Manila, 30 January 2016 — Meet French Vibar, a leadership trainer with a passion for literature who worked in Africa and then became a social entrepreneur in agribusiness. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 1964 in the town of Camalig in Albay province as the youngest of three sisters, French grew up on her father’s farm in sight of the Philippines’ iconic Mayon volcano, in a region famous for fish and spicy dishes, including the local delicacy of pinangat—a combination of taro leaves, chilies and meat wrapped in gabi and coconut leaves and simmered in coconut milk.
“Bicol region is well known in the Philippines for its spicy dishes,” says French. “Fellow Filipinos like to joke about us that when a typhoon passes through, we will bring our chili plants inside the house first, because we can’t eat without chillies."
Her father, a farmer leader and a veteran of guerrilla resistance during the Second World War, was inspired by French history and culture, and decided to name her French.
A boy’s education
“Being the youngest of three sisters, my father gave me a boy’s education on the farm, with immersion training in all seasons after school, to learn the ropes. He wanted me to appreciate farming."
When French was young, her father turned down an offer of US financial support for veterans, arguing that he had fought for his country, not the US, and he should not expect to get paid for that.
“I didn’t understand that at the time, and grew to respect him later for taking that position.”
From her mother, French learned about entrepreneurship, and being resourceful and compassionate. Her mother helped to support the family and the local community through rice trading. She would always find a replacement when they ran out of something.
“The seeds of compassion were planted in us from when we were very small. ‘There is always something to share,’ my mother used to say. And she practiced social pricing, charging people what they could afford. She seemed like a bamboo to me, going with the flow yet bouncing back quickly after adversity."
Discovering literature in comics
French grew up at a time when martial law was in effect. Roaming government soldiers and communist guerrillas were a common sight, creating tensions and insecurity. Activities out of the house were restricted by her parents, and lights were turned off early to discourage soldiers and guerrillas to seek refuge for the night.
From an early age, she developed a passion for reading, starting with the wide range of comic books in her school library, including works by Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe, and later Jane Eyre and War and Peace. Only later, in high school, did she discover that these classics were actually thick books.
After completing high school in her neighboring town, French entered the Catholic Divine Word College in nearby Legazpi City. Her parents did not allow her to move to Manila. Security remained a concern.
Investing in studies and leadership
In the relative safety of the provincial capital, French took three majors in college, in English literature, political science and economics, and she added more subjects because she was not permitted to engage in extracurricular activities except theater arts. So she learned acting in Shakespearean plays, including a role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
When she graduated with honors in 1984 after being awarded a presidential scholarship for her high grades, college president Father Alfredo Reyes offered her a teaching appointment. In the spur of the moment, standing on the podium, she accepted, only to retract a few days later as she thought about spreading her wings. She was then called to his office.
“It was a defining moment in my life, when Father Reyes told me that we cannot get somewhere without staying the course for some time. He persuaded me to stay a year, and got me involved in leadership training and in designing leadership courses for high-school students. I enjoyed that experience."
This was how French discovered a new passion, to facilitate other people’s learning as leaders.
“I discovered how leaders are built, not born, but developed. To help aspiring leaders deliver on their commitments, they need a training ground to practice. Father Reyes showed me how the values we develop in young people are the values that help them become leaders."
Training others in leadership
In 1989 she managed to move to Manila, and pursued her graduate studies in English literature at the prestigious Ateneo de Manila University, where she also worked part-time as a graduate school assistant and later as a part-time lecturer. She developed an interest in teacher training, and co-authored an English textbook for high school students on communicating effectively.
This led her to join a team teaching a six-month program of the World Health Organization on communication for leadership and management, which brought her deeper into leadership development.
“I found out how leadership is about breaking new ground, to see beyond problems and find opportunities, and to facilitate people’s actions and guide them to positive change."
Working with the leadership trainees, who were government health professionals from countries in the Western Pacific region, she learned how leadership styles are influenced by cultures, and how communication and influence were consistently important across these cultures.
As her passion for leadership development grew, she also made a further investment in her own education and took a diploma course in organizational development at the Ateneo de Manila University, from which she graduated in 2000.
Moving to grassroots
Over the years, her trainees in the WHO leadership course changed from senior managers to project managers involved in local-level implementation. French realized that she had to adapt her teaching to their needs, and she discovered that she lacked personal experience in grassroots development work.
This was a calling for her, and when VSO, the British volunteering organization, advertised for Philippine experts to be trained for work in other developing countries, French signed up.
“In Mombasa, Kenya, I learned how to work with young people in grassroots initiatives. In my three years there, I learned how everyone could become a leader with some help, including out-of-school youth, if they were willing to rise above their own challenges and help to improve life for others."
She got to know leaders from poor families, eating only one meal day.
“Even when they had little, they showed me how to share generously from their time and willingness to make a difference. I encountered a huge potential of untapped human resources among the youth, with almost 80% of them being out of schools and jobs. Being far from home, the local community leaders in Mombasa, Kenya also became my family in those years."
