5 lessons on female empowerment from modern Filipino women

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"Every Girl Can," a conference organized by She Talks Asia and Mano Amiga, featured modern Filipino women who know themselves and what they want. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — "A girl should be two things: who and what she wants."

This is the slogan of Every Girl Can — organized by She Talks Asia and Mano Amiga — a whole-day conference of dynamic conversations and networking opportunities about female empowerment. On a Saturday, a room of about 50 girls was filled with inspiration and a warm atmosphere of female camaraderie.

The girls listened to the success stories of women with impact, including model and entrepreneur Teresa Herrera, life coach and motivational speaker Pia Acevedo, social entrepreneur and eco-warrior Krie Lopez, advertising CEO and “chairmom” Merlee Jayme, and marketing mogul Margot Torres.

There were panel discussions on three topics: the “Modern Filipina,” the oft-asked question “Millennials: Empowered or Entitled?,” and professional opportunities in the form of “New Frontiers for Women.”

The panel segment “Millennials: Empowered or Entitled?” included (from left to right) Jasmine Curtis-Smith, who moderated the discussion, Monica Magsanoc, Nella Lomotan, Samantha Lee, Thea de Rivera, and Patty Tiu. Photo by JURO ONGKIKO

Hosted by Sarah Meier, who co-spearheaded the event, Every Girl Can was also a call to action to raise funds for the scholars of Mano Amiga — a non-profit school that provides international quality education to underprivileged children — as well as to recruit volunteers for its mentorship program.

On behalf of She Talks Asia, Vicky Herrera shares her team’s takeaways from putting up Every Girl Can, on living your life to the fullest as a woman, and helping other women do the same.

Lyn Pinugu, the executive director of Mano Amiga. Photo by JURO ONGKIKO

                                Advocacies help bring women together.

Herrera used to volunteer for Mano Amiga about seven years ago, and has been in touch with the school ever since. Volunteers of the school usually act as tutors to underprivileged children who are taught through a holistic values-based education system.

Mano Amiga found its nest in Every Girl Can, when Vicky introduced Lyn Pinugu, the school’s executive director, to Meier. They instantly clicked, because both had a desire to organize such a conference. “It was a supportive merging of ideas,” says Vicky. “Talking to someone like Lyn whose profession is to help and educate people, it was inspiring and refreshing taking her point of view. It was good. It's authentic.”

Another social enterprise which found its voice in the forum is Messy Bessy, a local line of non-toxic earth-friendly cleaning products which funds the HOUSE Foundation, headed by Krie Lopez. The organization equips high school and college dropouts, and other disadvantaged youth with the necessary skills for them to succeed and eventually get a job of their choice.

“Bringing networks together, women together, is powerful. [There are] amazing results,” adds Herrera.

Vicky Herrera recites affirmations with the crowd. Photo by JURO ONGKIKO

                                        Empowerment starts from the self.

“Being a millennial, I just learned how not to care,” says the restaurateur Thea De Rivera (of The Girl + The Bull and 12/10) during the panel discussion about millennials’ empowerment versus entitlement. Panel moderator Jasmine Curtis-Smith asked her about how she comes to terms with people criticizing her for not having formal training in handling a restaurant.

“Maybe they think, you can do that because you have this, or you came from Ateneo, this and that, but at the end of the day, it's all about what you do and your hard work,” De Rivera adds. “And I feel like you're the only person who can tell yourself what you can and can't achieve.”

Curtis-Smith answered by sharing her own experiences in the entertainment industry: “In my perspective, usually you see a female artista paired up with another guy. But here I am, going against it — I don't wanna be in a love team. I don't wanna be with just one guy for all my projects because where's the diversity in characters there? Where's the diversity in representing every type of person? And people in my industry see that as, ‘Why do you think you can make it on your own? Why do you think you'll be more successful without being paired up with another actor?’ Why is that even the structure here? Why can't I be a solo female, striving on my own, and achieving success on my own standards?”

Herrera had a segment in the conference where she encouraged everyone to repeat affirmations — a set of positive messages to uplift oneself and rewire the brain for optimistic thinking.

