TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Xavier Alpasa

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Xavier Alpasa climbed out of poverty to the top ranks of the Philippines’ premier corporation — and then realized he wanted to give it all back. As a seminarian, he helped women sewing scraps in a slum connect with top designers to create high-end fashion pieces. Now a Catholic priest, Father Xavier is working to support an ecotourism venture on a former leper colony.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Xavier asks:

What is the business of faith in business?

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Tell us about where you’re living and what you’re working on now.

As a Jesuit priest, I was assigned to a mission island called Isla Culion. The island is here in Palawan, an island province of the Philippines. Because of the financial crisis, the school here, which taught poor children from grade school through college, tragically had to close its grade school.

Xavier (center) with children in front of his church.

To generate sustainable income for the rest of the school, the school board (chaired by Father Joel Tabora, SJ) decided to invest in the country’s first and only ecotourism social enterprise. Through the generosity of Ms. Malena Fernandez, Hotel Maya was born. Hotel Maya already attracts some tourists. Our dream is that Hotel Maya not only provides enough money to support the school, but that it also becomes the national center for ecotourism and ecological conservation.

What is unique about Hotel Maya?

Hotel Maya is also a laboratory for the school’s new entrepreneurial ecotourism course, which is an extension from Ateneo de Naga University. The enrollment of the school has grown. Before, the school would have around only 10 to 11 students enrolled in the college. But because of the new tourism course, which is more appropriate for the area, it has attracted around 80 students. The project has attracted tourists as well. The number before would be around 3,000 a year. It has already doubled to around 6,000.

We are very happy that National Geographic has included us in the 20 Best Trips of 2011, which has generated interest from the international community. Isla Culion is considered to be the Philippines’ last frontier. The forest is still virgin, the sea is still protected. The ecotourism thrust of the project promotes responsible travel. We want to be able to promote a different kind of tourism whereby people can go for volunteerism. At the same time, they mix with indigenous people, eat with them, build a house for them, build a water system.

A local enjoys the natural beauty of Culion.

The other thrust of the project is for meaningful journeys. We want to be known not just for our fine white sand beaches, not just for the coral reefs, but also for the entire package of the experience, because aside from experiencing the community, visitors also get to know the history of the island.

Tell us about Culion’s unique history.

The tourism initiative is actually a very appropriate measure for the island, because the island used to be the world’s largest leper colony. There were around 6,000 lepers walking around the island.

For more than a century the island was feared, dreaded, marginalized and really practically isolated. So the ecotourism thrust becomes a very potent medicine for that matter, which then reconnects the island to the world.

So it’s a profound experience to see tourists going to the island and touching base and really encountering, discussing, dialoguing, conversing … the tourism is a profound experience for the people.

This summer we hope to start our historical reenactment. We want to reenact the first day when the lepers arrived, when the Jesuit priests and the St. Paul de Chartes nuns literally carried them. We want to be able to reenact when children were actually separated from their parents. The parents would be able to visit their children divided by a glass wall. We want to be able to capture the tragedy of a mother crying to see her child, a mother who cannot even embrace her own child because they’re divided by a glass wall.

We want to be able to capture this history because we want to capture the healing that happened. We want to also be known as a healing island.

A mother and her child rest in the shade.

You were selected as a finalist in the Unreasonable Institute’s Fellows program.

Yes, in the Unreasonable Institute’s Finalist Marketplace, there are 45 finalists, and the Hotel Maya project was one selected. Now we are being tested for entrepreneurial skills. The first 25 finalists to raise US$8,000 get to be Unreasonable Institute Fellows. People can vote for us on the Isla CULION Missions webpage on the Unreasonable Institute’s website. I hope people will support Isla CULION Missions with their votes in this online voting competition.

The top 25 finalists get to stay in the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado for six weeks to meet mentors, funders, philanthropists, and venture capitalists. The first week, the maximum people could donate was $10. This week it’s $500, and the cap goes up each week. The minute we reach $8,000, we get in. So we hope to be able to get more votes from different parts of the world.

Right now we’re ranked 18th of the 45 finalists. Since we’re located on a remote island with only eight hours of power each day, and very intermittent Internet connection, we have difficulty reaching out to the world. It’s an extra challenge in promoting the island.

The race actually ends March 10, but because it is a race, whoever reaches the $8,000 even before March 10 could dislodge us.

You have a lot of experience with successful social entrepreneurship. Tell us about Rags2Riches, the organization you helped form.

As seminarians, most of us were all assigned to Payatas, which is the garbage dumpsite capital of the Philippines. When I was there, I would notice mothers weaving foot rugs from scraps they had collected from the dump.

At that time, they were just selling them for 9 pesos a piece. The middleman would come in and buy them at 9 pesos, and bring them to the department stores in the malls and sell them for 25 pesos. I thought there was injustice there because the middleman were not doing anything except carrying the rugs to the department store, and they would get the chunk of the profit.

So I told the women, “If you get organized, as one body, you will have more bargaining power and this middleman will have less power over you.” They agreed, so we organized and started our own stall at a market.

With some marketing help from friends, rich buyers started approaching the stall. And the rich people were suddenly connecting with these poor women. It was just a delight to see the richest of the country and the poorest of our country talking and connecting.

That was just the beginning of Rags2Riches success, though.

Yes, it started with the foot rugs, and then Rags2Riches grew even more.

We convinced the most famous Filipino designer, Rajo Laurel, to meet with us for dinner. He held a foot rug in his hand, and he said, “You know, this is not a foot rug.” He rolled it up, put some buttons on it, and said, “This is a wine holder.” So the foot rug that used to be nine pesos was then converted to a wine holder, and was sold for 500 pesos.

