A particularly remarkable woman, Renee is a US-born Filipino designer who works with women from 50 villages in Eastern Samar (one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines) to manufacture and export native bags made from seagrass -- providing a large community of weavers with stable incomes.
She started the project, called Banago , by herself with her own savings. Now that she is receiving bulk orders and beginning worldwide distribution, she needs capital to fill them on time and in good condition. So she recently took out a $24,800 Kiva loan to continue growing her business.
She received her loan through Kiva field partner NWTF  -- an NGO that helps women in the Philippines achieve self-sufficiency and discover their economic potential, skills, and productivity to improve their quality of life.
We recently had the opportunity to interview Renee and learn more about her background and what inspired her to start her business.
1. How did you start your own weaving and design business?
It wasn't something I planned. I just kept coming across these beautiful mats when I would come back home to Samar in the Philippines to visit. I was designing in New York for about 10 years prior to starting with these banig mats. I saw potential in the mats as a great textile that I could design into different products.
2. How did you get into this area of work?
I started about 15 years ago as a sales associate at a retail store in Los Angeles. After a couple years, I worked my way up to manager and buyer for the 3 stores, and I decided to take out a government loan and enroll at the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising. I graduated with a merchandise marketing and product development degree and ended up in sales and marketing in the fashion industry between LA and New York.
Later, I moved to New York to realize my goal of becoming a designer. I stayed there for 10 years, started a distribution company breaking Japanese brands into the U.S. market through sales, marketing and product development, then eventually ended up starting my own brand and clothing company with partners from Japan. After 6 years of running my clothing company, I was offered a job with Pret A Porter Paris doing business development for the U.S. and North America -- breaking French brands into the U.S. market through the French Federation and their tradeshows in New York, Paris and Tokyo. I jumped at the opportunity as I saw this could open so many doors internationally. Plus, it would help more businesses expand into markets they were not familiar with.
3. What is your background? What did your family do for a living and how did you become interested in design?
I was born in the U.S. My father was also born and raised in the U.S., but his father is from Cagayan Valley in Ilocos and his mother is from Guiuan, Eastern Samar -- same town my mother and her family are from. As a child, my mother had to stay home in Los Angeles to take care of us while my father went to work. She would take contractor sewing jobs at home. Then when we were older, she went back to school and became a nurse for the elderly in convalescent homes in Los Angeles. My father was a manager at a local jewelry store until he decided to teach tennis for a living to the children of Los Angeles County.
4. Did you go to school?
Yes, after middle school in Los Angeles, my parents transferred us to Cebu, Philippines where I attended high school at Cebu International School. After graduating I returned to the U.S. and I took out government loans to go to FIDM.
5. How did you save enough money to start your weaving project?
To be honest I didn't save much, but whatever funds I did have came from my previous job with the French Federation's Pret A Porter Paris. For the first big orders for Banago (which were from Anthropologie U.S.), I made personal loans just to finance the PO's. I just kept moving forward even though I wasn't sure how I was going to fund everything -- including the export expenses. That first 6 months was a self taught crash course on export and production in the Philippines.
As we needed funds, I would take out loans with high interest just to make things happen. It was truly a life-changing experience -- especially training the weavers and embroiderers and creating a system for them. Everyone felt how intense things were but everyone involved did their part to meet deadlines and worked with me to make things happen. Words will never be enough to explain what happened with all of us that first year.
6. How did you find and recruit all of the weavers from 50 villages in Eastern Samar? How do you stay in touch with all of them?
My producers and production partners manage all of that with me. When I give them the orders, we visit more weavers in different towns to see who can work and deliver and who cannot. We have them do home work and deliver mats to our in-house sewing team for production.
7. How has the frequency of typhoons and prevalnce of poverty in the area affected the women you work with?
Well for the production of our bags, the rainy season is no good. We depend on sunlight to dry the materials of wild grass and buri before and after they are dyed. So when there is a lack of materials there is lack of production -- and a lack of work for the women.
8. How have you seen women's lives change as they work with you as weavers? Do they make more money? How have their lives improved?
Yes! We have heard many thanks and been told great stories of how their pay helps them with needs like medicine and kids’ school fees. I personally don't think having a television improves life, but they seem to think so! One woman told me she was so happy when she could buy a televison!
9. What inspires you to do this work? Why have you made such a great effort to reach other women with this business model?
Growing up, both my mother and my grandmother would take sewing jobs at home for garment factories in Los Angeles, which is exactly what these women who weave and embroider mats do for Banago. So that alone inspires me to create and work hard to keep this going. I am thankful to be able to use my experiences and international resources to help provide opportunities to these women and their families.
10. What is your vision for your social enterprise? What would you like to see it do in 2 years? 5 years? How big would you like it to be?
In 2 years, I would really just like the business to pay off our production loans and be able to fund itself financially -- paying salaries for our current employees in U.S. and in Philippines. Right now, we have a dedicated team of about 5 main people who don’t take a salary but work hard to make this happen because they have faith in the business, the progess and the vision. In 5 years, I would hope the business can run without me having to wear 10 hats all the time and travel so much with sleepless nights.
I have a vision of this growing into a longstanding, international brand -- possibly with branded retail shops and retail partners as an outlet to sell these products. So as the years pass by, I plan on expanding our products with different weavers and producers for different products -- all developed, produced and distributed under the Banago brand. To continue on our current trajectory, we need to keep innovating and expanding products and our artisan communities in different regions in the Philippines while keeping up with trends to keep the name sellable.
11. How do you plan to use your loan raised on Kiva? How did it feel to get the loan? What has it been like to work with NWTF?
Mainly production and tradeshows. The demand for our products is so high that we had to start saying no to orders since we couldn’t fill them fast enough. The cost of tradeshows is very expensive but we have to do them to see our buyers. I was really surprised how easy and pleasant it was to work with NWTF. Not only did they make everything easy, but they also truly believed in what we were doing. We definitely had like-minded goals. It was really heartwarming to know that there are organizations like these that are for the people. I have approached government groups with no progress -- even though we were helping so many communities. To me, this seemed quite unfair, so I gave up trying after many months of meeting with different people who had the power in government to actually help.
12. If you could say anything to one of the people who helped fund your loan on Kiva, what would it be?
Thank you, thank you, thank you from all of us under the Banago brand -- management, weavers, and embroiderers. We could not have come this far if it wasn't for your help. This will be felt and remembered by so many people for many many years to come.