Reese Fernandez-Ruiz: Making an Impact in the Face of the Pandemic

A conversation with Rags2Riches’ Reese Fernandez Ruiz on how she empowers artisans through her work – and how she balances sustaining her enterprises’ ability to make a profit versus the good her businesses do. By Joyce Panares

Image courtesy of Reese Fernandez-Ruiz
Image courtesy of Reese Fernandez-Ruiz

Reese Fernandez-Ruiz has come a long way from the 22-year-old management graduate who, in 2007, met a group of artisans (mostly women) weaving foot rugs out of scrap fabric and were only earning 10-16 pesos per day.

Armed with a strong belief in her ability to help these women improve their lot in life, Reese, together with a group of founders, decided to put up Rags2Riches (R2R) shortly after their visit.

Thirteen years later, Rags2Riches, now a well-known fashion and design house empowering community artisans across the country, is proof that style and sustainability can co-exist, and make good business sense, too.

We talk to Reese on how the pandemic is shaping the business operations of R2R, and how the company is able to maintain its eco-ethical branding.

Q: You have worked with several artisanal communities – the Buhid and Hanunuo indigenous groups from Mindoro, T’boli women from South Cotabato, and Inabel weavers from Northern Luzon, among others. Can you take us through how you partner with them?

RFR: We work with different communities, and we work with them in different ways. There’s a community of artisans who are fully employed – meaning, even before we sell anything, they are paid. They are regular employees.

We also work with home-based artisans. They’re the ones who make the woven pieces and they’re considered our community suppliers. We pay by the piece.

And then there are the group of artisans who are in different parts of the Philippines weaving indigenous fabrics. We work with them through other social enterprises as well.

Image courtesy of Reese Fernandez-Ruiz
Image courtesy of Reese Fernandez-Ruiz

Q: A common misconception is that a business founded on social enterprise values is not sustainable. How were you able to prove this wrong?

RFR: We consider R2R as a self-sustaining business that provides opportunities for artisans. It will have an ending if you have nothing to reinvest, if you don’t have anything to buy raw materials with. Then you will just stop and you’re gonna move on to your next adventure.

If it’s a sustainable enterprise that will go on for a long time, it has to operate like a proper business. It has to invest in raw materials, invest on assets, and create more value. The goal is longevity. We want to be able to provide livelihood, and we know that livelihood is long term.

Q: How is your business faring now?

RFR: When we started 13 years ago, we have been through so much. We support artisans, and we’re in partnership with them. That’s the whole reason why we’re continuing, why we’re really hustling, even through 2020.

Especially because of this situation, we want to provide opportunities to our artisans, and as much as possible, get to the other side of this pandemic with as many people as we can bring.

Q: What kind of pivot did you have to do to weather this crisis?

RFR: Just like most businesses, we feel the pressure and strain of the market because people are trying to conserve resources and the majority of our products, pre-pandemic, are bags that are considered non-essentials.

So we pivoted our production to making products that the artisans can make, but are also relevant to the market. We produced face masks and PPE (personal protective equipment), and lounge wear under a capsule collection created by artisans and designers while on community quarantine.

Q: You have teamed up with Avida Land for the Safe & Sound Care Set. Tell us about this care kit.

RFR: If you bring a kit like that with you, then you have something that’s beautiful on your face, which is a mask made of indigenous fabric. You also have a multipurpose sanitizer with you. And then there are the filters that you could exchange as needed, plus the pouch because sometimes you put your mask inside your bag and it mixes with everything else, which defeats the purpose of sanitizing everything.

Q: Why did you choose to partner with Avida Land?

RFR: Avida is all about celebrating life and purpose and passions. And for R2R, that resonates so well. I think it’s the whole lifestyle of Avida — of living a meaningful life and celebrating your milestones — that really holds true for us.

For our artisans, they celebrate their milestones and their achievements in their lives. Because they know that they are achieving things little by little, they’re going to get somewhere. I think for Avida employees and home owners, it’s the same. For most of them, Avida is going to be their first home. It’s a fulfillment of their dream and realization of all their achievements. We see that as a beautiful symbol.

Q: In your website, you said your belief is that “every single good we do, every door we open for others, and every decision we make with love will lead to a better world for all.” Amid the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, has this changed?

RFR: Why we do what we do is our anchor, so it does not really change. It’s our North Star. So whatever we go through in life, whatever we go through as an enterprise, there will be very many difficulties and challenges, but we can go through all of them.

Our “why” is intact, and we have identified it so well. And we know exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing. In fact, it just became stronger because it’s gonna be needed even more.

Visit Rags2Riches’ website to shop for things that matter and support their advocacy. And for homes that promote socially responsible living and celebrating your milestones, visit Avida Land’s website.