Growing Up with Adarna

Entrepreneur Agno Almario, Digitial Ventures Director for Adarna House publishing, shares his thoughts on education, Filipino literature and entrepreneurship.

MANILA, Philippines — Culture, heritage, and a world of unknown tales and unlocked secrets. This is what resonates when I think of Philippine children’s literature.

For many of us Filipino-Americans, we didn’t grow up understanding the language and culture of the Philippines in the same way that Filipinos born and raised here did. Though many of us have a deep longing to reconnect to our cultural roots, our exposure is limited to TFC (The Filipino Channel), academic school programs, and whatever our parents choose to share with us.

It was no surprise that when I first met Agno Almario of Adarna House, the Philippines’ oldest publishing house for children’s books, at the monthly startup event Open Coffee, I immediately connected with him as not only a fellow young person who values literature and is passionate about entrepreneurship, but also as the gatekeeper to a type of literature and culture that I’ve always been fascinated with but never fully understood.

Agno is a fellow beyond his years.

FOR CHILDREN. Agno Almario of Adarna

He comes to the office dressed in a barong (formal shirt) and slacks. He speaks with a certain level of maturity and understanding that most of us his age don’t have.

At 26, he is one of the company’s key decision makers, as the Director of Digital Ventures for Adarna House.

On a cloudy Monday afternoon in Quezon City, I get a chance to chat with the young pioneer.

For readers abroad or for Filipinos who may not have heard of Adarna House, can you give us a brief background?

Adarna House is the first children’s publishing house here in the Philippines. My father Virgilio Almario, a national artist in Literature, started the company over 30 years ago.

LOVING LITERATURE. Boy enjoys an Adarna House book. They have been publishing Filipino books since 1980.

There’s always that hint of Filipino culture when we produce our books, and there’s always that expectation that readers will receive high-quality products. A lot of our books are bilingual, in both Filipino and English. We have different types of books from big storybooks to reference books to even board books for preschoolers.

Our books are all about telling stories, sharing Filipino culture and literature, and at the same time making products that are pedagogical and geared towards educating the Filipino mind.

Adarna House has been in existence, since even before you and I were born, what was it like growing up with it?

It was very interesting because growing up I didn’t realize that we had a family business. Both my parents started off as teachers, eventually my mom became a management professional and my dad continued on with his poetry and his love for Filipino.

To be honest, I think my dad started Adarna House not as a business venture but really because he felt that the country needed Filipino children’s books. It was more of a venture of love — sorry to be cheesy — or more of an artistic calling, I guess.

When we were growing up, we didn’t really consider it [Adarna House] as a business venture, so we were never really trained to take the reins of the business. It was only when I got older that I realized this.

It was also only when I got older that Adarna House became more professional; my mother came in about 10 or 15 years ago to start molding the company into what it is today.

Growing up with Adarna House also meant that I read almost all the books as a kid. Even though we didn’t have degrees in Literature, we had a very deep understanding of art and aesthetics. I don’t know if that’s because both my parents love to teach or because we have Adarna House; perhaps, it’s a bit of both.

In your opinion, what is the most common misconception about working for one’s family business?

I guess a lot of people think that working for your family business is the easy way out. But working for a family business is very demanding because there are a lot of things that are expected from you at a very young age that you wouldn’t have a full grasp of.

For example, taking care of the existing employees in your business, or facing the pressure of making decisions for a company that has been in existence for longer than you’ve been alive, is something that most people aren’t expected to do in their 20s.

People sometimes think that it’s easier to have a family business because you’re earning passive income, but that’s not true at all.

There’s a lot more pressure being the owner.

Some may say that you can control your time, but your time is what your business demands of you. If the business needs you to pay attention for 16 hours straight or seven days straight, then you’re not going to be accountable to anyone.

If you fail, the business will fail.

Why did you go from a career in banking back to Adarna House?

I graduated college with a Philosophy degree. For some reason, I was always enamored by the idea of working for a bank.

Back then, it seemed like a “cool choice.”

Eventually, I ended up with one of our largest banks in the country. I spent one year at that bank and then another year at another bank.

After working with the banks, I realized that I wanted to pursue something akin to entrepreneurship. It dawned on me that the most economical choice was to be part of the existing family business.

I liked the idea of having flexibility of time, so that I could pursue other ventures. What ended up happening was that the ventures that I pursued independently actually started revolving around the competencies of the family business.

In my opinion, when you try to become an entrepreneur — I don’t think I’ve earned that title yet- the most logical approach is to look for entrepreneurial opportunities that make full use of your resources.

In my case, Adarna was that key resource.

The deep understanding of literature is something that I grew up with and has somehow shaped me.

I also grew up loving technology — videogames in particular- and having a keen interest in where it would go next.

I put all these interests and experiences together, and it has led me to where I am now- leading digital ventures for Adarna House.

What do you love most about Filipino language and/or culture?

I don’t know. I’m so ingrained in it…I don’t even know if I’m aware if something is Filipino or not.

For Filipino language, I think my father said it best when he said, “Ito yung wika ng gunita (this is the language of your collective memories).”

When you express something in that language it comes out differently…there’s really something unique about using your mother tongue.

In regards to Filipino culture, we were raised to be extremely nationalistic in our household, so I can’t really pinpoint one particular thing, but I can say that I can’t imagine not being in the Philippines.

What is your favorite children’s story and why?

Si Langgam at si Tipaklong (The Ant and the Grasshopper). I just remember it being my favorite simply because I remember reading it over and over again as a kid.

In your opinion, what would the Philippines be like without Filipino children’s stories?

The Philippines would definitely be different. Filipino children’s books are an introduction to our culture…an introduction to understanding what being a Filipino means.

Taking that element out would make it much harder for us to appreciate what it means to be Filipino.

Being Filipino is hard to define already in itself. Our culture is not as distinct as other Asian cultures.

We’re more of a melting point of several colonizers. Understanding our culture is a nuanced activity, I guess.

Our children’s books are key to understanding that nuance.

If you could crowdfund for any type of project, what would it be and why?

I would crowdfund for something that would promote Filipino writers and illustrators, or even Filipino artists in general.

I think one part of our business as publishers of Filipino content is that firm belief in the ability of the Filipino artist.

I think that’s also ingrained in our family values. We know that the Filipino artist, the Filipino writer, the Filipino illustrator is one of the best out there.

But we feel that this type of skill is not reaching its fullest potential or getting enough attention. I think we should have a project that would enable artists to easily promote their skills.

With the undeniable influence of globalization in Philippine society, how do you envision the landscape of our culture in the next 20 years?

To be honest, I think we’re already global as is. Some may argue that the several waves of colonizers that entered our country slowly washed our culture away, but that unique identity is still there in a nuanced form.

It proves that the Filipino identity is resilient. I think within the next 20 years that resiliency will continue.

We will always have a Filipino identity, though it may not be an obvious one.

What is your definition of a pioneer?

I guess a pioneer would be someone who pushes his/her craft or industry to its limits and defines it for the next generation. —

Matt Lapid is a freelance writer who specializes in stories on entrepreneurs and the Filipino Diaspora. He moved to the Philippines after graduating from UC Irvine with a B.A. in English Literature and an abnormal curiosity about the Philippines. Matt has worked with various startups and NGOs such as, the Filipino Startup Movement known as Juan Great Leap, Ashoka Philippines, Human Nature USA, and Gawad Kalinga-Center for Social Innovation.

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