Friday, July 10, 2009

The Mystery of Success

"Business success is often a mystery. Very often, luck is a big part of it. Often it's skill. Sometimes it's just plain sweat and perseverance. Micro-entrepreneurs are no different, and while we can sometimes guess at why one entrepreneur can be so successful as to expand their business and hire employees whereas others do not, often, it's simply a mystery.

When I first met Adora Fajiculay I'd I'd invited myself into her workspace after seeing the most fantastic gown on display there. I learned she made the dress from pandan palm, for a beauty contestant to wear at the annual Banigan Festival. The gown was not only beautiful to look at, but structurally flawless. If there were a "Project Runway: Philippines", Adora would win, hands down.

I went wild with praise as she stood by not quite sure what to make of all of it. At first meeting, Adora can be perceived as shy. She is petite and soft-spoken, and always gracious and welcoming.

Adora was the first Filipina borrower that you had the chance to meet on Kiva. She was the first borrower posted by any Philippine MFI to Kiva, winning her the distinction of being the first Philippine entrepreneur on the site.

Adora's business success is clear. Her two-room workshop hums, and is so busy that she has had to hire help; she now employs two women, and is planning to hire a third worker to staff a new uniform showroom she intends to open across from a local university. But she didn't arrive here from a path destined to succeed.

Adora comes from a large family, and due to challenges at home, was raised by her aunt. She got her first taste of intensive sewing in a home economics course when she was a third-year high school student. After finishing high school in 1997, Adora began looking for a way to earn money to help pay for medical bills for her father, who was suffering from a terminal illness. She left her home in Antique Province, where fishing and farming are the economic mainstays and wages are low, to work at a garment factory in Bulacan, northwest of Manila. Adora worked there for three years, sending home most of her earnings.

When her father's condition failed to improve, Adora decided to return home. She was determined to go to university or college. Adora examined the opportunities available to her, and chose to apply for a Philippine government scholarship program run by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. She was accepted, and was eligible to have half of her tuition paid at an accredited school for either a course in a computer-related field, or hotel and restaurant management.

But Adora began to have second thoughts. She wasn't enthusiastic about a career in computers, or the hospitality industry. To her, neither would provide her with much opportunity to determine her own fate. Moreover, the accredited school she would have to attend charged much higher tuition than other schools in Antique Province. So she did what few Filipinos in her shoes would have done: she turned down the scholarship.

Instead, she chose to build on the skills she'd learned at the garment factory and enrolled as a garments technology major at another school. Once in school, she excelled. One day, she was reading through the student handbook and noticed that full academic scholarships were available for good students. Again she applied for a scholarship, and again her diligence paid off. The school paid half of her tuition fees the second semester of her first year, and all of her tuition fees every year thereafter.

To cover her living expenses, and to help her family out, she took on work outside of school at a local clothes design shop. The move was economic and academic -- assignments she got at work doubled as projects she could submit as schoolwork -- but despite that, it was very hard work. She often worked seven days a week, and long into the night, and from the time she entered school, she became her family's primary breadwinner. Adora's long-suffering father died in 2001, when she was a second-year student.

After graduating from school in 2003, Adora started her tailoring and seamstress business as a one-woman operation, armed with a single foot-powered sewing machine. Adora knew that in order to grow her business, she'd need money to be able to buy better equipment, but she couldn't qualify for a loan from a commercial bank. Soon thereafter, Adora discovered Kiva partner Ahon Sa Hirap, Inc. (ASHI), which started lending in Antique Province in 1998 after identifying the area as one of the poorest and most in need of its services.

ASHI not only provided Adora the money to buy vital equipment such as high-speed sewing, edging, and embroidery machines, but it helped build her confidence as a businesswoman. For ASHI, lending money is only part of the equation: it also has a keen focus on social development, and strives to build leadership skills among its all-female membership that take out loans as part of groups bound by social collateral.

Through successive loan cycles from ASHI, Adora secured the capital necessary to grow her business. As she expanded her capacity, and built upon her reputation, and her business has now grown so much that she had to hire full-time help. She dreams that three years from now, she will own a well-equipped dress shop to be able to cope with orders for school uniforms in state colleges around the bustling capital town of San Jose de Buenavista, Antique.

Adora is now 28, and married to Juvey, a booking agent for a bus company whose job keeps him away from home for all but two days a month. They have a nine-month old girl, Crysantha Nicole. She is still her family's primary breadwinner; her mother now lives with her and helps with raising pigs and other ventures.

I've met scores of borrowers in my time as a Kiva Fellow -- first in Cambodia, then the Philippines, and now Kenya -- but of all the borrowers I've encountered, Adora stands apart. Most of the borrowers I've met have been able to use loans with modest but very real success: credit helps them to temper the worst shocks of poverty, and puts their families on sounder footing. But few have been able to build businesses that employ others as successfully as Adora's.

I was left wondering what made her different -- why did she succeed where other borrowers hadn't? Had being raised by her aunt left her with the realization that if her immediate family couldn't care for her, then she'd have to do it herself. Had her father's death forced her to accept more responsibility for her loved ones than if he'd survived? She had taken a significant risk turning down the government scholarship she'd received, but it was clearly the right decision. How did she know that she would be more successful tailoring than working in hospitality or computers?

The best answer I can come up with, is that Adora was just incredibly determined to succeed. While I wonder at the mystery of her success, it's possible the better question is "could anything have stopped her?"

John Briggs is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Kenya Agency for the Development of Enterprise and Technology (KADET) based in Nairobi. John is one of our longer-term Kiva Fellows; before going to Kenya, he served with Ahon sa Hirap, Inc. (ASHI) in the Philippines from March to May 2009, and Maxima Mikroheranvatho in Cambodia from October 2008 to February 2009.

- John Briggs is a Kiva Fellow working with the Kenya Agency for the Development of Enterprise and Technology (KADET) based in Nairobi. John is one of our longer-term Kiva Fellows; before going to Kenya, he worked with Ahon sa Hirap, Inc. (ASHI) in the Philippines from March to May 2009, and Maxima in Cambodia from October 2008 to February 2009.