LEADer/ Leadership Like Coffee

Manila, 29 September 2016 — Meet Pacita Juan, a CEO and coffee connoisseur who founded a social enterprise and then championed slow food in her country. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

Starting out

Born in 1954 in the Philippine capital city of Manila, as the youngest of eight siblings, Pacita (Chit) Juan grew up being ordered around by four brothers and three sisters. 

"From as young as I can remember, I wanted to be different from them. They all took business courses in college, and I went for hotel and restaurant management, at the University of the Philippines Diliman, which is our state university. I was also the first among them to join a sorority."

Chit’s father was a dentist who worked himself and his sister out of poverty, and then set himself up in a business selling blankets before becoming a trader in imported spare parts for American cars, which were popular in the Philippines at that time. 

"Dad gave me wings. When he and Mom left for the US for a year to take care of my sister who had polio, I was left with an aunt and a nanny to take care of me. I had lots of freedom then. My nanny even did my math homework for me, so I did not learn math properly. Later on, even as I excelled in languages and science, I would still be fearful of math."

At home, her father was strict. 

"He taught us discipline. We had to wear proper clothes for dinner, and if you did not come down in time in the morning, your breakfast was taken away. We always had to be home by ‪6 pm in the evening, long before we experienced curfews during the martial law years."

She also got to travel with him. 

"His business required frequent travel, and I wanted to see the world like he did. He loved coffee, and taught me how to drink it. He became my idol. Our overseas trips became a reward for good behavior. We would travel to Hawaii, San Francisco, and as far as New York."

Chit's mother had a mixed Filipino and Chinese background from Ilo Ilo island and Fujian.

"My Mom was a great housewife, raising eight children. Her love was for eating, and she would always have something cooking. She taught me how to love preparing food, and this inspired me to explore a career around food. She also taught me how to drive, and I became mobile because of her. "

Selling chocolates

Chit remembers how selling chocolates became a passion during her primary school years, together with running for a position on the student council, unsuccessfully as it turned out.

During high school, she became a leader of her class.

“I wanted to know how it felt to be a leader, as I was the youngest of many siblings in my family and always felt like I was being ordered around."

After Chit graduated from high school, martial law was announced in 1972, and her father took the family on a trip to the US. He said they would learn more in six months there than in college. 

"I took on some odd jobs during the trip to gain working experience, and I also fixed the itinerary for the family, traveling through Europe. That helped me develop my decision-making skills." 

She also remembered being inspired how her Dad gave her incentives to save money. 

"He told us that he would exchange whatever we saved during the trip at double the exchange rate when we returned. That showed me how incentives can work."

No vacations

Every summer, Chit worked for her Dad. 

"There was no vacation, except for the occasional trips to accompany Dad on his business trips. What was funny was that we had to apply for the job in Dad's factory during the summer; we didn't get it for free."

During college, Chit worked as a secretary, and then stepped up to head the Society for Hotel and Restaurant Progress. 

"That is when I first realized that I could lead people. And it was outside the hierarchy of the sorority. I was proud to get the position based on my ability."

After graduating in 1976 in hotel and restaurant administration, Chit joined a leading hotel in Manila.

“I worked there as concierge to get experience. I loved applying for the job with my own credentials. It gave me confidence. I remember how at age 18 I bought a tennis racquet with my very first earnings.”

She then joined her Dad’s company. To make that switch more attractive, he had offered her double the salary she earned in the hotel. 

Chit also set up a cafe, and then a music lounge together with friends. 

"I enjoyed the variety of entrepreneurial experiences. Working at my father's car factory felt male and cold to me, and I did that for him. On the other side, I loved running the lounge with my friends, as we were passionate about music. And that's where I also learned about managing artists."

Chit continued to try her hand at several startups, including in bag manufacturing, catering, and the laundry business. 

Leading in coffee

In 1993, she opened a coffee shop with six friends from her college days. They named it Figaro.

For 15 years she led the Figaro Coffee Co. as CEO and saw it grow within the country and abroad. Currently there are more than 55 branches, including in China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Saudi Arabia. 

“Figaro was born from our passion to promote traditional Philippine coffees. This was before Starbucks and other foreign brands entered the market. We sourced coffee from provinces all over the Philippines, and we worked in collaboration with local communities of coffee-growing farmers. Barako coffee became our best-known brand."

Chit’s leadership for local coffee earned her several professional awards as an entrepreneur, and she authored three books about it. Through the work of the Figaro Foundation, she became ever more involved in the work of local farmers, and learned more about the need to help them get out of poverty. A next evolution was on the way.

Choosing sustainability

"In 2008, we were approaching midlife and I realized that there was not a place in town where you could find everyday things that were healthy and good for yourself, the planet and our communities. That’s when I decided to move on from Figaro and start something new, like a social enterprise."

She became a full-time social entrepreneur and founded ECHOstore to promote and retail sustainable lifestyle products and foods. ECHO stands for Environment and Community Hope Organization. Offerings include natural and organic beauty and household products, healthy food options, and community-made bags and other handicrafts sourced from poor communities.

“We work with local smallholders and artisans to offer environmentally-friendly products that are useful in the household. And as we grow, we are getting better at promoting Philippine heirloom crops and heritage products. To safeguard biodiversity in our country, it is important that we do not let these quality foods disappear."

As she explained her work in ECHO, her eyes lit up.

“We are excited to open our 10th store in the country. Our passion is to ripple out, reverberate, and echo our work to other producers and consumers for more social impact. The products we sell are traceable to their origin, from sustainable sources. That’s important nowadays."

I asked about her approach as a social entrepreneur.

“We practice generosity economics. The more good you give, the more give-back there is. The currency is good—it is not money. I believe that our sustainable lifestyle should not be too stressful. What I learned is that if you grow too big, you end up working for your landlord. Our stores have a small footprint. Financial results are modest. We work hard, not to stress ourselves, but to help more people and generate a lot of social impact."

She explained that some of her stores now have cafes and a market to buy what you enjoy in the cafe.

"You get the recipes, and you take it home to do it yourself. It’s like an IKEA for local sustainable foods. Buying the fresh products in our store sustains the communities we help. It helps to move the economy in a way that impacts more lives."

Chit’s growing work as an entrepreneur in the Philippines and abroad has led her to accept influential positions in several organizations, such as the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Network, the Management Association of the Philippines, the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines, the Philippine Coffee Board Inc., Binalot Fiesta Foods Inc., M.D Juan Enterprises, Inc., the Institute of Corporate Directors, the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, Business and Professional Women (BPW Makati) Inc., the Wellness Board of the Philippines, Inc., Peace and Equity Holdings Inc., and the League of Corporate Foundations.

Leadership style

What does leadership mean to Chit, in her own words?

“I see leadership as making people follow you because they are inspired. Not out of fear. Because they want to emulate you." 

And what is her preferred leadership style?

“I love leading by example. That's what I learned from my Dad. To be punctual, like him. I cannot come late for any appointment. In fact, when I don't come before time, my staff already gets worried. Punctuality is very important."

What else has made her successful as a leader?

“First, I roll up my sleeves to do any job that is needed. I don’t consider any work to be beneath me, and I am happy to show my staff how I do it. I know there is a fine line between that and micromanagement, yet I want to make sure that I don’t loose touch, and can do everything that’s needed in our work."

“Second, I accept criticism it when I make mistakes. I ask my staff for their feedback about how I did things. Was it too much like this or that? Did I do something wrong? Did it come across well? Feedback is important, and I ask for it. And I am ready to eat humble pie when it’s needed."

“Third, I think on my feet and always stand for quality, integrity and versatility. These are critical for success in business, and I find that it is more of a struggle today to help our managers in this area, and I give it much attention."

Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia

So what are Chit’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

First, know the territory.

“To become a leader, travel is necessary, and learning about the cultures of your clients and partners. Learn to speak a few words in many languages. Say it in their language. Discover the diversity among Asian peoples, both the similarities and the differences." 

Second, cross boundaries.

“There is no rule that applies everywhere. Leadership is like coffee. It should cross religion, race, and social class. It can be drunk and enjoyed by everyone. To cross boundaries, you need to know what’s happening where you work, including the holidays, rituals, religious rites, and understand how this affects the business. Time your requests, instructions and advice carefully to fit the circumstances, and convey it appropriately for the local culture."

Third, focus.

“Focus on what you are known for. Your clients will only believe someone they know to be an expert. When you focus, you become an expert. Getting into everything will not work. Focus your work on one thing at a time. I focused on coffee, and now I have shifted to sustainability, with the ECHOstore. Food that is good, green and gender friendly for women entrepreneurs. I call it 3G. As you expand, getting the right partners will help you sustain such a triple focus. I work closely with partners, because we cannot focus on everything by ourselves."

What's next?

As we wrapped up our discussion in her flagship ECHOstore in Salcedo Village, Makati City, before both going on overseas trips, Chit’s phone kept buzzing with messages from friends and clients who contacted her for all kinds of matters, from photo shoots of food on farms, to advice about health and medicines.

“I feel like Florence Nightingale sometimes,” she smiled. “I love working with so many people and supporting them."

A lively communicator, she had started our conversation in the morning by asking how to pronounce my name, and explained that this was part of her leadership style to reach out to the people around her to understand them. 

As we spoke, Chit was preparing to travel to Slow Food’s annual Terra Madre festival in Turin. She explained enthusiastically how her focus on sustainability came to fit with her promotion of the slow food movement in the Philippines and Asia.   

“Slow food is the opposite of fast food. It doesn’t mean you have to eat slowly. It means that we need to choose food that is good, clean, and fair to the farmers who produce it. The slow food movement started when McDonalds wanted to open a new branch in downtown historical Rome. The local residents objected, chanting that they wanted slow food, not fast food. Now the movement has spread around the world, including here in Asia."

Founded in 1989 in Italy, Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization to "prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us."

In August 2015, Chit worked with her partners to organize the Slow Food Summit in the Philippines, where consumers, chefs and farmers met to promote traditional ingredients like heirloom rice. 

She explained how slow food has come together with her ECHOstore business.

“We test the products coming to our stores, and only the best keep selling there. Our stores become a lab, and a hub to connect producers with consumers, who will know where their food comes from, and that it is good, clean and fair. Consumers also follow new trends, and we help farmers to change and adapt to these, which is good for their business. We show them how to do that."

Concluding our talk, I asked Chit about her dream.

"I want to live in a sustainable society. That’s what we work for at ECHOstore. It encompasses everything that I and my two partners dreamed to be possible. And it’s not just the business, it’s a lifestyle. What matters most to me now is my commitment, and how I can make others commit! With our dream and our leadership, we can cross boundaries together, like coffee."

Pacita Juan’s profile

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