One thing I absolutely love about social media is being able to connect with unique brands and the people behind them. I don’t remember how I found out about Cambio & Co. (formerly known as Cambio Market), but I immediately fell in love with their Instagram feed and their cause.
After reading an interview with one of the co-founders, Gelaine Santiago, who is also of Filipino descent and grew up in Canada (Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer is the other co-founder), I reached out to them about helping spread the word about the re-brand.
Cambio & Co. resonates with me on a more personal level in that they showcase locally made and locally sourced products from the Philippines and the stories that go along with them. Learning about the story behind this social enterprise made me want to get in touch with my roots again. It’s been over 20 years since my last visit!
Check out the interview below.
1. Did you ever think either of you would end up running a business, especially a business being a social enterprise?
Neither of us had been actively seeking out to start a business, but I think on some level we both knew that we would eventually create something together. We’re both naturally entrepreneurial in the sense that we don’t shy away from problems – if there are things that need to be fixed, we like to try and get at the root causes, and tinker around until we figure out a way to address it.
Actually, that’s how the both of us met – we were volunteers at a non-profit organization in university. The organization was focused on teaching young people real-world business skills so they could create positive social impact. So in a lot of ways, we were really being primed at the start to work within the social enterprise scene. And both of us knew that if we ever did create a business, that it would have to be one that operated with strong social principles and ethical values. There was never any question about that. That’s just how the both of us are.
2. How did you come up with the name Cambio Market initially and what made you decide to rebrand to Cambio & Co.?
The inspiration for our name actually came from the Spanish word ‘Cambio’ meaning ‘change’. We want to change how business was done, and how people shop by providing an alternative to the fast fashion brands and big box corporations out there. The both of us had spent a lot of time in South America learning Spanish, and at the time, we had envisioned a global marketplace filled with artisan goods from all over the world. So this made sense to us at that period of our business’ inception.
But as our vision became more refined and we decided to focus our impact on the Philippines, the name no longer made sense. We no longer saw ourselves as just a marketplace selling things, but more a community bringing passionate people together (hence, ‘& Co.’). As we’re not carrying products from South America any longer, it also didn’t make sense for us to have a Spanish name, yet our brand had already been out there for a few years so we couldn’t change our name completely. So now, we are Cambio & Co. It no longer has its Spanish meaning, but our name maintains that same spirit of change and creating impact.
3. How would you describe the Filipino artisan style? Is there a certain look or certain materials that get used quite often?
Great question! I think what most people don’t realize is that Filipinos themselves have always been very global and immersed in the international scene, and this is especially true of younger Filipinos. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to say there’s only one distinctive Filipino style. Even when you trace back Filipino fashion and textiles to pre-colonial times, the techniques and methods are so varied from one region to another that there really is no such thing as something being ‘typically Filipino’.
Yet I would say what’s really cool about contemporary Filipino fashion today is that it’s very rooted in tradition, yet very modern. If you take a look at Cambio & Co., you’ll notice our pieces are vibrant and colourful, but they’re also quite minimal and sleek at the same time. They are distinctly Filipino based on the fabrics like abaca (indigenous banana fibres aka. Manila hemp), and specific indigenous textiles such as inabel from Ilocos, t’nalak from the T’boli tribe in Mindanao, ramit from Mindoro, and bungasama by the Yakan peoples, to name a few. Filipinos have always been known for their resourcefulness, so it’s also not surprising to see more and more brands like our partners Olivia & Diego or Rags2Riches using secondhand and discarded fabrics and turning them into something new and innovative.
4. How would you describe the entrepreneur scene in the Philippines compared to here in Canada?
When it comes to the social enterprise scene in the Philippines, it’s a lot younger and dynamic compared to Canada. The word ‘social enterprise’ is far from everyday vocabulary in the Philippines, but it’s become mainstream to a certain extent that a lot of the younger generation already know what a social enterprise is. Most of the entrepreneurs we know are also really young – like in their early 20’s – and full of passion and energy and a level of maturity that’s really surprising considering that most of them started their social enterprises straight out of school.
Within Canada, it’s such a different scene. In Canada, most of the people within the social enterprise space are actually coming from non-profit backgrounds, so they’re really trying to sell products to fund their non-profits, which really changes the way they tell their stories. Within Canada, I find that a lot of the current social enterprises always lead with the cause first, and the product’s design and quality are secondary. In the Philippines, however, the products and the cause go hand in hand – everything is rooted in beautiful design first, and the story evolves naturally from there.
5. Did you encounter any obstacles when you first started the business?
Oh yes. The biggest obstacle was ourselves, really. We were the ones holding ourselves back. We had wanted to create a shop that was 100% designed and handcrafted in the Philippines right from the start, but fear and anxiety got the better of us. The voices inside our heads (and many on the outside) were telling us, ‘don’t do it! It’s too niche. You won’t find enough products. Nobody will pay for products made in the Philippines…’ and for a long time, we listened to those voices and decided to carry products from all over the world. Our business did grow and things were going well for a while, but in the end, it wasn’t what we were passionate about.
It was only when we decided to ignore those voices, to follow our passions, and to just do things the way we wanted to do it – that things really began to fall into place, and Cambio started to feel like OUR business again.
