Interview with a Trailblazer: Yana Santiago on Feminism, Textile Waste & Entrepreneurship
One thing many people don’t know about the Philippines is it’s full of sheer talent. The country is a teeming hotbed for young, dynamic startups who are tackling poverty and inequality in innovative ways while crafting kick-ass products. And today, we’re highlighting the people behind those businesses - the ambitious, passionate entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to blaze their own paths.
One of those entrepreneurs is Yana Santiago, founder of the ethical fashion brand Olivia & Diego. We've been working with Yana and her team since we founded Cambio & Co. (all the way back in 2015). We’re constantly amazed by her ambition and vision, and have witnessed her take the team to new heights. Olivia & Diego crafts colourful jewelry out of upcycled materials (old T-shirts and office supplies), raising awareness of the massive amounts of clothing donated from North America that ends up clogging the Philippines’ landfills. At the same time, Olivia & Diego employs local women artisans from Davao, Mindanao; many of whom have overcome sex trafficking or domestic violence.
Our Trailblazers feature aims to shine the spotlight on the amazing talent of Filipinos and Filipinas everywhere. And we're super honoured to feature a true #girlboss like Yana for our first-ever feature!
From left to right: Jay-Ann (one of Olivia & Diego’s longest standing artisans), Yana (founder), and Jennifer (one of the newer artisans at Olivia & Diego)
1) First, tell us a little about yourself. Who IS Yana Santiago?
To be perfectly honest, I'm constantly reevaluating who I am and who I want to be. I'm interested in a lot of things, like social entrepreneurship, community work, indigenous textiles, and fashion branding.
2) Tell us about your journey starting and growing Olivia & Diego. What has been the biggest challenge for you?
I'm the type that will always look for something to do. So I looked for events I can attend outside the Philippines and stumbled upon Global Social Summit in Kuala Lumpur. They had a social business writing competition at the time, and I thought it was cool. I believe that it started from there - the idea of employing local women in communities as artisans . Just my luck, the very first business plan for Olivia & Diego was chosen and I won a ticket to meet social entrepreneurs from around the world. The business plan needed a lot of tweaking, and I, myself needed a lot of learning to do! I went home after the summit, feeling inspired, rewrote business plans, created the O&D branding, emailed (A LOT!) of potential partners, and mostly did the technical stuff (accounting, acquiring permits, etc.) myself at first.
I have encountered a lot of challenges as an entrepreneur. Often, things do not go as planned and it's quite difficult to choose a career path that's 'less traveled'. I'm still learning and like everyone, I'm still a work in progress. There will always be people who try to bring me down and doubt the advocacy. However, I try to remember that to promote a good cause, I must also embody my principles. I will always be ethical and fair to the artisans, no matter how difficult financially or logistically.
The Philippines receives an over donation of clothing from Canada and the US, which end up clogging the country’s landfills. To raise awareness about textile waste, Olivia & Diego upcycles their jewelry from old T-shirts.
3) Why did you choose specifically to employ women escaping the sex trade in Davao? How did this problem come to light for you?
I emailed tons of partners - which included NGOs in Davao City. They were the first ones to respond. Honestly, I had no idea at that time how bad the situation was and still is in Davao City. It was only when I met with the Executive Director of an NGO, who works with rescuing sex trafficked women, that the situation came to light. At first, I was interested in looking into different social issues. But when I learned of how prevalent the issue of prostitution was (which is quite taboo in a predominantly Catholic country like the Philippines), I was interested in learning more and being part of their story.
4) Being a woman and an entrepreneur has it's fair share of challenges in any country you go to. Have you experienced discrimination yourself? How do you overcome it?
It was surprisingly modest for me, being a woman entrepreneur in the Philippines. It might just be in my city, but they respect/have a high regard for #GirlBosses. Maybe the only awkward experience I had was when I went to Hong Kong Fashion Week three years ago to look for suppliers and partners for O&D. I had encountered a rude guy, who held a high position in a garment factory in India. It was the first day of the HKFW and I welcomed the day with bright eyes. By lunch, I already had potential suppliers and talked to different companies. I started noticing this big guy because of the way he was following me. When he finally talked to me, he was quite arrogant. I felt uncomfortable, so the next days felt like that, too. I doubted myself as a woman entrepreneur. This resulted to me getting no deals, no suppliers, no anything.
I slowly learned from that experience. I regained my confidence, although I think there was a lot of "faking it till you make it”. I also have a strong support system!
5) Exciting things are happening for Olivia & Diego and you're getting a lot of international attention. What do you think are the main factors that have contributed to your success? / What do you think makes Olivia & Diego stand out compared to other PH brands?
I believe it was the perfect mix of luck and connections - telling the right people our story. I was already an advocate of eco-fashion before, so I'm glad to have met like-minded friends, who have no qualms in sharing our story to their friends as well.
Though I'm not a good speaker, I wasn't afraid to try. I probably pitched the idea and our story a thousand times! And every time, I still get nervous, like, am I saying the right words? How do I organize what I'm going to say? What the heck am I saying?
I don't consider other brands as a competition. Every social enterprise in the Philippines has a unique story, with beautiful products. What I learned is that Olivia & Diego has the power to inspire other women, at least in Davao City, to create their own impact - start a business or reach out to a community.
6) Let's spread the love! Which are some of your favourite homegrown Filipino brands?
I could talk to you for days about all the Filipino brands I love! Haha but for starters, I love Rags2Riches, Anthill, Lawud, Artikles PH, Randolf, Heleyna, Katie Ray, Maizy Colleen, Wilson Limon/NinoFranco, Kaayo, Amanda by Mandy Velasco, Reefside, Tejo, Akaba and Absolution Art!
Jay-Ann skillfully makes a signature Olivia & Diego piece from fabric strands of a secondhand shirt. Yana and the artisans visit ukay ukay (secondhand shops) around the city to source the exact colours they need.
7) What's next for Olivia & Diego?
Earlier this year, we were able to secure a workspace for Olivia & Diego's artisans, in a lot where my family also manages. However, it was getting difficult for the artisans to commute from their homes to downtown (where we are located), so it didn't come to fruition. So I usually visit the artisans in their workspaces near their homes to discuss... everything! I still want that workspace though, but it will take a lot of tweaking. I want us to be able to impact more lives and be part of more stories.
Jay-Ann and her fellow artisan Jennifer share an intimate moment to chat.
8) What's something you wish more people knew about the Philippines?
The Philippines is more than just our tourist spots or "retirement" communities. The Philippines is not just Manila, or El Nido, or Boracay. If you take the time to explore the country, you will realize that my hometown, Mindanao has a lot to offer. We have diverse indigenous tribes here - each with a different story, set of beliefs, clothing, and skill sets. They all coexist peacefully on this island, which is pretty amazing :)