The audience stood up with their hands on their hearts, eyes closed, saying in unison, “I believe in myself.” The girls were also asked to approach as many strangers as they wanted in the room, to exchange compliments, chit-chat, and ideas. Everybody went back to their seats with smiles on their faces, their spirits uplifted.

Sarah Meier co-spearheaded and hosted the event. Photo by JURO ONGKIKO

      Teamwork involves reaching out for help, and catching those in need of it.

It took the She Talks Asia team only two months to successfully put up Every Girl Can. “It's crazy,” says Herrera, “We've never done a conference! I didn't know what to do!”

But with Herrera and Meier’s tenacious team of women volunteers, along with their brand partners, they were able to do what they originally thought was impossible. Vicky owes it to the team members’ ability to rely on and catch each other at their toughest times. “We had so many challenges but what we love [about our team] is someone would reach out for help, and someone else would catch them. It's not like, I'm in charge of this, I got it, I'm perfect. We'd call [each other] up [and help each other].”

With the same resonance, Jayme talked about teamwork and fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace. In a campaign video that featured her and her female officemates sharing their work anecdotes, the word in big bold letters appeared: “Sistergood.”

The team behind She Talks Asia, a budding movement that “celebrates the modern woman” and provides a space for inspiration and support, through multiple media and platforms. Every Girl Can is its first event. Photo by JURO ONGKIKO

                                      Authenticity ultimately triumphs.

“In the Philippines, there's a lot of cattiness [among women] and all that stuff,” says Herrera. “That's what we're trying to avoid. Not everyone is like that. There are so [many] misconceptions about the industry. You can tell that we're in it, but we don't even wanna do that.”

Every Girl Can aims to counter this “cattiness” and foster authenticity not just by giving women a voice for their honest opinions, but also by encouraging a positive atmosphere among these differing voices of dissent. In the “Modern Filipina” discussion, some of the panel members — which involved Ana P. Santos, Gang Badoy, Minette Navarrette, Pia Cayetano, and Karen Davila, moderated by Bianca Gonzalez-Intal — engaged in a heated yet healthy debate regarding being a woman under the current administration.

Herrera believes in spreading more positive messages in the quest for authenticity. “I can't speak for everyone, but I wanted [it to be] the conference I wish I had when I was a 17-year-old insecure girl,” she says. “When I look back, when I had no guidance, [messages were not positive]. Back then, it was, be skinny, be white. I can still see the messages happening here, but we wanted other things, like be smart, be kind, be authentic. And why don't those messages come out more? Being a woman is not just about looking pretty. And [the conference] had to [dig] below the surface.”

(Left) Advertising CEO and “chairmom” Merlee Jayme. (Right) Social entrepreneur and eco-warrior Krie Lopez. Photos by JURO ONGKIKO

          Life is not perfect, and a life with fear is something to be accepted.

In Margot Torres’ talk, she discussed the concept of fear, how it hinders us, and how, ultimately, we should accept it as a thing that balances our emotions and pushes us to strive harder for the things that we want.

“We normally grow up with fear seen as something negative,” Torres says. “It's danger. But you have to look at fear as stories, they have a beginning and an end.”

Even Jayme was once afraid. “I hate to be useless. My biggest fear in life is not to have anything written on my tombstone.” And she channeled this fear into restlessness, into having multiple callings (For one, she entered a convent for three years before achieving success with her own advertising agency). It’s okay to reroute toward your destination, she says. “I had many callings, but there is only one purpose. Purpose unifies your life.”

“The dark brings the light,” adds Herrera. “[It’s about] using your experiences and your past as a place to heal and learn and teach others.”

Marketing mogul Margot Torres. Photo by JURO ONGKIKO

“What I'd like to emphasize when it comes to a conference like this that talks about positivity, it's never from a place of rainbows and butterflies and everything ... It's because we personally encountered pain and we personally had close friends encounter pain, whether it's insecurity, depression, heartache, breakups, family ... Things like this are born because of those dark days.”

“We're not [perfect],” Herrera says about her team. “If you know us and how we call each other, we're like, it was really tough today. It's because we're authentic with our pain to each other and that ugly side that we don't want people to see. I just wanna emphasize that it's not like, life is perfect, the world is perfect, let's all be positive. It's like, life can get tough, but choose to see the positive and be there for each other.”