Then he grabbed another rug, and said, “This is not a foot rug. This is a clutch bag.” And it was then converted to a 900 pesos bag. Later, Rajo went to the Payatas and taught the women how to adapt the foot rugs.

The women always tell me, “You know, it’s really more than the money, it’s more than the profit, that we earn. It’s connecting to the people.” It’s the acknowledgement of their presence, the acknowledgement of their dignity.

So when we have fashion shows in hotels in posh areas, when we get the top models, we always end with the mothers from our area also walking the runway.

Our dream is that someday we hope to be able to build a Rags2Riches village. We hope to be able to provide the women a very good environment, where they are all neighbors, and they make their bags in that neighborhood.

Rags2Riches has four P’s that we are very conscious of: the typical triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit, are the first three. But we add one more, which is Positive Influence. We hope that Rags2Riches becomes a showcase for other young people to get into social entrepreneurship. And we’ve actually had a number of followers who have also ventured into social entrepreneurship. We’re very happy that Rags to Riches is becoming an inspiration for young people to get into social entrepreneurship. They are realizing that there is a career in it, and that they serve people and also have meaningful careers.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

The very first advice I would give them is to stick to the noble intentions. When you stick to noble intentions, you attract other noble intentions. And it becomes a convergence of good will, of people wanting to help.  When you stick to that faithfully, 100 percent, 24/7, people see through you with great transparency, without you having to talk about the details of your mission. It will show, it will bear good fruits. And the good fruits are then harvested to become seeds again of future generations.

Second, because it’s social entrepreneurship, one shouldn’t forget that the business acumen will have to be there. You need to really put in the best of business skills, so it’s important to actually network. It’s important to attract some of the best marketing professionals you have, the best think tanks for finance, so as to decide on your margins, your pricing, and the other financial strategies. The business acumen will have to be there.

Third, regardless of one’s religion, I also believe that there is a need to have a spirituality. There needs to be a belief in the beyond, the Divine, the Transcendence — however you may call it. Because, like any business, there will be difficulties. And it’s important to stick to the mission and see the picture beyond the obstacles one will encounter.  All entrepreneurs will always encounter problems. And the only buoy, the only bridge that will bring you beyond all these obstacles is to see the Transcendent beyond all those obstacles.

Next, social entrepreneurship is about the poor. It’s about helping. So keep the focus on the poor. We do all of this because we want to alleviate poverty. Social entrepreneurship isn’t just a fad that we want to be a part of, because we want to be known as social entrepreneurs. We need to keep the poor as a focus. They are really the super stars for this. They are the reason why social entrepreneurship was born. We must always keep them in mind.

You yourself were born into a poor family. Tell us about your background.

Yes, I grew up in a poor family. My parents did not finish basic education.

So they were really struggling with poverty when they got married. But they dreamt of a good education for my sister and myself. They didn’t want the two of us to experience the same poverty that they experienced.

Initially my sister and I went to a public school. When I was in the public school, I would share my textbook with my seatmate, because there would be around 50 students and there would be only 25 books. So Monday, Wednesday, and Friday would be my turn with the book, Tuesdays and Thursdays was my classmate’s. That’s how it went for my entire elementary school.

My parents ended up taking on a lot of debt to put my sister and me into private Catholic education, all the way through college.

My father’s job was to haul cases of beer on his shoulder. When I was in my second year in college, he injured his knee and he had to retire. So I became a working scholar. I got a scholarship and I also served as a waiter for a fast food restaurant here.

When I graduated, I applied for the same company that my father was working for, San Miguel Corporation, the beer company. Luckily I was admitted.

I imagine you had a very different position than your father did.

I was a corporate planning officer under the office of the president at San Miguel Corporation, the top company in the Philippines. In his work for the company, my father had sat at the back of a truck. Now I sat at an executive desk. I was very happy to have fulfilled the dream of my parents.

Growing up, the four of us lived in a very small room, just a six square-meter space. And my father would always dream of having a house. So when I began to earn a higher salary and was offered a housing loan, the first thing I did was buy a house for my parents.

I remember my father entering the house very emotionally, actually crying, because it was his first house ever in his entire life.

What led to your decision to enter the religious life?

At the height of all that success, the Pope came to the Philippines for World Youth Day in 1995.  I was chosen to be the emcee of that day. There were 4 million people gathered. I remember that night when we instructed the people to light their candles … there was a sea of light. And it gave me goose bumps, it was a religious experience. I was just a few steps away from the Pope.

And all of a sudden I was asking myself, “Oh my God, where did this all come from? Where are all these blessings coming from? I want to be able to embrace the Giver and not just the gifts. I want to be able to give back.”

So that same night I decided I would do everything to give back. To offer everything that I had: my talent, my life, my education, my experience. And looking back, I realize it is really true that nothing happens by chance.

God allowed me to come from a poor family so that I would intimately know how it is to be poor. And God also allowed me to graduate from poverty by working hard, by studying, by entrepreneurship. My business background is what I use for social entrepreneurship, my poor family background is my inspiration to help the poor.

And I dream of the beyond. I dream of impossible things, because impossible things have happened! Miracles do happen. My slogan will always be: “I don’t believe in miracles. I rely on them.”

Miracles can happen when we believe. Rags2Riches is just one proof. And I hope that the same miracle will happen for Culion, for Hotel Maya. It’s starting to happen now.

How has the TED Fellowship affected your life?

Magically. I couldn’t believe the power of that label, that seal of approval. It’s like when you’re a TED Fellow, people immediately support you. People immediately give you much credit. The integrity multiplies a million times.

I met a lot of good friends during the TED Global Fellowship. We keep in touch and exchange emails, and some even continue to help me in my work.