PEOPLE – Joanne Rae M. Ramirez
From the start, she was unique. Christened “Maria Antonia Odelia” by her late parents Joker and Odelia Arroyo, she says she couldn’t have been nicknamed “MAO,” especially because her lawyer-father was jailed during martial law. So Joker Arroyo added an “I” to his eldest daughter’s initials and her nickname “MAOI” was born. Since then, she has always made sure that the ‘I’ in her name would be significant. I-catching.
For one, she has resolved to make a difference by using all that she is to make an impact on the lives of the less privileged — not just with good intentions but with measurable data.
After graduating from the University of the Philippines-Diliman, with a major in Biology, Maoi decided to combine “my love of science and innovation with my love of business” and facilitated investments of some $3.5 million into the country for organic fertilizers.
A “serial” entrepreneur (one who goes into one business after another), she says of herself, “I only do one thing — I enable people to change their world. I do this through the businesses I’ve founded and invested in, through the students I’ve taught and mentored, the organizations which I volunteer at, and through my public speaking.”
Thus, from empowering Batangas farmers to produce enough pasteurized eggs to supply at least five major Metro Manila hotels and other restaurant chains, to upcycling old leather jackets bought at ukay-ukay stalls into fashionable leather bags and accessories, Maoi has transformed lives and livelihoods without running for public office. She has also helped the Franciscans of the Our Lady of the Abandoned church in Sta. Ana by establishing a columbarium beside the church, where each niche helps provide income for the church and its causes.
“From my dad, I got my love of my country and then, from my mother’s side (the Gregorios of Greg shoes), I saw the power of creating jobs to make lives better,” says Maoi, who says her father inculcated the love of reading so much in her she only had a TV set installed in her bedroom when she was 26 years old! Before that, she would watch TV with him, because he loved watching Charlie’s Angels since he had a crush on Cheryl Ladd.
Maoi has founded the “Ignite Impact Fund” and is making waves as she ushers in “impact investing” in the Philippines, which she describes as “a new asset class where the investments create not just financial returns, but are also more focused on tangible, measurable social impact.”
“We primarily invest in the Philippines to help and our goal really is to create jobs and eradicate extreme poverty for people living under $1 to $2 a day, under P50 to P100 a day. This would be our farmers, our coastal communities, by investing and modernizing agriculture, modernizing mariculture, helping people get bank accounts, helping people get faster Internet. So that’s what we do,” says Maoi, who was named in 2011 as one of The Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) of the Philippines.
“We invest in companies, and our job is not to loan money — our job is to really invest because when you lend to somebody all you care about is getting to be paid your interest and getting your money back. When you invest in equity, when you have shares, you only succeed if they succeed. So we believe in partnering with farmers, with the poor, with companies that want to help create jobs and help farmers.”
What is her biggest asset when approaching investors?
“In the fund, I think what really helps is that I have a track record of doing it myself, so risking of my own money,” she replies.
“I started in my twenties,” continues Maoi, who is 44 now. “My father thought I was insane. With my little money 15 years ago, by the time I was 35 I had created 3,500 jobs in the poorest parts of our country. That’s almost like 100 jobs for every year that I had been alive. So, I got one award after another but I’ve always felt that’s not for me personally but for the work that the team and I did.” Aside from being a TOYM awardee, she became a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. She now sits on the Global Future Council of the WEF, which means she helps determine the agenda for responsible investing.
“Much as I care for the world, I want my own country to finally tip over to middle-income country. I think that I’m so frustrated that we taught agriculture to the Thai and the Vietnamese, and Thailand is at only three percent or almost zero percent extreme poverty. Vietnam is at six percent, I think, while we’re second to the last at 13 percent,” she rues.
“I really want us to stop being the ‘sick man of Asia.’ I started thinking, ‘I went to Philippine Science, I went to UP. I’ve been a scholar of the Filipino people since I was 13. So not only I do owe it to the Filipino people, it’s also a great honor.’ If I don’t do it, who will?” she asserts.
‘Marry yourself first’
Since it is Women’s Month, and I interviewed her on the eve of International Women’s Day, I asked Maoi what she wants to impart to the Filipina.
“Urban Filipinas have to realize two things: No. 1, you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time. Because life is a delicate balance, it’s a dynamic balance. I like the concept of balance but not work-life balance because that implies that there’s no life in your work and that there is no work in your life. If you want to raise children, you want a good marriage — that takes work. You should never leave your leadership, your competence and your patience at your front door. And you also bring your passion and your passion for your life to work and that’s what always makes Filipinas successful — when you actually bring life to work and you respect the work of your life.”
“No. 2, you cannot pour from an empty cup. My advice to young urban women always is you marry yourself first. In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, you love yourself first. How can you love somebody else, how can you love anything else? You cannot love a country (if you don’t love yourself first).
“For rural women, those who don’t live in the city, minding the sari-sari store or taking care of the kids, I think the biggest thing I want to impart to them is, ‘Kaya natin ito.’ Poverty isn’t just about lack of money, it’s lack of hope, it’s lack of the belief that we can change anything about our lives.”
Though “I” was added to the name she is most known for, Maoi doesn’t stand alone.
“And that’s my goal — to invest in other women and to invest in the Filipino and to prove that it works. Because we’re already world-class. The whole world depends on our expertise, I don’t know why we don’t want to invest in ourselves.”
With Maoi Arroyo, “I” has always meant “We.”
(You may e-mail me at [email protected] Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)