6. What do you like the best about running a business?
I love the feeling of community. Since we’ve created Cambio Market, and now Cambio & Co., I’ve really felt a community growing around this movement we’re building and am really feeling it take a life of its own. Before starting our business, I didn’t know anyone in the Philippines besides family, and now during our annual trips to visit our partners and meet our artisans face to face, our days are completely packed with meetings and trips and outings with our partners who have now become our friends. And let me tell you, they are the most amazing, inspiring individuals and entrepreneurs I have ever met.
Locally, I really feel the Toronto community has really embraced us and what we do. Some of my closest friends today are fellow entrepreneurs and other individuals who are just passionate about creating a positive impact. I can’t even describe what it feels like to be surrounded by people who are just so genuinely passionate about sharing the Filipino story and helping others – they inspire us every day.
And that’s really what Cambio & Co. is. We are Cambio, and everyone else – our partners, artisans, customers, fellow entrepreneurs, and friends – everyone who supports us because we can’t do this alone. We’ve got such a strong community of amazing people rallying around our cause, and the fact that we’ve helped to build that is really such a special feeling.
7. What do you like the least about running a business?
There are lots of unsexy things about running a business, which I feel nobody ever wants to talk about. Like Jérôme keeping track of receipts and inputting transactions into Excel sheets at the end of each month, or me staying up until 2 AM painting displays and tagging products to prepare for a big event the next day. A lot of that small stuff can add up quickly and weigh heavily on you. Jérôme and I also both work part-time jobs and take freelance contracts on the side while the business is growing. That alone can be really discouraging when you just want to give 100% of yourself to the business because you’re passionate about it and believe in it, but you can’t do everything you want because you still need to pay the bills. Some days can be really hard.
8. What is a typical day like for you?
Every day is really different, which I love. One thing I’ve prided myself on is taking time to do things that interest me and continuing to invest in myself. I’ll usually get up around 7, do an early morning workout, and then have one whole hour of pure bliss just reading or listening to talks and lectures about whatever it is I happen to be learning about that week. Afterward, I’ll get to work and start off by making a list of my priorities for the day and schedule them in. My mornings are usually dedicated to the things that are urgent and important, followed by more of the creative work like creating content, writing, or brainstorming ideas. And the afternoons are usually when I’ll schedule meetings, or when I catch up on emails or do more of the collaborative sort of stuff.
9. How do you choose which products to sell on the site?
We take a very partner-centric approach when it comes to choosing our products. There’s always the most obvious things first, like ‘Are their products beautiful? Are they high quality? Are they designed and handcrafted in the Philippines? Do they employ and support artisans?’ and then we’ll do a deep dive from there into more specific details, like do the products represent the Philippines somehow? Where did they source their materials? What kind of materials do they use? How important is sustainability and ethics, and to what extent are these embedded into their business model? How do they treat their employees? And finally, do we enjoy working with these brands? Are the founders people that we can trust and develop deep relationships and friendships with?
We really see ourselves as more than just a shop, and our products are more than just products. We see each brand as business partners and each of our customers as lifestyle partners who are on a journey with us.
10. Are you planning on expanding your inventory in the future, i.e. to possibly include clothing or additional accessories such as hats, scarves, and belts?
Oh yes! The Philippines really has such a beautiful array of products, from home decor to clothing to footwear to food. The possibilities are really limitless, but that just makes it all the more important for us to stay focused on the present moment and grow gradually. We’re focused a lot on fashion accessories such as jewelry and bags right now, but we really see us expanding into clothing and footwear in the future, and eventually becoming a lifestyle brand.
11. You recently held a fair trade pop-up to showcase your products. What was that like?
We did! We held the #HaloHaloPopUp in November and it was amazing – over 500 people came, and some individuals even came from as far as Michigan! For us, it’s always about creating value and sharing the story of the Philippines with as many people as we can, so we didn’t want to just have a pop-up shop with products on display. We wanted this to be an immersive, educational, and just fun experience for everyone.
We actually partnered with a local Filipino chef in Toronto to host a deep-fried halo halo bar/fair trade pop-up. We rented out a beautiful space on King West and decked out the venue in all tropical greens, filled it up with indie Filipino music, and even set up a mini gallery of our artisans and the various weaves and textiles in the Philippines. When people arrived, we wanted them to feel immediately transported to the Philippines – they could come with their friends, shop our unique products all designed and handcrafted in the Philippines, then sit and hang out and learn something new about the Philippines as they enjoy their meals. It was just a great time and the reception was incredible.
12. Aside from purchasing products from Cambio & Co., how else can people support this initiative or get involved?
Feel proud of what the Philippines has to offer and support Filipino-owned businesses! So many people, especially Filipinos themselves, are so critical of Filipino made goods, which is really quite sad. We need more people, whether you’re Filipino or not, to advocate and to share the incredible stories coming from the Philippines because businesses like ours really need your support. So please tell your friends! Shout it from the rooftops! Engage with us on social media! Just spread the word any way you can and help us grow the Filipino movement.
13. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking to start a social enterprise based business?
Don’t wait for the perfect idea or some big Eureka! moment to happen. That rarely comes. If there’s something you’re curious about, or that makes you enraged, or inspires you in some way – do something about it. Just get started. Even if it doesn’t become anything big, you’ll have learned something new along the way.