Gina Lopez: Becoming a late-developing entrepreneur
At every milestone decade, Gina Lopez, managing director of the ABS-CBN Foundation Inc., always says she’s starting life over.
Pushing 60 in December, Lopez has made her foray into a retail venture, called G Stuff, at Rockwell Power Plant Mall.
It sells products from communities aided by Green Initiative, the social enterprise offshoot of Bantay Kaliksan. The latter is the environmental crusade of the network’s foundation.
“I’m doing this on my own. The foundation doesn’t get into business,” she explains. “I put in my personal money into it. G Stuff is my donation to the country. All the profits will go back to the Green Initiative communities,” she explains.
Established last May, Green Initiative assists communities to develop eco-tourism for their livelihood while preserving the environment. However since tourism is seasonal due to typhoons, the partner communities can still earn by providing coconut oil, pili and other raw materials all year round. These are made into food, personal care and home products under the G Stuff label.
Lopez says the store name G Stuff is a pun on G-Spot (Gräfenberg Spot or the woman’s erogenous zone). In reality, G Stuff stands for “Gina” and for “green,” “goodness for the well-being and environment’ and “giving to the community.”
“It’s my commitment to things local,” she adds. “I’m not going to sell lavender or English rose. The floral essences are native like ylang-ylang and sampaguita.” Lopez says she doesn’t need to buy foreign brands since some of them contain paraben, found be a carcinogenic preservative.
“Why buy from overseas when we have scents from here? If you patronize your own scents, you’re helping the farmers. We’ve got to erode this colonial mentality.”
Then there are cacao and papaya soaps, lemongrass as an all-purpose and healthy cleaner and healing crystal salts from Ilocos and flavored virgin coconut oil. The organic ceramide is said to contain 80 percent moisture-capturing lipids than the branded ones which contain only five percent.
Celebrity chefs such as Jessie Sincioco and Myrna Segismundo contributed their recipes for dressings, jams and sauces.
Lopez invested some P2 million to decorate the store and to buy the inventory. She’s paying P22,000 monthly rent for a 10 square meter space.
“I don’t want a big place because I am bankrolling it in the beginning,” she says. “We are not pricing too much. I want to earn through volume. The more I can get from the communities, the more money I can make.”
Lopez admits that despite her lack of knowledge of entrepreneurship, she has been aided by friends. Everything has been done through instinct.
“My greatest learning is that if you have the will power and determination, God sends people your way to help. It’s an unorthodox approach. People said, ‘Gina, nobody starts like this!’”
However when the opportunity for a space came up in Rockwell, Lopez eagerly grabbed it. G Stuff is located on the fourth floor, conveniently adjacent to the ATM machines.
“I’m not into numbers. I had consultants giving advice. They figured the markup, the administration expenses. If the product has lots of competition, the markup is smaller. If the product is special, it is more. Everything averages out.”
Lopez is unfazed by the competition in the VCO product category because the G Stuff brand is of premium quality.
When the Green Initiative invested a portion of Rep. Manny Pacquiao’s donation to build a VCO plant in Palawan, the Philippine Coconut Authority guided them on standards. “Everything is so hygienic. By the time we get the VCO, it is so clean. I asked them to do process it with loving energies,” says Lopez.
In a New York Times column on “The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur,” David Bornstein clarifies that a social entrepreneur is not merely one who divert business savvy to put up a venture that answers a social problem. A social entrepreneur is gifted with working with groups with end goal of benefiting the community.
“The greatest strength of social entrepreneurs isn’t in the way they build ventures to deliver products or services, but in the way they connect people in new configurations and, in so doing, help people work together more effectively, influencing their career or life pathways,” writes Bornstein.
In her way, Lopez has been the social entrepreneur who has been harnessing the potentials of people, be they members of her foundation or the farmers and boatmen.
Lopez points out that despite the reported robust growth of the Philippine economy, the wealth has not been equitably distributed to the majority. She cites Boracay whose tourism earnings fetch P20 billion a year. Yet, majority of the locals are still underprivileged.
“The Green Initiative launched in May aims to address this issue by bringing direct investments into these islands. We have 7,000 spectacularly gorgeous islands. The reality is the inhabitants are mostly poor, yet they live in wonder,” she says.
The Green Initiative works with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Tourism (DOT), Ateneo de Manila University, ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. and ABS-CBN Foundation’s Bantay Kalikasan.
“Eco-tourism and agriculture have the tremendous potential to jumpstart the economy. That’s where I want to go. I want it to be values-oriented. It’s not just about money. Our performance indicators are the economy, environment, peace and order, health and happiness. Money is not just going to cut it. It’s peace and your relationship with God,” she maintains.
“Green Initiative came out of the realization that if you don’t eradicate poverty, they will rape the environment. It’s an ecosystem. If you want to succeed, you have to take care of both. We aim to create jobs in these beautiful places in collaboration with the local government. We start with a Visitor’s Center and toilet. We create the access and market the place so that people van visit and the locals can earn a living.
Since tourism is not enough, we have to help with agriculture. In Sorsogon, there are lots of pili nuts and cacao. We will buy pili nuts and cacao and put a plant to so they can process and earn the money for themselves.”
Lopez cites how Palawan is an example of locals benefiting from tourism. When Puerto Prinsesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn banned logging and mining in favor of tourism, banks increased from seven to 32; flights increased from once a week to 22 times a week and tourism arrivals rose from 12,000 to 700,000 a year.
With its track record, the foundation started working with the communities in Palawan.
Four years ago, Ugong Rock at Baranggay Tagabinet, Puerto Princesa, Palawan was terra incognita. Lopez put in P250,000 for a Visitor’s Center and a toilet. Soon a zipline was added. Lopez brought in media mileage as well.
Today, it has become a recommended destination in the tourism sites. “They’ve got P1 million pesos in their bank and people earn P10,000 a month,” says Lopez.
The former penal colony, Iwahig has become a paradise. The foundation invested P250,000 for the paddle boats and Visitors Center. In 2010, it won the Pacific Asia Travel Association award for eco-tourism. “We trained them how to earn a living. The boatman earns P15,000 a month. He works three hours a night,” says Lopez.
With P1 million in the bank, 60 percent goes to the salaries, 40 percent goes to savings. During peak season, the locals get a bonus of P6,000.
A community organizer audits the funds every day. “If somebody sees the money, he can pocket it. It’s so tempting.”
While working in Palawan, Lopez discovered the abundance of coconut trees. However, the farmers were earning P12 per hectare at Brook’s Point. The foundation built a VCO plant, the products of which will be sold in G Stuff.
“Tourism alone will not get people out of poverty. We are in a geo-hazard zone. There are times it is not convenient for tourists to go there. So we need a back up,” she says. Thus, the G Stuff.
ABS-CBN pays for the overhead expenses of the foundation so that the donations can go to the projects. For so long, Lopez has successfully raised funds. “I can’t keep asking for donations all the time. I thought I should start an enterprise which helps the local people,” she says.
On becoming a late-developing entrepreneur, she waxes poetic, “I’m turning 60 on Dec. 27. I’ve never felt happier, healthier and wiser. If you’ve learned and you know how to do things better, then you are more alive. Life is not a matter of years, but the divine energies flowing out of you.”