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Grass is greener where you water it

/ 12:59 AM March 06, 2017
Exemplary individuals. (From left) Octave, Tan, Ressa, Montinola and Aguhon Award chair Maoi Arroyo

Exemplary individuals. (From left) Octave, Tan, Ressa, Montinola and Aguhon Award chair Maoi Arroyo

It has been said that the Philippines is sitting on a gold mine of people who have worked and studied overseas, many of whom will eventually find their way back home and use their globally competitive skill sets and fresh perspective to make a positive economic, social or cultural impact in the region.

BDO Unibank president Nestor Tan, Far Eastern University vice president for corporate affairs and Hands On Manila founder Gianna Montinola, Unilab senior vice president Jose Maria Ochave and Rappler co-founder and president Maria Ressa are four such exemplary individuals.


They recently received the Aguhon Award, which honors individuals who came back home to serve their countrymen.

In Filipino, “aguhon” is a sextant used for generations by seafarers to find their way.


Asian Institute of Management (AIM) professor Maoi Arroyo, who chairs the Aguhon Award, said recognizing individuals who had come back to serve the country was one way of helping the region reaffirm its sense of self and renew its hopes for the future.

Aguhon supports leaders who believe that “the grass is greener where you water it,” who invest in Asia by working in Asia.

The Aguhon Award is also a platform that seeks to raise scholarship funds for the World Economic Forum’s communities of Young Global Leaders, Global Shapers and Schwab Social Entrepreneurs to take up AIM’s MSc Innovation in Business.

“It is no longer enough to say that ‘the Filipino is worth dying for,’ we must also assert that the Filipino is worth living for—and worth living here for. While we value the support and sacrifices of those who have left our region yet continue to help their home countries, let us also laud those who have decided to double down on their countries when the going gets tough,” Arroyo said.

Nestor Tan

This veteran banker, who holds an MBA from Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree in commerce from De La Salle University, had worked in New York and London for global banking institutions.

He had worked at Bankers Trust Co. in New York as vice president and the Barclays Group in New York and London as planning director and head of strategic planning for corporate and institutional services group.

Thereafter, he became the chief operating officer for the financial institution services group of BZW, the investment-banking subsidiary of the Barclays Group.


He joined BDO as executive vice president in 1997, the year when the Asian currency crisis erupted, and became president in July 1998. When Tan joined BDO, it was far from the banking giant that it is today.

It was also a challenging period for the banking system, as the peso devaluation against the US dollar and skyrocketing interest rates triggered a spate of loan defaults.

Since the millennium turnover, Tan—together with chair Teresita Sy-Coson—led BDO to one merger after another, at one point acquiring one bank almost every year.

These days, BDO has become the country’s biggest bank in all metrics—total resources (P2.3 trillion), loan book (P1.57 trillion), deposits (P1.9 trillion), capitalization (P217.5 billion) and assets under management (P1 trillion). It has also become the most valuable, now valued by the stock market at around P513 billion.

During his acceptance speech, Tan said he can’t change the world but can work to build a better bank, and make financial services more inclusive. Outside of BDO, Tan is also the president of the influential Bankers Association of the Philippines, which works with banking regulators and stakeholders in addressing issues faced by the banking industry.

Gianna Montinola

For someone who admitted to not having any grand plan and only seizing opportunities that came her way, this lawyer, ex-diplomat, business manager, educator and volunteerism advocate rolled into one has gone a long way.

Montinola—vice president for corporate affairs at FEU (controlled by her family), where she has also handled marketing, communications and external relations since 2013 (and a consultant since 2004)—herself has had a cosmopolitan education.

She finished the first year of A-Levels under the British Preparatory system at New Hall, Chelmsford, Essex in England and joined the “Junior Year Abroad” program to learn French from the L’Institut d’Études Europeénnes in Paris while pursuing a BA degree in International Relations, which she subsequently earned from Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts.

She also acquired a Bachelor of Laws degree from the Ateneo de Manila University and masters degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

She served as Philippine Honorary Consul to the Republic of Peru from 1992 to 1996, at the time when Alberto Fujimori was president.

