiz says she has never felt disadvantaged as a woman entrepreneur in the Philippines because women there are relatively more empowered than some other countries.
“But this could also be because I have also internalized some misogynistic practices,” she quips.
“There were many things that could have been easier if I were a man. If I were a man, no one would expect me to stay home and take care of the kids while building a meaningful career. If I were a man, I would not have to go through pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and all the mental load that comes with being a mother. While I love everything about being a woman and a mother, I also could not deny that society assigns little value to these aspects of my life,” adds Fernandez-Ruiz.
Just bearing the load of expectations that is put on any working woman is tough enough, because women are expected to work twice as hard, for half the recognition, but Fernandez-Ruiz says fighting the good fight - even if it’s hard - is pertinent.
“We can never progress if we perpetuate the cancel culture. Instead of canceling the people who may have different values for one reason or another, we could find ways to communicate and build bridges instead. I know it is hard to be the ones to always or frequently adjust, but if no one will adjust, no progress will be possible.”
When asked if she was a feminist, Fernandez-Ruiz says she absolutely is.
“Feminism is a misunderstood concept but such an important one in order to achieve equality. I believe that when we give equal opportunities, provide equal pay, rally for those who are underrepresented and unheard, the world will be a much better place. When we properly value people, they will shine. And a world full of people who are dignified, and valued, is a much better world to live in,” she concludes.