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Illiac Diaz: Social Entrepreneur


With a large portion of the billions of dollars of remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFW) coming from seamen and maritime laborers, it is shameful that when these sea-based workers return home, they have to scatter for housing and food until their next assignment, which may not come for months at a time. The government isn’t providing much help, other than minor tutorials on possible local investment opportunities. It took a determined, privileged young man to develop a sustainable shelter which, in some minor way, repays the seamen for their contributions to the economy.

Illac Diaz is the Executive Director of Pier One, a self-sustaining dormitory for Filipino seamen coming from abroad. Since its inception in 2000, the place has provided assistance to almost 80,000 seafarers, providing not just comfortable shelter, but a centralized manning station where job postings as well as local employment opportunities are listed while waiting for their next assignment at sea. Starting with only 40 beds, it now accommodates up to 1,000 residents, with branches in Intramuros, Ermita and Recto in Manila.

Pier One is just one example of Illac’s assortment of charitable efforts and projects. Labeled a “social entrepreneur,” this 32-year-old bachelor and one-time executive for Smart Telecommunications (and sometime actor and model), has since established several companies to provide logical solutions to societal problems. Besides Pier One, he founded My Shelter Foundation, a non-profit organization which aims to incorporate earth-made, low-cost building materials for residents of far-flung, rural areas, as well as Good Guys Incorporated, which assists law students with their photocopying needs. Illac has been inundated with citations and awards, scholarships and grants from prestigious schools abroad and has become an admirable symbol of how one man can make a difference.

In an interview with Planet Philippines, Illac (an Aztec Inca term, meaning “God of Light”), says he has been aware of the social and economic conditions of the less fortunate since he was young. “I never lived in Makati, but the Pasay area,” he says. “Beyond my gates, I lived by the fact that poverty was just a few steps away. I grew up being good friends with the sons of mechanics, machinists, and the laborers. I came to the realization that if I came from great benefits, why can’t I reach out? If we allow millions of Filipinos to live in a state of poverty, I felt it was only morally right that if there was anything I could do – skills, connections – to build a better house or working condition, I would do it. This early childhood exposure made me realize that they were no different from me. What they need was an opportunity to get re-absorbed into society.”

Starting in high school, as an academic-athletic scholar at Ateneo de Manila, he took it upon himself to solve below-the-radar problems no one else would bother with. While jogging outside the school grounds, Illac came across the Southeast Asian Institute for the Deaf. Curious, he talked with the faculty regarding their needs, and subsequently organized USAP-KAMAY, an organization which volunteers students to act as part-time tutors.

Another time, while dating a fellow student who was a law major, he noticed that she and her classmates would take a prolonged amount of time to photocopy documents. Previously, they would have to print out stacks of one single page, then meticulously combine separate pages together, a tedious process that would eat up countless hours when they could be studying instead.

Doing some research, he discovered a quicker, digitized version of the process, which led to opening his own copier business. Guaranteeing a next day delivery, he built Good Guys Inc. to the point where he was servicing 60,000 students from 7 law schools. “It was just a matter of looking at these problems that were so dominant and coming in with an analytic sense and forcing the mind to think.”

The development of Pier One came when looking for the “next great challenge” while researching topics for his thesis in Master in Entrepreneurship at the Asian Institute of Management. While on a “serendipity walk,” wherein students would spot business opportunities from what they encountered in the immediate area, Illac observed the plight of seamen returning from trips abroad. He discovered that the Philippines provides 20 percent of the world\'s ship manning requirements and yet is the only country without a seafarers\' center, and that there was no central location form them to look for jobs. They huddle in the open air all day in various parts of Manila, waiting for the recruitment agencies to approach them for work.

“They lived in the Tondo area, very cheap, no contract of stay, just a certain amount of security,” he says. “They would always go in groups to protect themselves. I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we build a dorm, using the same system, but make it professional?’”

Illac not only built a dormitory, but also put up a bottled water business and an ink-refilling station where, if lacking in funds, the residents could work to pay for their stay. “In a normal system, the profits from bottled water would go into shareholder value, which would go into the pocket of a few individuals. This one, the profits go into the foundation,” he explains.

Illac is not a believer in simple charity. Whatever profits his projects make revert to the business. “I always look at it in a way that charity has a cash burn rate; which means the organization will purchase a bunch of stuff, spend most of its time raising funds to run it for the next round of events.”

This kind of sustainable solution has been a continuing passion that has extended to his other endeavors. Reading about the lack of classrooms in the provinces, as well as being asked by his aunt, the late actress Rio Diaz-Cojuangco, to find a way to solve the housing problem in Negros Occidental, Illac found a solution through a simple business analysis of the area. “The usual way [to build houses] is they build it with bricks, and the problem is transporting, the supply chain. Maybe communities are poor, but if they spend materials that come from the outside, that money is brought out of the community.”

He then noticed that the nearby adobe bridges, built by the Spanish many years ago, were very resilient and came from the earth itself. Researching on the Internet, as well as visiting India and America, where adobe houses are commonly built, he found that this could be applied to the Philippines. By utilizing the endless supply of indigenous material and local labor, it could be a way to keep the money within the community.
“If we could build classrooms cheaper, we could pay teachers better, or bring in new computer technology in the classroom,” he says. “Now we’re building classrooms and medical clinics at one-third of the cost. Once I leave, they know where their source is and continue building. Empowerment is the key area here.”

For his efforts, Illac has been rewarded with numerous awards, including the first Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) Social Entrepreneurship Award in 2005. “I feel I haven’t made enough impact being a relative newcomer. Of the millions of people out there, I’ve only helped a fraction.” His projects have also been featured in numerous media outfits, including CNN and BBC.  “What I’m really excited about is communicating my message to the young people out there. I was able to do something, so there’s no excuse for you not to get involved with society.”

This coming September Illac will be the first Asian to start the new course on
Social Entrepreneurship as a Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Earlier he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Research Fellow under the Fulbright-Humphrey Scholarship, where studied ways of building innovative shelter and development technology for the poor.

These are two of many opportunities, he says, he would never have gotten without his philanthropy. “It’s really weird, when I was an advertising executive for Smart, I made a lot of money, but I would never be able to afford anything I do today. When I started helping out, people started offering advice, consultancy and I got this scholarship. Somehow by giving, you get so much more. I made more friends than I ever had before, I travel than I’ve ever done before, study in the best schools. If you do something good, the future will come. By doing good, the world will conspire to work with you to achieve new heights.”

And more than the rewards, it’s the act itself of giving that is most satisfying. “The greatest work of being alive is giving back something to humanity; everything else is just consumption. Either your money is spent or is subdivided among your children. But coming up with something that has a very strong impact on society and lives longer than you is ultimately something I’d like to strive for, rather than financial worth.”

Written by Pepper Marcelo

Yep, another long ago post with zero responses, although an interesting read.

The common conditions here are, give me, give me and nothing in return!  Once that is understood, this situation can be viewed as normal and will not be changed as an overall/cross the board situation.

I agree with the closing comments as we have somewhat adopted a share cropping Pinoy family of 4 in our area. We give clothing, food, work when I have it and pickup their wopping electric bill of 40 to 90 pesos a month. They have to draw their water from a near by government well, (carry home), and I\'m thinking of a way to haul more water, (on wheels), then a few liters at a time.

Back when we were discussing domed houses and earthen buildings and the like, we attempted to contact Mr. Diaz, all of our emails went unanswered and even one member is a relative of his, but contact through his mother we were told he is writing his thesis, and is simply to busy to answer email at this point. So we gave up.


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