5 Insights From Lunch With Tony Meloto, The Father of Social Enterprises

5 Insights From Lunch With Tony Meloto, The Father of Social Enterprises

If you could have lunch with one person, who would it be?

For the past two and a half years, my answer has been Tony Meloto. He’s founder of Gawad Kalinga, a renowned Philippine-based organization committed to ending poverty for 5 million families by 2020. His organization is behind The Enchanted Farm, a social enterprise incubator that has propelled the Philippines into the spotlight as “the Silicon Valley of social enterprises.” Tony Meloto has won numerous awards, one of them being the Social Entrepreneur of the World award in 2012 from the World Entrepreneurship Forum. 

He’s quite the celebrity in the social enterprise world. And I got to have lunch with him (cue fan girl moment). During our travels to the Philippines earlier this year, Jérôme and I took a trip to the Enchanted Farm for a day tour and were just having lunch in the cafeteria. Little did we know that Tony Meloto was sitting right behind us, or that he would ask to join us (I think I managed to squeak out a “yes”).

"The future of business is in social entrepreneurship, optimizing profit that restores human dignity, protects the environment, and builds peace."

-Tony Meloto

The lessons we learned during our hour and a half conversation are critical for current and aspiring social entrepreneurs, but they apply to anyone who wants to make a real and positive impact in the world.

Here are our five major takeaways from our lunch with Tony Meloto:

1. Dream big, seriously

“People are so risk-averse that they talk about exit strategies before they even get started,” Tony Meloto said with a laugh. As social entrepreneurs, we talk about helping people out of poverty, challenging what it means to be a business, and creating long and lasting impact. How can we get anywhere if we’re afraid to dream big, talk big, and take action?

Tony Meloto dreams of ending poverty for 5 million families by the end of 2020. His organization dreamed of transforming slums in the Philippines into communities where the poor can live with dignity. And they’ve done it in over 2,000 slums for over 27,000 Filipinos. He dreamed the Enchanted Farm would become a “Disneyland for social tourism,” and now it’s the number one tourist attraction in the area.

Caution and a well-thought plan are key when you’re starting a social purpose business, but it doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself. No one ever inspired anyone with charts and presentations about risk management. So have big dreams, set Big Hairy Audacious Goals, then work your ass off to actually achieve them.

2. Tough love, baby

When we talk about philanthropy and working “for the cause”, so many of us suddenly switch into a beggar mindset. We’re afraid to piss people off, afraid to ask our employees or volunteers to work harder or criticize their performance, and terrified to ask anything of the people we’re trying to help. But how often has a successful company been built by people afraid of honesty and criticism?

Tony Meloto is known affectionately by the people around him as Tito Tony (Uncle Tony). In his personal circle, people talk about him with so much admiration, but you can also hear a hint of fear. One entrepreneur we met told us how Tito Tony is very strict about product quality. “He’s very hard on us and always challenges us to do more, be better,” she said. She has since launched a successful, socially responsible food brand from the farm. "You have to be loved and also respected," Tony Meloto told us during lunch. For people living in the community, he showers children with affection when they pick up trash but equally doles out discipline when he sees them litter.

Lay out your expectations of people. Shower people with appreciation and affection when they deserve it. But don't coddle people and don't be afraid to express your dissatisfaction when it calls for it (don’t be a jerk though!). Without criticism and feedback, how can any of us become better?

Catherine Patacsil from First Harvest and Gelaine from Cambio Market
Me with Catherine Patacsil from First Harvest. "Tito Tony" has been a huge help on developing their product and their peanut butter brand

3. Surround yourself with people who love what you do. 

One of the things that surprised us about Tony Meloto is how much he enjoys matchmaking. He even hosted a Love Forum (yep, you heard that right) during the Global Social Business Summit that we attended in January.

During the Love Forum, Tony Meloto invited speakers (some needed more convincing than others) who were both happily single or happily in relationships to share their experiences in love. It was definitely unconventional. Some people shared how they chose to be single after they realized their relationships were more destructive than productive – their partners weren’t helping them to be who they wanted to be.

On the flip side, we heard from Mark Ruiz and Reese Fernandez, a power couple who each founded successful social enterprises in the Philippines (Hapinoy & Rags2Riches). They’re both dedicated to their work and put in countless hours each day and night. “It’s crucial,” they share “to have a partner who not only understands but will encourage and push you to be better.”

The end message is: never put up with people who won't help you be who you want. Do you believe in living sustainably, buying only sustainably made products, eating organic and shopping local? Then surround yourself with people who support your lifestyle and want to be part of it, not people who judge your choices.

Being a social entrepreneur can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Find others who encourage and inspire you, and cut out the people who pull you down.

4. Your work is never done

If you want to make a lasting impact, you have to be movement focused, not project focused. Projects, by definition, are temporary – they have a timeline, goals, and project plans. People, on the other hand, are more difficult to plan for. You must be willing to abandon a project if it’s failing, start a new one on a whim if it will bring value to your mission, and always focus on the people.

When Gawad Kalinga began physically building the Enchanted Farm, it took several months of labour from volunteers. Once the build was nearing the end, Tony Meloto asked one of the volunteers if he thought it was almost complete. The volunteer answered proudly, “yes, we’re almost done.” Tony Meloto shook his head and responded, “No, we’re not. This is just the beginning.” That volunteer later went on to found a successful social enterprise at the Enchanted Farm and now oversees business development and incubation for new social enterprises.

Though the actual project of building the farm was almost complete, it was just the beginning of Gawad Kalinga’s bigger mission to empower and lift the poor out of poverty. Projects themselves are a means to an end, and that end is a constantly moving target. Always ask yourself and the others around you, “what next?”

5. Be uncompromising

Be willing to compromise when working with people, timelines, projects, etc. but never compromise on your principles or end goal. Tony Meloto has always been adamant not to peddle for donations or ask for money. Instead of charity, he advocates for social enterprises. Earn money because people want your products and services, not your gratitude. He’s even refused some donors in the past and refuses to exchange political favours for donations. This is likely one of the reasons he was named the 4th Most Trusted Filipino in 2010.

Dylan Wilk, an Englishman and self-made multi-millionaire at the age of 25, got in touch with Gawad Kalinga several years ago to make a generous donation. Tony Meloto refused his money and told him “if you want to make a difference, come to the Philippines and give us your time.” Years later at the Social Business Summit in January, Dylan Wilk shared during a speech that it was “the first time anyone had said no to [his] money.” As a result, Wilk moved to the Philippines and founded Human Nature, one of the biggest and most successful social enterprises in the country.

Instead of money, Gawad Kalinga asks for time. And this, ironically, has set donors and influential leaders from around the world flooding to the Enchanted Farm to seek ways to become involved. This goes to show that when you stick to your principles and your vision, people will notice and they'll want to be part of it.

Have you met someone influential who really inspired you? What did you learn from them? Share with us in the comments!

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co

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