‘Zero to hero’ transformation | Inquirer Business

‘Zero to hero’ transformation

/ 02:16 AM December 24, 2023



There’s something about Christmas that makes me think about financial role models and how those who went from “zero to hero” have a distinct transformational impact on most Filipinos.

“Zero to hero” does not just refer to rags-to-riches stories, of course, but many of these stories naturally start with poverty. I use the phrase to describe people with great and inspiring turnaround stories like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling. Here at home, Henry Sy comes to mind immediately.


A huge swath of the Philippine population continue to struggle with inequality of opportunity. Financial education cannot help them, because no matter how hard they work from sunup to sundown, they will never grow rich. But from time to time, someone from the ultra poor breaks through and the sweet story of success fuels another story of breakthrough—and so on it goes.


While this approach is not something that we can scale, who can begrudge the sweet emotional high that comes with such an inspirational transformation? If it can fuel the journey of a young child from the slums, why not? The story of Dr. Ben Lebig immediately comes to mind. In his day job as a Dubai-based analyst at Chevron, he provides high-level management decision support for Europe, Middle East, Africa and South Asia, including the Chevron Global Marine. He is one of the Illustrado 300 most influential Filipinos in the Gulf in 2020 and was given the Dakilang Bayani (Hero) Award in 2016. The Dubai government recognizes him as a business leader and the Filipino community there looks up to him as an entrepreneurship and financial education advocate.

Learning the hard way

But his roots started in Lambunao, Iloilo. The son of a public school teacher, he used to walk many kilometers by foot each way to go to school, crossing several rivers. On weekends, he sold saba at the public market, probably developing his affinity toward mathematics in those years. Dr. Ben’s 12-month involvement in the Ipon Ambassadors Program of the Department of Education is helping one teacher recover from indebtedness and hopefully into becoming a saver and investor one day. This innovative financial mentoring program is set to expire this year before it gets a chance to scale up and allow even more teachers to benefit from the in-depth financial coaching program, unless it is extended by the department. Jesi “Jog” Bondoc has a similar draw. Also one of the sons of public educators, his journey brought him into the world of banking, entrepreneurship and financial advisory. Dr. Ben and Jog are Transformare coaches that go beyond the usual financial education trainings. While their skills and expertise are a big plus, their zero to hero stories make financial education more inspiring and, therefore, more effective tool for transformation. When I was young, there were times that my single mother did not have any option but leave at 4 a.m. to teach at a public elementary school many towns away from home. My mother was a diligent teacher and did everything to stay out of debt. But despite everything she did to support her five children, there were days when she would not be able to leave anything for her brood of five.

Borrow or starve

On those days, my sisters used their power over the youngest to make me walk to Tiya Pining’s store to “borrow” eggs or tuyo so we could eat a little—not for breakfast—but for the whole day. I remember that we used to cook five pieces of tinapa, add a lot of kamatis and sili, to make the meal filling enough for five hungry girls.

I remember walking so slow, terrified. Tiya Pining was kind enough; she knew my mother was not the type to spend all day at the tong-its table. In fact, she never went, busy as she was with her many side hustles or her one or two heads of livestock to help feed the family. But if Tiya Pining wasn’t at the store, I’d wait for a long time until the person manning it would pointedly finish looking after the many other people buying. Only then would they glare at me and ask me what I needed. Borrowing money made me feel very, very small. And if this had happened to me trying to find a way to eat for the day, what about those who needed a leg up for college tuition or hospital bills? Research has shown that many Filipinos would rather suffer from their illnesses instead of getting care in a hospital they could not afford.

These are just some of the things that describe the face of inequality of opportunity in the Philippines. Until we fix structural issues like equality of access to timely and affordable credit or health insurance and health care or investments, then our poor will remain poor. Finding stories of zero to hero will be hard, because the cases will be few. But there are seeds of hope.

In the last decade, financial reforms have been bearing fruit. The heart and soul of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ digital transformation road map is all about giving access to credit to anyone willing to borrow money the right way and pay them at the right time. The efforts of the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate the lending industry give good players a chance to use alternative data for the poor who have no financial footprint.


More needs to be done. From my view at places where the tire meets the road, the momentum in financial education could be continued with key reforms on financial education, hopefully fueling more zero to hero stories. One is to localize approaches so that ecosystems are created. The human brain is not wired to save for the future. It sees saving as painful. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winner known for his seminal work in behavioral finance, says the pain of saving P100 is 100 times more intense than the pleasure of setting aside that amount for the future. For financial education to work, those who are being taught not just need to hear about savings and investments, but also organized so that they are made accountable for their savings and investments, incentivized either by their employers or their local governments, and subjected to consistent checkups so that they are guided on their next steps, hence the coaching mechanisms. This Christmas season, no other zero to hero story shines brighter than that of the child born in the manger. We are used to telling his story and that’s also another best practice on top of the ones discussed in this article. We need to tell the zero to hero stories better, because they fuel more transformations than stories of stock market or bond market returns.

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TAGS: christmas, transformation

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