In Manila, Social Entrepreneurs Are Connecting the Dots Towards Impact

By Rexy Josh Dorado & Dominique Martinez

Terri Jayme Mora of Ashoka Philippines. Photo taken at co.lab.

It was 2007 when Terri Jayme Mora first returned to work in the Philippines since leaving to study abroad. She had spent the previous four years in Washington, D.C., learning about social entrepreneurship and system change by working with Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, an international NGO that had pioneered and championed the idea of social entrepreneurship since the 1980s. With her head and heart on fire with possibility, she arrived in Manila that year driven to bring the Ashoka model to the Philippines and begin surfacing transformative social innovators from within the country.

But it was 2007, and very soon the global economy squeaked, then teetered, and then collapsed. Soon Terri found herself outside her motherland again, working in Singapore and then studying in London before the call of opportunity and obligation brought her back home once more.

By the time Terri arrived in Manila again in 2012, something had changed. “It’s different from before,” she tells us. “Now there’s an openness to trying new approaches. There’s this generation of young people who have a new mindset about possibility. And there are different kinds of people coming back home, using what they learned and bringing it to the Pinoy context.”

Innovating on society

Ashoka elected its first Fellow from the Philippines in 2013, and is now supporting a community of 6 Philippine Fellows who are launching and growing social solutions across sectors. These Fellows, in turn, are part of Ashoka’s global network of over 3000 Fellows around the world.

In Ashoka’s dictionary, social innovation isn’t just ethical innovation in products, technology, and design — it’s innovation in the way society works. There’s a quote that Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s Founder, likes to use: that social entrepreneurship isn’t about giving a man a fish or teaching a man to fish, but about “revolutionizing the fishing industry.”

Implicit in this analogy is the idea that the most transformative kind of social innovator is as much a movement builder as a product designer. In the business of changing social norms, Ashoka has found that the most revolutionary entrepreneurs are the ones who build new bridges, create new platforms, change mindsets, and hack human capacity in ways that fundamentally alter what’s possible.

“The most transformative kind of social innovator is as much a movement builder as a product designer.”

In the Philippines, Ashoka Fellows include Girlie Lorenzo of Kythe, who is galvanizing hospitals, university students, and government institutions towards greater support for children with terminal illnesses; Laurindo Garcia of B-Change, who is bringing together business, local government units, and young men with HIV to promote health and wellness; and Cristina Liamzon of Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship, who is creating a network of Overseas Filipino Workers to reclaim their financial independence and contribute to their communities. From Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to Muhammad Yunus, the godfather of microfinance, the idea of social entrepreneur as movement builder stands steady.

The examples start, but don’t end, with Ashoka’s network of problem solvers. Take Gerson Abesamis, a teacher and designer who leads Habi Education Lab, which engages both top-down policymakers and grassroots educators towards an education system that is driven by creativity and innovation.

Gerson Abesamis of Habi Education Lab.

Gerson recalls the lightbulb moment happened when he was learning to be a designer in the private sector: “A lot of things I was doing, the mindsets, the processes, the workshops, the experiences seemed like something I would have enjoyed or I would have been able to use as a teacher.”

In the education sector, Gerson saw a conflicting reality: “I saw that policy was mostly written by 5 or 10 people and usually from a central perspective. It’s hard to capture the nuances of communities especially since public education here in the Philippines is one of the largest public agencies.” He found his niche, and has spent the past couple of years, bringing together a movement around that gap.

And then there’s Henry Motte Munoz and Happy Feraren, co-founders of Bantay.PH. Originally inspired by the Indian website I Paid a Bribe, Bantay harnesses technology, design, and youth power to keep government accountable. They are closing the loop between everyday people who demand good governance and changemakers within government who can implement the solutions.

“Government is full of both good and bad people,” says Happy. “When we found the good people, we said, ‘we want to work with you,’ and we realized that they want the same thing. They want a system that works. And you also need them inside to be doing all the reforms that you want. So Bantay gives them all the feedback we gather from the outside and we feed it back to them. Citizens say ‘hey, this is what we think you should do,’ and they’ll be the ones to run it inside.’”

The right moment?

These new initiatives have found life at the intersection of two trends: first, in a vibrant tradition of civil society organizing that has taken ownership of the gap between what government should and can provide; and second, in a revitalized generation of young people who see challenges as opportunities, who see the future as theirs to shape. Happy, who enlists university students to report on the effectiveness of government agencies, says of the collaboration: “The youth have the time, the energy, and the idealism to do it. It was a natural partnership.”

But of course, there are challenges. “Barkadas and social circles that have emerged,” says Terri, and it’s gotten in the way of interacting beyond siloes. “We need to break these down again.”

“We need to break [these siloes] down again.”

Terri also highlights that the nature of how stories get told — focusing on individuals rather than the big picture — get in the way of collaborations forming: “To stick to a social issue and to create impact in the long term, you have to be connected to yourself… but there is a danger that it stops with individuals, that people don’t talk about the things we share.”

Happy Feraren of Bantay.PH.

And Happy brings up the role of social finance in shaping and often preventing the sustained focus that the social entrepreneur’s work demands. “Because you’re very much reliant on grants, you’re very much reliant about what the objective of the grant is. How are we supposed to make a sustainable project if every year we have to somehow change our objective to fit the foundation’s?”

Despite these challenges, the movements that these entrepreneurs are building are gaining momentum. And so is the greater movement of social entrepreneurs who are bringing people together to break boundaries and unlock the capacity of everyday citizens.

“They are engineering new systems where people can be made stronger together.”

As Terri describes her plans to systematically “connect the connectors” of the social sector through Ashoka, I can’t help but think that the central pieces of the puzzle are people like her, and the Ashoka Fellows, and Gerson and Happy and Henry, and the other entrepreneurs we spoke to.

The future hinges on the innovators floating in between the crystallized spaces, making cracks and building bridges between the old systems. Engineering new systems where people can be made stronger together. In the end, there’s nothing more disruptive than that.

Want to learn more about the stories of these innovators? Click the supplementary articles below to read more, and stay tuned for more stories of entrepreneurial movement leaders in the global Filipino community: