Cambio & Co.'s Gelaine Santiago Brings The Beauty Of Philippine Social Enterprises To Canada And Beyond
She may be based in Toronto now, but Gelaine mirrors her story of discovering her Filipino identity in her brand that focuses on fostering conversation about Filipino identity and heritage, empowering local artisans, and being a catalyst of social change
We ask questions about ourselves all the time.
It's a healthy process and it should be encouraged; after all, the quest for these questions' answers could very well lead to the discovery of hidden abilities, of deep and lasting personal change, of purpose and meaning.
However, what the answer-seeker must know is that it's not actually the answers that they should be on the lookout for—it's asking the right questions.
Social entrepreneur Gelaine Santiago knows exactly what this means.
At 22 years old, when her peers were busy asking what career moves to make, what to do post-college, or how to make the most out of their youth, she looked inwards instead of outwards, focusing her life's questions on her Filipino identity, or more specifically, the absence of it.
Gelaine was born in the Philippines, but moved to Canada at the age of three. And although her passport confirms that she's Canadian, the way she speaks is Canadian, and the life she lives is very much Canadian in many respects, none of that could eclipse the fact that her heart was shaped by a Filipino family with Filipino values at its center. She was Canadian on paper, but on the inside, who was she, really?
She had heard of her extended family back in the Philippines, she knew what a lechon was and regularly partook of Filipino meals at home, and she had some knowledge of Filipino culture, thanks to the stories about her motherland that her parents made sure to preserve and tell her.
Gelaine knew some things, but she also knew that she didn't know enough.
And so, the question she asked herself was, “What else don’t I know?”
The answers would unlock her life's mission.
"I remember the experience of meeting titas and titos whom I had only known by name. And I remember the strange feeling of walking into my family’s ancestral home," Gelaine recalls, describing the events leading up to the meaningful musing.
"It was the first time I realized there was so much about my family that I didn’t know," she continues.
All this unfolded when Gelaine returned to the Philippines for the first time since she left 19 years ago—an experience that could have been jarring and uncomfortable for many immigrant Filipinos visiting "home" for the first time. But not for Gelaine. Instead of focusing on the unease of feeling the foreignness around a family whose culture and traditions differed greatly from her own, she embraced it all, absorbing the unfamiliar and new and colorful all at once—and even yearning to connect to their world more intimately.
"From there, I began learning more about Filipino history and culture. I realized how important my culture was to my identity," Gelaine says.
The feelings only intensified as she returned to Canada, feelings she couldn't wait to share with her then boyfriend-turned-husband and business partner, Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer. Both active members of the youth organization AIESEC, this pair held a natural appreciation of learning about cultural heritage and the role it plays in one's outlook—more so when it was Gelaine's own heritage in the spotlight.
Now after hours and hours of researching on all things Filipino (and enjoying every minute of it), there was one thing that left a lasting mark with Gelaine: that there are social enterprises in the Philippines founded on the promise to protect, promote, and elevate the countless crafts in the country.
As Gelaine soon learned, the all-encompassing term "Philippine arts and culture" was inaccurate; every region, every province, and even individual towns and barrios within them is home to varying traditions and art forms, each and every one of them deserving to be protected by an organization committed to their welfare. There is no singular "art and culture" that can define the Philippines, but rather, it is a country made whole by its many different traditions.
Jérôme shares the same sentiment.
"...What I discovered was that every region had such a strong sense of culture at multiple levels (food, language, identity). The artistry and quality of craftsmanship are absolutely phenomenal, but totally distinct between what you find among weavers in the Cordilleras and what you find among the Muslim communities in Mindanao. I am still very much fascinated by learning how each region distinguishes itself. I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes Filipino culture," he says.
What came next for Gelaine was both unsurprising and heartwarming.
Gelaine left her Talent Acquisition Specialist job that suddenly felt out of sync with what she knew she wanted to do. Then, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and with her hand in Jérôme's, took a giant leap of faith and launched her very own social enterprise called Cambio & Co., where she currently sits as its co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer. Gelaine celebrates the brand's 5th anniversary this year.
She also manages Sinta & Co., the world’s first socially conscious Filipino wedding boutique.
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"Pinays have always been Leaders in our communities and homes. It’s not often a title we’re given but one we’ve earned time and again." 💬 our co-founder @gelainesantiago on being Pinay, a Leader, and a Writer.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ .⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ She's claiming and celebrating these identities while she shelters in place 🏠 What does being loud, brown, and proud mean to you? Join us and #WearYourHeritageAtHome!⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ --⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 📷 @gelainesantiago in our Lucy Gold Earrings and Butete Minimalist Necklace by @amami.ph; read Gelaine's full caption & learn more about the @pinayista campaign she's a part of!
The Cambio & Co. website features the following description of the enterprise:
"Cambio & Co. is on a mission to change how business is done and how people shop. We showcase contemporary, conscious fashion made with Filipino soul—all designed and handcrafted in the Philippines by talented Filipino artisans. By connecting you to our community of entrepreneurs and artisans, we allow them to finally access a global market, and you an opportunity to make an impact through how you purchase. Together, we’re building a community of conscious consumers passionate about making business better and sharing the Filipino story."
Gelaine is also out to extinguish the age-old notion of "imported is better" that Filipinos have hung onto for far too long. It's time that her fellow Pinoys see their culture for what it really was and swell with, well, Pinoy Pride.
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#FlashbackFriday to last weekend at @pinoysonparliament! We had the honour to take part in #POP2020, the largest national conference for #Filipinx youth in Canada featuring 250 delegates from across the country 😱. . Our co-founder @gelainesantiago spoke on a panel called 'Sino Ka Ba?'/'Who Are You?' alongside @erctigz @jennilee_a and @jenilee_dlf. She shared her journey reconnecting with her heritage, and how that shaped our work with @Cambio_Co and @Sinta_Co. Gelaine also facilitated a workshop on social entrepreneurship and got to meet kickass #FilCan youth who are already making their mark in the entrepreneurial scene. . And of course, our co-founder @jeromegv tagged along, sharing space, listening, and learning. Cause allyship is key to uplift our community and reclaim our narrative 💪🏽🇵🇭 . Head over to Gelaine's Instagram @gelainesantiago where she shares her personal reflections of the weekend. Thanks @pinoysonparliament for bringing us all together 🙏🏽❤️ to all the bomb speakers and amazing attendees. Y'all taught us so much 😭 #WearYourHeritage
The distance Gelaine has gone from being a wide-eyed foreigner in her own country to becoming a leading social entrepreneur dedicated to bringing Filipino arts and crafts to an international market can never be underemphasized. Though she's still based in Toronto, she details that she has partnered with "44 artisan communities across the country, including Ilocos region, Metro Manila, Cebu, Davao, and South Cotabato in Mindanao."
It was a lot of work to get to where Cambio & Co. is today (0h, the growing pains she and Jérôme must have endured!) but even the perseverance she hung onto all throughout is something she attributes to her Filipino upbringing.
"...I got to witness my parents during the early years when we were struggling to get by and build a life for ourselves," Gelaine says.
"They taught me to work extremely hard, to be resilient and have grit, to make the best with what you have, to find joy in the small things, and to always be ready because you never know when an opportunity will appear. I never realized until now, but the values my parents instilled in me set me up well to be an entrepreneur," she continues.
All in all, Cambio & Co.'s story mirrors that of her own—stumbling at first and without firm footing, but slowly and surely finding her rhythm and solidifying her place in this world.
Every year since establishing Cambio & Co., Gelaine has visited the Philippines to personally meet with partner artisans and collaborators (fellow Filipino brands and enterprises featured by Cambio & Co.).
Gelaine was ready to pack her bags for this year's visit, but 2020 had something else in mind for everyone this time around.
Even for an enterprise as successful as hers, the struggle to make it through the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis has been very, very real.
"The lockdowns have impacted us all to varying degrees and at a personal level. On the business side of things, this is the time of year that we’d usually travel back to the Philippines to meet with our partners and the artisans in person. Unfortunately, we don’t know the next time we’ll be able to return. This has obviously impacted our future plans and current projects," Gelaine states.
But there are always two sides of a coin, just as Gelaine has two sides to her cultural identity.
On one side, there are the inevitable setbacks that have derailed Gelaine's plans for the coming months. On the other side, however, is the opportunity for Cambio & Co. to be exactly what it is: a social enterprise developed to be of help to the most vulnerable members of society, people who in this crisis are at more risk than ever.
"In times like these, nobody needs jewelry. But we can still offer value. We’ve been asking ourselves, 'How can we be useful? Our community is really hurting, so how can we help?' This has forced us to really dig deep and stay focused on our 'why,'" Gelaine explains.
Again, she turns to asking the right questions to guide her to the right path to take.
So far, Cambio & Co. has found ways to help its artisans remain productive and provided for. Some have shifted to producing face masks and PPEs, while others have benefited from cash advances, donations, as well as emergency orders needed to keep livelihoods going. Filipino non-profit Project PEARLS has also been receiving 5% of every purchase to aid underserved Filipino children most affected by the pandemic, while youth-focused organization Kapit-Mindanao has also received financial assistance.
Gelaine has also fast-tracked Cambio & Co.'s website overhaul to adapt to the drastic changes made in the fashion and e-commerce industries. These days, it's not enough for a brand to sell pretty things, but consumers must be able to see how it helps them fulfill the needs of community and connection, of being part of something greater than themselves.
She says, "In the midst of COVID-19, we’ve rebranded and relaunched our website to have a greater focus on content and conversation. We wanted to use our platform to bring the Filipino community together through our stories. This means an expanded blog with more stories about fashion, beauty, and culture along with virtual gatherings and events."
There's also a project called "Kwentuhan With Cambio," a series of online talks with leading Filipinos in fashion, beauty, business, and other industries geared towards engaging Cambio & Co. followers in conversations about topics not often had within the Filipino community.
Cambio & Co. has also been using the hashtag #WearYourHeritage as a reminder of the shared connection of all Filipinos, no matter where they are, what it is they do, or what they're going through in these trying times. No further explanation is needed for why it's so important to highlight what makes us the same, rather than different, in this day and age.
There are a hundred and one lessons Gelaine has learned from this year alone—about being a leader, a social entrepreneur, and a Filipino.
But a common theme unifies all of them: that if we wish to see change in this world, simply waiting for it to happen is not the way. Change comes from within, from the things we do with our hands, the words we utter, from the thoughts and intentions we hold in our minds and hearts.
"This pandemic has put a magnifying glass onto the world’s inequalities and systemic problems. People who were already vulnerable and marginalized by intersections of poverty, gender, sexuality, and racism (specifically black and indigenous communities) have been the hardest hit," Gelaine says.
"I’ve learned that if we want the world to be better, we have to make it better. Change doesn’t happen on its own. We can’t wait for institutions or leaders to catch up or make the changes for us. We have to actively fight for it and use our platforms and privilege to create the world we want to see for ourselves. I may be one person, but together we are strong. We have the power to create purposeful and permanent change as long as we stand up and continue to use our voices," she ends.
Gelaine's story proves it.
At this very moment, as societies are on the precipice of a major paradigm shift, Filipinos must ask themselves the right questions: not what they don't know about their country, but what they do, and most importantly, not what they can't do for their country, but what they can.
Photos from @gelainesantiago @cambio_co