Kicking a football around as a teenager on the streets of southeast London, my heroes in 1990s Britain were the poster-boy soccer stars of that era who would adorn my bedroom wall.
As exciting as their exploits were, those heroes existed in another world, disconnected from my own more ordinary life. The possibility of actually meeting one of them never entered my head.
Waking up today in the Philippines, I know I can brush shoulders with living heroes on a daily basis. Many of them have emerged from extreme poverty, where scavenging or drug dealing as a means of survival were endemic.
With the help of countless volunteers who have stood by them, they have transformed situations of destitution and despair into over 2,500 beautiful Gawad Kalinga (GK) communities of collaboration and hope.
Some of these heroes I am privileged enough to call friends. If ever I am in need of inspiration to lead a more compassionate, purpose-driven life, I need no longer to head to the self-help section of the local bookstore.
Instead, I can call on Benjie, a former scavenger and street-child who showed remarkable courage and sacrifice to turn his own fortunes around. Benjie has since devoted much of his time with typhoon survivors and other troubled communities, hoping to inspire similar change in those he now considers less fortunate than himself.
Having spent time in both the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States during 2016, I gained the distinct impression that both the American and British people were looking for a new breed of hero and a new approach to fixing their broken system.
Of course, the Philippines, with its massive inequality, may seem at first glance to be far more “broken” than two of the most advanced nations on earth.
However, now spending much of my time among living heroes at the GK Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan, I can see that is far from the truth. As a “Silicon Valley” for social entrepreneurs and inclusive growth this platform is attracting thousands of curious people from across the world.
Our purpose is not to teach Filipinos about our own troubled western capitalist model, but to learn how a kinder approach to business can help to build a fairer and more sustainable world.
This is far more than wishful thinking. From January 20 to 22, I will be among 500 plus delegates attending the fourth Social Business Summit at the Farm—a gathering of entrepreneurs, politicians and students from over 10 different countries.
Some of those who arrive in the Philippines on a short-term trip end up staying. Two of them, Dylan Wilk and Fabien Courteille, will be speaking at the summit.
Dylan, a Brit who had made a fortune through his start-up video-game business, realized how unhappy his incessant pursuit of material gain had made him.
After selling his business in the UK, Dylan visited some GK villages in the Philippines and soon became so inspired by the GK mission that he used up the majority of his assets to fund the building of thousands of homes for the homeless across the Philippines. He later found a more sustainable balance between pursuing his humanitarian ideals and needing to earn a living by setting up the social enterprise Human Nature. Less than a decade later, Human Nature has emerged as the Philippines’s leading brand of natural, locally sourced and processed health-care products.
With partnerships in place between GK and over 30 universities across Europe, more and more students are beginning to see the Philippines as a viable destination to discover their purpose and passion as a social entrepreneur.
Fabien, a young French graduate, quit his master’s course in entrepreneurship to set up a toy business at the GK Enchanted Farm.
While most of his peers were seeking jobs in the mainstream economy back home, Fabien was building his start-up business alongside the unemployed mothers of the local community.
Particularly moving was his tribute to Tita Fe, the GK resident who gave Fabien a place to stay and became a partner in his business: “Once she could finally afford to own a fridge, it meant I could drink cold water whenever I liked. So it was good for her and good for me.”
Fabien’s company, Plush and Play, already gives jobs to 50 mothers from the surrounding communities and has become the first Filipino toy company to sell its products in mainstream toy stores. Fe, meanwhile, has since bought her very first car.
From the wealthy Malaysian entrepreneur mentoring scholars at the Enchanted Farm to the French business graduate who is forging his career as an organic-chicken farmer, many more outliers continue to be inspired by the GK vision.
Writing in a more personal capacity, I have also found my “purpose” in life in the Philippines, first as a storyteller of the little miracles of transformation I witnessed throughout the country, and then as a social entrepreneur, setting up MAD (Make A Difference) Travel.
If this article stirs any curiosity inside you, then why not join us for the Social Business Summit and find out more for yourself? Two thousand five hundred GK villages were not built on inspiring ideas alone, but on the power of “being present”—in which east and west, the haves and the have-nots, come together to build the kinder, better world all of us yearn for.
If the Filipino spirit of bayanihan can bring rich and poor of all religious and ethnic backgrounds to collaborate together, then surely there is hope for the world.
To find out more about the summit, visit www.socialbusinesssummit.net.
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Thomas Graham is an international speaker and author of the book The Genius of the Poor. Thomas is also the cofounder of MAD (Make A Difference) Travel (www.madtravel.org), a social tourism enterprise that creates fun and fulfilling travel experiences in partnership with Gawad Kalinga communities.