TRYING to keep up with his typical busy work schedule, British Tom Graham wolfed down his tomatoes and mozzarella pan bread as he answered questions on what lies for the Philippines if it were to rely on good old Filipino values in its everyday routine, whether in business or in politics.
Graham, an author and social entrepreneur, talked about the power of translating Filipino concepts, like bayanihan, walang iwanan and diskarte in the business setting, saying it can push the country forward by eliminating poverty and other social ills.
A regular volunteer of community development foundation Gawad Kalinga (GK), Graham said the Filipinos’ sense of camaraderie and brotherhood is unique in the world, and that tapping into those values would push the people into resolving poverty.
“There are two core concepts of the Filipino which had a big impression on me. One is bayanihan. First time I discovered bayanihan when I was riding the jeepney and I saw how people pass the money,” Graham said.
He added: “I saw how it can transform nations. If Filipinos work together, as they have done for centuries in the past, then poverty can be eradicated in one generation. There is no lack of resources and talented people. So I really saw how bayanihan made poverty almost unjustifiable.”
Graham said presence plays a big part in encouraging low-income communities and individuals, and those struck by accidents and typhoons to start again and make their lives better.
“The other value, which had the big impact on me, was walang iwanan. I saw how GK would go to areas of conflict, not going there to evangelize. The strongest possible way to say I am here for you is not through money or giving your solidarity in social media, but presence and simply being there,” he said.
The other side of the fence
Before dropping his luggage in GK villages and donning the foundation’s shirt while lending a hand in their activities, Graham sported a suit and a tie to interview people in the corporate world.
Back in 2012, Graham had been working as a reporter in the United Kingdom, writing stories on investment opportunities and emerging economies around the globe.
It was not until his assignment in the Philippines and his meeting with GK Founder Tony Meloto that changed his views on things.
“My reports were how there were opportunities to invest here and make money, but deep down I was not happy with what I was doing. My stories were about inclusive growth and, yet, I was completely disconnected from the people I said I wanted to help. I knew deep down that economic growth was not seeping down to the people at the bottom. There was a lack of authenticity in my reports because I was disconnected with a vast majority of Filipinos,” Graham said.
Now, Graham has found another formula for business success and economic development, acknowledging that social enterprise is the future. He said that, with sustainable business solutions that go hand in hand with providing those in the marginalized sector opportunities to get involved, inclusive growth would be more possible.
“I saw how these human values can be transported and adopted in the world of business. I really saw this concept of social business, which GK is strongly advocating today, the concept of doing business as if humans matter,” Graham said.
He added: “You could find a happy medium between profit and really having a social impact. Some of the social enterprises in the GK Enchanted Farm really inspired me that there is another way of doing businesses. It does not have to be about being obsessive about profit.”
Graham then enumerated homegrown businesses, like natural cosmetics brand Human Nature, and organic iced-tea company Bayani Brew.
A different type of travel agency
Graham’s extended stay in the Philippines was because of his interview with Meloto, who explained to him how volunteering can go beyond building houses and giving money.
According to Graham, staying in GK villages and being exposed to the challenges in the communities opened his eyes to his true passion for social development.
“By the end of the interview, Tony was challenging me. He said why are you writing these reports nobody believes in. To make the long story short, I spent more or less one year visiting GK villages all over the Philippines. I went to some of the biggest slums in Metro Manila. I saw how they were slowly being transformed one community at a time, and it seemed like really lasting change,” he said.
Graham eventually established a company called MAD (Make A Difference) Travel, which brings together tourists to new experiences in communities in the Philippines that are not typically offered by travel agencies.
“MAD Travel really says the power of presence, of people—rich and poor, rural and urban, even from East and West, a lot of foreigners are getting involved—coming together and doing something, however small, not just talking about it or giving money,” Graham said. “Tourism can be a really powerful tool in bringing people together out of their comfort zones and exposing them to situations they wouldn’t normally do on their own.”
MAD Travel holds different kinds of activities, from cooking classes of local cuisines to kids’ camps, in efforts to promote GK or other marginalized villages as potential tourist spots, Graham said.
In his advocacy of shedding light to the effectiveness of Filipino values in the workplace, Graham released the book The Genius of the Poor, saying he sees the values bayanihan and walang iwanan much evident in those in impoverished areas.
Return on investments
Despite the busy schedule and the demands of community development, Graham said he is more fulfilled and motivated than when he was writing foreign-investment reports back in England.
Graham, who admits having to squeeze doing groceries in between work, said he travels back and forth to Europe and the Philippines to promote the kind of activities GK offers and the opportunities in the Philippines, not just for business but for being in touch with one’s humanitarian side.
The British national, who has an undergraduate degree in European languages and a master’s in international relations, looks back to his desire to understand the world and calls his stay in the Philippines to be a big return on investments (ROI).
“My ROI is getting a purpose, an opportunity to create something of real meaning and happiness. It is really a two-way street. All of the values I have spoken about previously have challenged me and made me a better, happier person. It is a big ROI, not a very financial one but it does not matter. I am just driven by what I am doing,” he said.
Though admittedly not that culturally assimilated, Graham said he is far from the person he was back then, who lived disconnected from people, just sipping cocktails on a weekend in his condominium unit.
“One time I wore a barong Tagalog, but I did not realize you have to wear an undergarment. That is how disconnected I was,” Graham said.
But going to different villages in the Philippines, areas of conflict with my only protection being a Gawad Kalinga shirt, Graham said he has understood what genius lies in the Filipino.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano