Lessons From Global Filipino Leaders at PHTimeIsNow

Being Filipino: Lessons From Global Filipino Leaders at PHTimeIsNow

Despite growing up in a Filipino household, I actually didn’t know much about Filipino culture. I didn’t speak Tagalog (my parents would speak it, and my siblings and I would answer back in English). I went to a high school that was mostly white, and then attended a university that was even more white.

For much of my life, I was the odd one out. The token asian. The girl that didn’t look like any of her friends or her colleagues. For much of my life, I felt alone. Worse, I often felt invisible.

So there’s something truly powerful about those moments when you walk into a room full of brown skin and dark hair. When you start a conversation with a stranger and it immediately goes deep. You may not know much about one other, yet you feel a sudden kinship.

I can count those number of moments on one hand. Three fingers to be exact. And that warm July evening at PHTimeIsNow Toronto was one of them.

PHTimeIsNow is a series of events that bring together Filipino leaders and changemakers from around the world. This evening in July, we had people travel from all over Toronto, the US, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.

For much of my life, I was the odd one out. The token asian. The girl that didn’t look like any of her friends or her colleagues. For much of my life, I felt alone. Worse, I often felt invisible.

The evening featured an impressive lineup of speakers, ranging from a former NASA rocket scientist to a Filipina entrepreneur who tells stories through vegan Filipino ice cream.  There was a woman who was named one of Forbes Top Sustainability Experts, a man who held two senior positions at one of Canada’s largest educational institutions all before the age of 30, and the first Filipina sommelier in the world.

And then of course, there was Jérôme and I, there to share the story of Cambio & Co.

Here are some of the most notable quotes from that night, and key lessons for us all:

Janice Lao

“There will always be someone in your life who won’t believe in you. Don’t let it be you” - Janice Lao, named by Forbes as one of the world’s top sustainability experts

Sergie Albino

“What’s the chip on your shoulder? What’s your hard fall and your rock bottom? Being a Filipino, you’ve got that chip and that grit... use it.” - Sergie Albino, former NASA engineer and president & CEO of EcoSpears

“You’ve got to fail to learn. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had not failed and learned from it.” - Ian Doromal, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Ecospears, on his experience founding a series of startups and what he learned along the way.

Arlene Oliveros

“My life has been a beautiful mosaic of accidental meetings and layers that have led me where I am now” - Arlene Oliveros, founder of World Of Wines Canada, speaking of her experience growing up in a low-income household in the Philippines to becoming the first Filipina Sommelier in the world.

Chicken adobo waffles by Merienda TorontoThe evening featured delicious Filipino food by Merienda Toronto.

“I don’t want people to just taste food. I want to tell stories. I want people to feel the humanity behind every ingredient. That’s why we don’t change the names of our ingredients or flavours - no matter how hard it is to pronounce, we want people to know them as their Filipino names because that’s part of the story.” - Christy Cunanan, founder of Cheeri Cheeri vegan Filipino ice cream.

“I’m a non-white person living in a white world. This is the world I live in. This is the game we’re playing… If I’m the only one in that space, then I need to be the one that breaks those ceilings... we are no longer the shadow, the black sheep. We must take control of our own stories.” - Ian Barcarse, on his experience being the only millennial and non-white person in the executive board rooms.

“I never saw Filipinos on TV or queer people on TV. My story wasn’t being told. So I thought for the longest time that meant nobody wanted my story... but I’m here because I want to tell my story, and I want to tell your stories” - Isabel Kanaan, named one of NOW Toronto’s Breakthrough Toronto Stage Artist of 2017 and performer with Tita Collective

I got to meet Filipinos from all over the country - from Ilocos and Davao and Cebu - people I thought I would never meet, and I’ve always felt nothing but supported and welcomed, and thankful to be part of such an inspirational community.” - Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer, co-founder of Cambio & Co., on his experience being a non-Filipino working in a Filipino space.

“When we first began our work with Cambio, 90% of our emails went unanswered. Nobody wanted to work with us because they didn’t know who we were. And that’s fine, that’s okay. Because it doesn’t matter what you know or who you know - the real question is, ‘are you willing to do what it takes to figure it all out?’” - Gelaine Santiago (yours truly!) sharing our advice to fellow entrepreneurs (I pieced this quote together with help from Jérôme :)

That evening was packed full of learnings and inspiring conversations. But perhaps, most importantly, it was also filled with moments of vulnerability. Of memories of sadness and anger and heartbreaking disappointments, all laid out bare.

That night, I learned the most powerful lesson of all: that our stories, as Filipinos but also as individuals, are diverse yet connected. I always knew it was important for us to work together to create safe spaces for stories like ours to be shared, heard, and celebrated - but that night, I felt it. Let’s share our stories. Let’s own our identities. Let’s take charge of the conversations.

Our time is not some far off point in the horizon. Our time, our moment of victory, is now.

Special thank you to Rechie Valdez and Carissa Villacorta for organizing the beautiful event. Learn more about PhTimeIsNow here.

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


  • Chie
    I’ve been following you on IG for sometime now. Part of it was because it’s neat to see another Filipino take stage in the retail industry…and you’re married to a white guy like me :) Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Nastasha

    You’ve beautifully captured that evening, which meant a lot for everyone in the room. Thank you for writing this!

  • Carissa Villacorta

    This is such a gift, Gelaine. When we do something we never know how it will turn out. We just do our best and pray so hard that everything will turn out find and that people will find value and feel valued in the time and space we created for and with you.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts here and every day in a purpose-driven life and mission too.

    Here were my own sentiments replying to your own. I’m happy we’re able to communicate this way, as sparked by our sharing space and time in real life.

    Oh My God, what have I done?

    You know that moment in Home Alone where the lead puts his hands on his cheeks and his mouth drops open? I feel like that was exactly me right now. Except that I had my hands over my jaw dropped-mouth without any sound.

    I often asked this team, this family, "How many times am I going to cry this month? Well, it’s been two months since #PHTimeIsNow was born and I’m still brought to tears. Mostly by words and letters such as these.

    When we set out to do events, it’s not easy to truly connect with everyone. Connection has so many meanings and so many levels, and we can definitely go deep.

    We can get caught up in things we have to do to keep all of this going, but the One (True) Thing is each heart we’re touching, each journey we’re affecting, each life we’re uplifting.

    They say if you find youself having goosbumps, you must stay and keep going in that industry. I thank everyone who’s shared their vulnerability, approachability and accessiblity. Those are the top three things that make us both so human and also so divine.

    We can start WITH a distance, without knowledge or awareness. We can proceed FROM a distance, with observation and admiration. But the true difference is made when you offer, invite or open doors…break walls and lay out hearts, in your projects and events.

    When I created the GlobalFilipinoWatch by Philip Stein last year, it felt like my new book, like I was launching my heart into the world.

    And now with PHTimeIsNow Global Mentoring and Brainstorming Events, I felt like I was opening that heart, that world, so that more people can share, witness and feel what I’ve always felt.

    They say people will forget what said, or what you’ve done. But they will never forget how you made them feel. So thank you for sharing these, and for making me feel these too.

    I may not have had a chance to speak with Gelaine Tan Santiago in depth when we met. But I relay our message from the heart with PHTimeIsNow, and she responds through her authentic actions through Cambio & Co.

    We speak through our journeys and send our best through our projects and the way we live our lives.

    And yes, I feel at Home, but truly never Alone.

    Thank you Rechie Aileen Valdez, Mike-Jan Lao Noche Sergie A. Albino Coo Nah Nun for helping create the time, the joy, the feels. What have WE done? So much happy tears. Thank you for being with us on this #GlobalFilipinoJourney.

    All the best to you and Jerome in the paths you’ve created and chosen for yourselves. Let’s keep in touch. We’re in each other’s hearts and with the grace of God and the kindness of our friends, they will go on.

  • Rechie Valdez

    Thank you for writing this. It brought me back to last month instantly. Thank you also for joining our panel and sharing your amazing story with us. Continue to inspire, and share the amazing craftsmanship from the Philippines.

  • Christy

    Thank you for capturing the night so beautifully. All of these voices were from strangers that immediately became connected family. We are so impressed and moved by what Cambio & Co’s Mission and vision and action stand for.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published