As a kid accompanying her mother on missionary work, Philippines native Reese Fernandez-Ruiz was exposed to poverty at a young age.
Determined to help the poor, Fernandez-Ruiz became an activist and a benefactor after finishing studies at Ateneo de Manila University. After a stint teaching in Payatas, one of Quezon City's poorest neighborhoods, she soon found her cause in the squalor of Payatas's notorious garbage dump, where a July 2000 landslide and fire left more than 200 people dead.
Years later, the dump continued to attract scavengers, including impoverished women hunting cloth and scrap materials that they'd weave into rugs. Increasingly popular among locals, the nascent cottage industry attracted middlemen who began controlling both scrap supplies and rug sales to local merchants. They profited as the women who'd toiled hours to find and weave materials earned little for their efforts.
“While they they were being taken advantage of by the middlemen, the women were making 20 cents a day for their work,’’ says Fernandez-Ruiz.
Convinced that she could help boost their income and provide a better lifestyle for their families, Fernandez-Ruiz co-founded Rags2Riches, or R2R, in 2007. The company, which markets itself as an eco-ethical brand, now sources manufacturers and suppliers directly for surplus fabric and has a central production facility that generates zero waste. With a six-store retail network in metropolitan Manila and a burgeoning online business, R2R employs more than 250 people, including 200 full- and part-time artisans. Many earn enough to work from home or on schedules that allow them to take care of their families.
But it's not just about putting more money in people's pockets. "When people see what they've made become popular, it's uplifting—there's dignity and empowerment beyond extra income," says Fernandez-Ruiz, a Rolex Laureate.
Still, Rags2Riches had to do a sell job on artisans, consumers, and retailers. The artisans had worked mostly alone and were unable to see the collective potential of their products. Fernandez-Ruiz says Filipino consumers tend to be brand conscious and favor well-known imports. And retailers weren’t convinced of the consumer appetite for recycled goods made by local artists.
Perceptions shifted after Rags2Riches enlisted fashion designers such as Rajo Laurel and Amina Aranaz-Alunan, who became R2R brand advocates and provided designs that helped the company gain recognition and market higher-value fashion items such as apparel, home accessories, and handbags.
“There’s still a perception in the Philippines that things made by hand aren’t as nice or the quality isn’t as good as a better-known imported brand,'' Fernandez-Ruiz says. "But with the help of designers like Rajo, people are learning that these are high-quality products, made by hand by people with amazing stories.”
Rags2Riches's overall revenue is expected to hit $380,000 this year, up from $320,000 in 2015, and $280,000 in 2014. The fashion-designer boost and social media are helping market R2R products, although about 90 percent of sales are generated in the Philippines.
Fernandez-Ruiz ultimately hopes R2R can broaden its market and eventually provide work for up to 5,000 Filipino artisans. But, she acknowledges, gearing up that kind of scale might require more experienced management and investment capital.
“When I jumped into this, I had no management experience and no real plan,’’ she says. “There were a lot of mistakes along the way. The priority should be pushing things to the next level. And we may need a different kind of manager for that."
After giving birth to her first child in October, Fernandez-Ruiz may also be ready for a change but says she'll continue to be an advocate for the poor.
“I’m committed to making a positive social impact, and I hope Rags2Riches will be a model for more organizations to follow,’’ she says.
National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.