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Can Habi Footwear become the Philippine answer to TOMS Shoes?

Many Filipinos don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs because their ventures don’t begin in the startup community. They do not develop the business model over a Startup Weekend. They do not read The Lean Startup and then begin thinking of what to produce for a business model. They do not solicit advice on Quora in the days leading up to a product launch.

Instead, they simply go out there and sell, as was the case with Habi Footwear founder Janine Chiong. “Habi Footwear started as an online store on Facebook,” she says. “Since Habi started out as a college project, our group wanted to enter the market in the most low cost and efficient way possible. Online stores are basically at zero cost, and at that time, Facebook was the most effective platform. To promote it, I would partner up with bloggers and avail of paid Facebook ads to generate noise.”

Habi Footwear co-founding team. (L-R) Bernadee Uy, Janine Chiong, and Paola Savillo,

Habi Footwear co-founding team. (L-R) Bernadee Uy, Janine Chiong, and Paola Savillo.

You could say that their product is shoes, but that would be only partially accurate. Habi Footwear is a social enterprise that seeks to gainfully employ mothers from Kawan ni Sto. Niño in Old Balara and Saint Luigi Oriones Creations in Payatas, two of the poorest communities in Quezon City. Look at the shoes, and you’d never know – they appear just as stylish as what you see in A&F. The website does not look too different from other online fashion stores. But each purchase is just as much about generating a social good as it is about looking fresh.

The women weave rags into parts that will be upcyled for shoes.

Habi Footwear offers everything from espadrilles to sandals and heels and flats.

Anyone who purchases these shoes enters into a community where giving back is consciously thought about and celebrated. Habi Footwear thus sells a lifestyle of conscious consumerism as much as much as actual footwear.

For Chiong, this small community is both her target demographic and her deepest inspiration.

“It’s always fulfilling to hear from people from all over the world,” she says. “Some would email just to say they admire what we do and some would even plan a trip to our shop as part of their itinerary when they visit the Philippines. Those really keep me going.”

See: Social enterprise 101: five lessons from an experienced social entrepreneur

Selling talent and resilience, not pity

Given that conscious consumerism is still relatively new to the Philippines, Chiong has to straddle a delicate balance when it comes to marketing on social media. On one hand, she wants Habi Footwear to grow into a brand that makes the social good look sexy. On the other, how do you let your audience know who they are supporting without resorting to making every Instagram post a picture of a poor mother’s dilapidated home?

Accordingly, Chiong has been careful about her approach from day one. “If you would look at Habi’s online marketing campaigns or social media posts, you would see that we never use the terms “charity”, “help the poor”, “save them from…” says Chiong, who is audibly wary of the pity-sell. “We want to highlight and empower our communities by making sure that their ingenuity shines through.”

It would take the most cynical of critics to suggest that Chiong has not achieved that ambitious goal. Habi currently employs twenty-seven mothers, all of whom are paid at four times the market rate.

Chiong emphasizes that she hopes to highlight the women’s talents, rather than their backgrounds, when she features them on social media. “We don’t want consumers to perceive them as pitiful and in need but rather as talented and resilient,” she says. “We let our products and their quality stand out and sell themselves.”

And sell they have. Since Habi Footwear was founded in 2011, the brand has grown from a largely B2C to a largely B2B operation, with resellers offering their shoes through both online and brick-and-mortar stores, all over the world.

As Habi grew, Chiong quit her day job as a marketing assistant in order better manage the company. But she’s more proud of how Habi employees have grown right along with the company, as in the case of weaver Gil Estrada. After working gigs as an errand man in a hardware shop, Estrada went on to become one of the top weavers on Habi’s team, conducting training sessions for policemen, students, and mothers alike.

“What I admire about him is his creativity and his confidence,” Chiong says. “He doesn’t let his age (he’s in his late fifties) and health condition stunt his creativity and willingness to learn.”

Can Habi Footwear be the Philippine answer to TOMs Shoes?

The future is not all rosy for Chiong and Habi Footwear. Entering into her market – shoes, if you want to go by material; socially conscious fashion, if you want to go by mission – is easy.Chiong herself jumped into the industry as part of a college project, back when she was only twenty-one.

“What scares us is the increasing number of online local shoe brands in the Philippines,” Chiong says. “Though we can say that we have our own edge, the easy entrance to the shoe industry always keeps us on our toes. We have to make sure that we release new designs and offer good discounts or marketing promotions to stand out.”

These adjustments are necessary, particularly for the Philippine market. Chiong explains.

“Filipinos are not so much into the concept of responsible consumerism so good variety and competitive pricing are what they look at first. We are not the cheapest nor the most popular after all.”

Chiong’s measuring stick Habi Footwear’s success is TOMS Shoes, though the businesses aren’t perfect analogs – TOMS gives away a pair of shoes for every one purchased, whereas Habi Footwear seeks to provide gainful employment to economically underprivileged women.

“We definitely want to be as successful as TOMS in the near future,” she says. “They made their shoes feel relevant to their consumers’ lifestyles that they are almost perceived as a wardrobe staple. Owning a pair of Toms has even become a status symbol for many, and people are often proud of having a pair.”

“We want to be able to be that Filipino brand that people from all over the world will be proud to own as well, Chiong says. “This would mean that we have scaled up enough to provide more fair trade livelihood opportunities to communities in our country just like what Toms does for their worldwide beneficiaries and labor forces in Africa and Argentina. And of course, that would also mean that I can finally say that I have fulfilled my dream to become a woman of purpose.”

Editing by Josh Horwitz

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