From the prison cell to the showroom
by by Jenny Molbog-Mendoza
Who would have ever thought that the mothers inside the Maa City Jail of Davao City, a metro south of the Philippines, could still provide for the needs of their families despite their situation?
Some people might have surmised that mothers who are put behind bars can no longer do anything to take care of their children. However, a social entrepreneur in the city has negated this notion.
For entrepreneur Yvette Marie Celi, these women should not be deprived of the opportunity to continuously nurture their families just because they have committed crimes, which range from robbery to peddling prohibited drugs.
“I am a mother, and I know the feeling of not being able to provide for the family. After all, these mothers got into doing those crimes because of their desire to give their children a good life,” narrated Yvette, who at the time of the interview was finishing a prototype of her new straw bag design.
This designer of bags made of plastic straw from the city of the country’s highest leader at present, President Rodrigo R. Duterte, has already produced hundreds of designs to satisfy the discriminating taste of her buyers; the biggest of which are from the United States, Japan, and Italy.
When asked about the prejudice of some towards the inmates, she had this to say: “The fact that they are inside, you are assured that they will deliver your requirements especially that they can’t go anywhere else.”
She noted that hiring them for almost 10 years now has definitely built the strong trust her company has for them. Apart from this, Yvette’s Collection has also developed highly-skilled and reliable workers among them.
“They really deliver whatever is required of them,”
the mother-of-two said.
Considering these traits, the Filipino social entrepreneur has constantly hired them even after they are out of prison; that is if they desire to still work for the company.
“A lot of my workers here in the shop have actually been with me since I started in 2007. We have been together since the time that I was just a struggling entrepreneur until now that we are already slowly reaping the fruits of our labor,” she shared.
While in the past the families of the prisoners rarely paid them a visit, it is a different scenario right now; visitors are already teeming because of a very important reason.
“Before, it was the prisoners who were asking money from any family members or relatives visiting them. However, it is already the other way around now; it is the prisoners who give,” Yvette’s partner, George Gasco, said.
The workers are paid based on the pieces of components or basic bags they produce each day. Those who are quick to finish get as much as P20,000 (US$400) a month.
Since Yvette and George frequent the Maa City Jail, a special bond between them and their workers’ families has also been fostered.
For Pinky Morales, being treated like an equal and with dignity despite being an “ex-convict,” has helped her bring back her confidence.
“I never expected that after I gained back my freedom, I would still have a job. The trust that Yvette and George have been giving me has made me realize that I should likewise trust myself again,” she narrated.
A David in an industry full of Goliaths
How did a mere passion for crocheting make her become one of the most successful fashion designers in Davao City?
“If you are passionate about what you have been doing, you will have all the reason to go on. For me, as long as I am happy with what I am busy with, I never consider it as work,” she said, as she recalled that she herself find it hard to believe as well that the P500 initial capitalization she had would grow into a multi-million business interest.
With markets that include industry giants like Italy and the US (particularly New York), Yvette has proven that being small does not matter at all if you have passion for what you do and compassion to those you are working with.
“Although my brand is really not carried by my buyers abroad, since they use their own brands, it is not an issue to me. I take pride of the fact that they have been giving their trust to a humble Filipino designer,”
she said, adding that it must be the craftsmanship and reliability of Yvette’s Collection that earned her these markets.
Now employing around 250 workers, 200 of whom are still inside the Maa City Jail, does Yvette already considers herself successful?
According to her, the real gauge of success is happiness; if you are happy then you are successful. She pointed out, though, that she could still be happier.
“Yes, I am really happy right now. But, since I still want to help more people and several communities, particularly here in Mindanao, I don’t think I’m already there,” she said. Mindanao is the southern island of the Philippines where Davao City is located.
It appears that Yvette is on her way to a happier life. In August, her company has made a pact with the Matigsalugs, a group of Indigenous People (IP) and among the original inhabitants of the city. Yvette’s Collection is getting the services of the group in crafting indigenous designs unique to their tribe, which will be used as components to her bags. Also in the said month, the 43-year-old entrepreneur touch-based with another IP group in the province of Davao Occidental to supply her with circular plates made of nito (Lygodium circinatum) which belongs to the fern family.
As she continuously grows her product lines, Yvette and George are optimistic about becoming agents of social change; that as social entrepreneurs, they will help other marginalized sectors through their passion for fashion. And with some marketing and technical assistance from the Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), they believe that more can really be done.
“We want to bring our passion to greater heights. We want to give more because we know how it feels to have nothing. The so-called corporate social responsibility has been part of our lives already; it’s a lifestyle, a daily routine that we can never take for granted,” quipped the couple, whose products have been among the major attractions of several trade fairs here and abroad.
With their plan to launch their men’s line and footwear brand in October, Yvette’s Collection surely has a long way to go in making their name bigger, while constantly helping others improve their lives.
(Photos courtesy of Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry and Yvette’s Collection)