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Fierce Pinays: 5 Inspiring Filipina Leaders

By Krisha Maclang on July 7, 2015

For many women around the world, the glass ceiling is unquestionably one of the most difficult things to deal with at work. Sometimes no matter how hard you work and even if you deserve that promotion, you won’t get it simply because of your gender. It’s not unfair but it’s a stark reality women everywhere deal with from time to time.

Fortunately, women these days won’t let society’s faults get them down. Many Filipinas have proven that they aren’t just capable of smashing the glass ceiling; they can dominate their fields too.

Here are five amazing Filipina leaders to motivate you this week:

Rebecca Bustamante-Mills

[caption id="attachment_3337" align="aligncenter" width="960"]Photo from Rebecca's Facebook page Photo from Rebecca's Facebook page[/caption]

Many OFWs dream of going abroad to work hard, earn enough money and come home to a comfortable life in the Philippines. Rebecca Bustamante was once one of these OFWs but she stepped it up a couple of notches. Instead of simply working and earning, she put up her own multinational business.

At 19, Rebecca left her family to work as a domestic helper in Singapore, where she also studied Accounting. She only had one day off each month, which she used to go to school and talk to professors. After finishing college in Singapore, she moved to Canada to work as a nanny and take up graduate studies in Accounting and Marketing. After finishing her studies, she put up her own recruitment agency in Canada, High-Q Personnel.

After a few years, she came home to the Philippines and, together with her husband, founded Chalré Associates, a recruitment firm for senior management positions. She saw potential in our country and wanted to give back by finding ways to attract foreign investments here. It currently operates in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and Canada. Rebecca also organizes monthly forums for Asia CEO Forum, a non-profit organization under Chalré Associates.

Aside from boosting the country’s profile in the world’s stage, she also aims to encourage fellow Filipinas to seek higher positions at work. Rebecca believes that Pinays are just as capable as their male counterparts but simply need a push to drive their dreams forward.

Sources: GMA Network, Inquirer

Sandy Sanchez-Montano

[caption id="attachment_3343" align="aligncenter" width="801"]Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 12.01.09 PM Photo from Eagle News PH Video[/caption]

Sometimes it takes a huge, life-altering disaster to push you to do great things with your life. This was the case for Sandy Sanchez-Montano, who used her experience as a survivor of the 1990 Luzon Earthquake to make a difference in people’s lives through her company Community, Health, Education, Emergency Response Services (CHEERS).

Sandy was a nursing student at Baguio’s St. Louis University when she and three of her friends were trapped in their collapsed boarding house for three days. She had nothing to eat and no means to get home to Pangasinan, so she walked barefoot from Baguio all the way down to La Union before someone offered her a ride home. This experience ignited a yearning to educate individuals and organizations in disaster response. She continued her studies at United Doctors Medical Center while volunteering for the Philippine Red Cross before migrating to the United States.

In 2008, she returned to the Philippines and founded CHEERS with her husband, Alvin, and Ahed Al Najjar, both healthcare professionals as well. CHEERS provides training on Emergency Medical Services with local and international certification and has been authorized by TESDA to conduct trainings in schools, hospitals, NGOs, and LGUs. It is also an authorized American Safety and Health Institute training center and is the first training center to be certified by the American Heart Association. What began as a small social enterprise dedicated to educate disaster-stricken Filipino communities on disaster response has blossomed into a thriving business which has trained over 35,000 healthcare professionals and ordinary people all over the world.

In November 2014, the ASEAN Business Advisory Council named Sandy the First ASEAN Woman Leader Awardee for her efforts to educate thousands of people to properly and proactively respond to disasters.

Sources: CHEERS, AIM. edu, Rappler

Teresita Sy-Coson

[caption id="attachment_3344" align="aligncenter" width="815"]Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 12.09.28 PM Photo from Rappler Video[/caption]

Coming from a family known for a killer business acumen, it can be hard to imagine how Teresita Sy-Coson, or Tessie as she is more commonly known, can manage to be just as successful as her father, Henry Sy Sr., founder and Chairman of SM Prime Holdings, Inc. But Tessie, who has been on Forbes Asia’s Most Powerful Women list for the 4th year in a row, seems to be doing just fine.

The eldest child in the Sy family, Tessie started working for the Sy family’s shoe store in Manila when she was just eight years old. Tessie graduated with a BA and BSC from Assumption College and started working with her father after finishing her studies. Her father then asked her to put up their first department store in Manila, and much to the surprise of the 22 year old Tessie, it soon proved to be a success. In 1985, she helped her father launch the first SM mall at North EDSA and in 1980; she became the president of SM Department Stores. At that time SM only had 10 malls, and in just 20 years, they expanded their portfolio to 42 malls.