After her tour of duty in Peru, she joined the marketing and then the business development department of Rockwell Land Corp. (1996 to 1998), then a small company trying to make its presence felt in the property industry.

“Although my life was full as wife, mother and professional, I felt the time was right for me to give back,” Montinola said.

Her prayers were answered in 2001 when she was given the opportunity to set up Hands On Manila (HOM) Foundation Inc., the first international affiliate of American nongovernment organization (NGO) Hands On Network-Points of Light.

HOM brought to the country an innovative and alternative model of volunteer service, which allows for volunteering to be integrated into daily schedules even for busy individuals. Its goal is to train, educate and mobilize volunteers in the areas of education, livelihood and environment.

Over the years, HOM has gained headway not only among individual volunteers but among corporations which outsourced their corporate social responsibility initiatives to the foundation.

To date, HOM has mobilized 30,280 volunteers, worked with 96 corporate partners and entities and collectively contributed over 300,000 volunteer hours, in turn benefiting 8,000 children, 2,000 elderly people, 14 public schools and 62 orphanages, three coastal mangrove areas and 120 NGOs.

Jose Maria Ochave

A chemical engineer and lawyer, he helped Unilab—now the largest pharmaceutical firm in Southeast Asia—introduce cheaper drugs to the market. For him, there’s no reason for drugs to be expensive unless they are biotech drugs.

In 2002, Unilab set up RiteMED as a manufacturer and marketer of off-patent, low cost pharmaceuticals that were 50 percent cheaper than the drugs peddled by big pharmaceutical firms.

Ochave calls it an “advocacy brand.”

Ochave took an unconventional path to leadership, one that was shaped up by the underground movement.

In the dark days of martial law, he was among those young people organizing students.

“Everything I know about marketing and management, I learned from the movement,” he said. “After all, what more difficult item is there to sell to the people than a revolution, to ask people to stake their lives for something not tangible as human rights, freedom, self-determination?”

Ochave graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering degree from the University of the Philippines (where he was a DOST scholar) in 1986.

When the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown during the 1986 revolution, Ochave decided it was time to return to the mainstream.

He joined multinational giant Procter & Gamble, where he was part of the team that started community relations.

Afterwards, he went to law school, earning his Bachelor of Laws from the University of the Philippines in 1992. He graduated class salutatorian and ranked 11th in the 1992 Philippine bar exams. He then got a Master of Laws degree from the University of Michigan (under Dewitt Fellowship), which he completed in 1995.

Maria Ressa

Ressa, co-founder and president of online media Rappler, has been a journalist in Asia for more than 25 years, most of them as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila then Jakarta.

She became CNN’s lead investigative reporter focusing on terrorism in Southeast Asia and wrote “Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia.”

In 1987, Ressa was one of the founders of independent production company, Probe. In 2005, she returned to the Philippines to head ABS-CBN News and Current affairs.

For six years, she managed more than 1,000 journalists for the largest multiplatform news operation in the Philippines. Her work aimed to redefine journalism by combining traditional broadcast, new media and mobile phone technology for social change.

She taught courses in politics and media for her alma mater, Princeton University, as well as in broadcasting at the University of the Philippines. Born in the Philippines, Ressa moved to the United States shortly before martial law was declared. (Very recently, she convinced her parents to move back to the Philippines).

Her first homecoming to the Philippines was in 1986. She recalled this was an inspiring time, as the People Power in the Philippines had sparked democracy movements elsewhere in the world—in South Korea, Pakistan, China, Burma, East Germany, Bangladesh and Nepal.

By her second homecoming in 2005, at the helm of ABS-CBN News, she said the grumbling among people had begun to manifest. Decades after the ouster of Marcos, she observed that the promise of people power remained unfulfilled and that American-style democracy had failed in this country.

With the rise of populist leaders globally amid grumbling from the populace, Ressa also lamented how social media was being used as a weapon against institutions and individuals, including journalists.

Last year was the turning point for the world, she said, citing Great Britain’s vote to pull out of the European Union, the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

“This is another cycle of history. It is time to stand. It is time to be counted,” she said.

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