During her volunteer work, French saw how life skills and livelihood training could transform out-of-school youth to become leaders in their own right helping their villages deal with development challenges such as HIV and AIDS, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. She also discovered how volunteering is integral to community development. Additionally, her experience in a community-based organization helped French to see the potential of agribusiness in addressing livelihood concerns.
During her final year in Kenya, she developed a keen interest in enterprise development together with her friend Regi Gaza. Together, they decided to bring what they had learned in Kenya and apply it at home in the Philippines.
Upon returning to the Philippines in 2004, French had collected a powerful combination of expertise in volunteer management, leadership development and facilitation of learning, and she used it to prepare other Filipino volunteers for overseas work. To support their learning, she also co-authored another book: Journeys of Filipino Volunteers Overseas.
In 2011, French took on a second NGO assignment in Africa, this time with World Vision in Southern Africa, until 2015. As an area development program coordinator, she supported learning and development of front-line staff in national offices including the set up of systems for community volunteer engagement.
Advocating community enterprise
While working overseas, French met many Filipinos who were exposed to exploitation and chose to endure hardship to support their family in the Philippines.
“I often thought, if only there were more livelihood opportunities at home, most of them would rather be with their families. As a development facilitator, I asked myself what I could do to alleviate the situation."
In 2008, French and Regi set up Business Fair Trade Consulting (bizFTC) to support marginal communities in starting small and micro enterprises, targeting people from rural areas and out-of-school youth. Working at grassroots level inspired French how to grow young talent in her birthplace and encourage their interest in developing locally available resources.
“I told my father how it took me to travel to Africa to understand the value of organic farming. With his wisdom, he replied that sometimes you have to go away first to get a better perspective on what is close by."
With her father, now in his 90s, she is developing a strategy to improve the family farm.
“I want to grow herbs, and start a wellness center for local people. To make farming 'cool' so that young people can re-engage with it, instead of coming to the city for work. Some will want to stay and learn how to work with the land."
She is happy with the contributions she made in her career so far, and to build on them at home.
“I realized that I have come to a point where I want to engage in something that I can see through for the rest of my life. I would like to be part of the transformation of farming into agribusiness, starting with our own family farm in Camalig. I know that it will take time, and I have decided to put my stake in it.”
Styles of leadership
Which styles of leadership has French developed in her career?
"Mostly I have been leading from behind. Offering models and help to others. Typically, people will call me with a request ‘can we chat?’ I listen, and ask a question or two. And then they go and say 'I know what I will do.' What people need most of the time is someone who listens to them.”
Over the years, however, working together ‘shoulder to shoulder’ has become her dominant leadership style.
"No one has a monopoly on talents. We get the best results by working together. Leadership is about the power of leveraging, to facilitate people to contribute what they have, and then to pull those resources together for a better result."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are French’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to look around you.
"There are many opportunities for you to use your gifts, talents and resources to make a difference."
Second, to look inside to define the difference you would like to make.
“Leaders need to define the change they want to see. Advocacy is not enough. We need to make a picture of the change we pursue and then take action and stay the course. I see many people hop around from one interest to another, and I think it is important to give yourself time and space to stay the course. Unless you stay the course, you won't be able to make much difference."
Third, to lead others you have to learn to manage yourself.
“I mean that you have to achieve a level of self-mastery, in your field of interest, and also in managing your behaviors, your awareness, and in transforming challenges into opportunities. When you know what you can contribute, you can be open about it and share it with others, and they will discover what they can do to complement what you do. Together, you can go far, as the saying goes in Africa."
French’s foremost desire is now to engage young people in starting their own business. Focusing on sustainable farming, her consultancy is helping farmer organizations to set up social enterprises with a value-chain approach.
“I learned that if we attract the right friends and partners, we can make successful farming happen. We can even become a millionaire with as little as 5 hectares of good land. In that way, we can develop local resources as a platform to help young people look at agriculture as a step towards a bright future and sustainable livelihood."
“In 10 years from now, I will have contributed to making 100 young people see value in agribusiness, and becoming entrepreneurs for themselves and developing the resources where they are."
She has no plans to retire anytime soon.
"In 2016, I will build a non-stock non-profit company to create inclusive zones for farming and trading communities. In my hometown Camalig, I will train a local young professional in his early 30s to become our farm manager and expand into new products, including coconut sugar and virgin coconut oil, and intercropping of vegetables and herbs. We will also start food processing to produce healthy vegetable chips to improve the diet of kids in our community."
Rather than seeing her name on buildings—a widespread practice in the Philippines—she wants to work and “give back” through business.
During our conversation, her passion twinkled in her eyes, while she exuded a calm confidence about what she will do. Practicing Zen meditation in her private time has helped her to be grounded, she said.
“The purpose of life reveals itself to you when you stay the course. You actually don't need to go far to discover what your purpose in life is. You can discover it by listening and working with others."
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