Currently the Vice Chairperson of SM Investments Corporation (SMIC), Tessie’s natural knack for business has also spurred the growth of Banco de Oro into the largest bank in the Philippines. Tessie oversaw the acquisition of Equitable Bank to form Banco de Oro Unibank. As its Chairperson, she has led the bank’s growth from 13th in the country in the 90s in terms of assets to the number 1 bank in the country.

Tessie believes that the Philippines is relatively forward-thinking with handling both men and women in the workplace. Not once was her gender an issue to her family, and later on, in business. Her family treated Tessie and all her siblings equally. While she has never been treated differently for being a woman, she has had to work twice as hard just to be recognized for her achievements. In their business, there has always been a good mix of men and women because she believes that even if men and women approach business very differently, the differences have always been beneficial for business.

Sources: Forbes, Channel News Asia, Inquirer,

Miriam Defensor-Santiago

[caption id="attachment_3338" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Photo from Senator Miriam Santiago's Facebook page Photo from Senator Miriam Santiago's Facebook page[/caption]

Miriam Defensor-Santiago needs no introduction. Known for her intelligence and tough-as-nails views as a judge and later, a lawmaker, she is a political leader who stands head and shoulders above her peers.

Miriam grew up with a thirst for learning and excellence. A valedictorian all throughout elementary, high school and college, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, magna cum laude and Bachelor of Laws, cum laude, both from the University of the Philippines. While at UP, she was the first female Editor-in-Chief of the Philippine Collegian, breaking 50 years of male leadership at the school paper, and also won Best Debater at the annual UP law debate. Miriam also pursued further studies abroad. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master of Laws and Doctor of Judicial Science, as well as other postdoctoral studies from prestigious schools such as Oxford University, Harvard University, Cambridge University, and many more.

She then served in all three branches of the Philippine government. Miriam was a judge at the Regional Trial Court, an immigration commissioner and Department of Agrarian Reform secretary, and has been a senator for three terms. She has also served as a consultant for the Philippine embassy in Washington D.C., as a legal officer of the United Nations (UN) in Switzerland, and was the first Filipino and Asian from a developing country to be elected as judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the UN.

Known for being a staunch opponent of corruption in the government, she led the senate’s investigation into the pork barrel scandal or PDAF scandal, and is one of three senators who turned down the DAP offered during the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012. She has also filed the most number of bills at the senate. Some of her pending bills include the anti-dynasty bill, freedom of information bill, and the anti-epal bill.

Miriam has also written several law-related books, as well as the popular “Stupid is Forever.”

An advocate for women’s rights, Miriam has consistently pushed for wider attention to women’s rights through her role as a senator. She authored the Magna Carta for Women and co-authored the Reproductive Health Law. She has also filed numerous bills that support women’s rights, such as the Child Support Act, Safe Haven Bill, and the Battered Women’s Testimony Bill.

Sources:, Inquirer

Reese Fernandez-Ruiz

[caption id="attachment_3339" align="aligncenter" width="720"]Photo from Reese Fernandez' Facebook page Photo from Reese Fernandez' Facebook page[/caption]

Even young Filipinas can be trailblazers in their chosen fields. She has successfully merged fashion, sustainable development and social enterprise to ease the plight of impoverished women in Payatas with her eco-ethical fashion enterprise, Rags2Riches.

Reese’s penchant for helping people around her began in the streets of Quiapo, where her mom was a missionary. She graduated with a degree in Management from Ateneo de Manila University, where she joined civic organizations such as Tugon (which aims to help sexual abuse survivors and abandoned babies), Ateneo Christian Life Community (which helps youth communities in Payatas), and Gawad Kalinga. It was also at school that she learned the value of being a “woman for others.”

Reese was teaching young children in Payatas when she noticed mothers making foot rugs out of scrap cloth sourced by middlemen who got the scraps from a local factory. The middlemen would then sell the finished products and take majority of the profits, leaving the women with only Php 12 a day. Reese wanted to find a way to remove the middlemen and give the mothers the pay that they deserve, and thus, Rags2Riches was born.

Rags2Riches lets these artisans have direct access to retailers, thus cutting out the middleman completely. They have partnered with several designers such as Rajo Laurel, Amina Aranaz-Alunan, Oliver Tolentino, and Olivia d’Aboville. The brand has 3 product lines: foot rugs, bags and purses, and a high-end designer line.

Rags2Riches currently have 900 artisans and directly employ a team of 50. They also experienced a consistent and impressive 100% annual growth for the first five years of their business. The women of Payatas now earn 40% of the retail price of each item sold. 54 of the women have also put up a cooperative which owns shares in Rags2Riches.They begin by working on foot rugs and work their way up to the designer line. Reese, who has received 20 local and international awards, aims to help the women fulfill their potential and be financially independent so they also hold seminars for personal finance, health insurance, and nutrition.

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Sources: CNN, PhilStar, FastCompany, Forbes, Rolex Awards