How empathy makes women great social entrepreneurs, community builders

Anna Meloto-Wilk, co-founder of Human Nature; Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, co-founder of Rags2Riches. Photo by: Personal collection

Becoming a successful social entrepreneur is equally difficult for men and women alike, but women have certain (perceived) special qualities that can give them an advantage over men when it comes to doing business for social good.

In the Philippines — one of the world’s high scorers in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report — many of the female social entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years have done very well for themselves, thanks to being empowered, driven, resilient and nurturing women.

Take for example the case of Anna Meloto-Wilk, co-founder of the growing skincare company and social enterprise Human Nature. The inspiration for the company came from how she felt as a young mother trying to find healthy and organic skincare products for her kids. But while living in the United States, she wondered why natural skincare products were priced expensively, even if the ingredients from natural plants were widely available in her own country. This ignited the launch of a brand that not only aims to provide safe, affordable, natural skincare products for the family, but is also committed to eradicating poverty for millions of Filipino farmers who supply the natural ingredients.

Reese Fernandez-Ruiz is another prominent name in the Philippine social enterprise space as one of the founding partners of Rags2Riches. The main intention of this social enterprise is to uplift the lives of the women in Manila’s most notorious trash dump site, Payatas. Through scraps of cloth, basic rag products are turned into high-end stylish bags that are sought-after in Europe and the United States, having graced fashion shows — and putting artisan women at the spotlight of empowerment. Reese started with a personal conviction to help because of her own experience with poverty as the daughter of a missionary who later was lucky enough to get a scholarship to study at a university. After a personal immersion experience in the Payatas dump site, she used her management training to build Rags2Riches into a for-profit social enterprise anchored by the goal to eradicate poverty.

Both Anna and Reese built social enterprises rooted from a personal experience, and encountered challenges they were able to overcome precisely by their ability to analyze the human connections and build empathy. Female social entrepreneurs skew more to an intuitive sense of decision-making, and we value collaboration that is essential for building communities. This, in my opinion, makes women more suited toward setting up certain social enterprises than men, who are generally seen as less emotional and more strictly business-oriented. Our brains are just wired differently.

Here are three ways that women can harness the emotional qualities that in general distinguish them from men to thrive as social entrepreneurs and effective community builders:

1. Always start with a problem you are passionate about solving.

The drive of the woman social entrepreneur tends to be rooted in the personal experience with a problem that defined her course to build a venture to solve it. It ignites a powerful force of intuition, which will be valuable when she has to make business decisions. Will a specific marketing campaign resonate with my audience? Will a new investment be beneficial for my community? Will a strategic plan generate the most value for my customers? Like a mother who decides according to what is best for her children’s growth, so does the female social entrepreneur who decides according to what is best for the stakeholders she serves. It all starts with that one problem she is passionate about solving.

2. Surround yourselves with the ‘thinkers’ and ‘pragmatics’ who also believe in the mission.

Although we have our passion to drive us, we also need to secure a sound and balanced decision-making culture by surrounding ourselves with “thinkers” and “pragmatics” on our team. The prerequisite is that they must also firmly believe in the mission. But we have to welcome divergent thinking, and people who can challenge our vision for the better. Social entrepreneurs secure the heart, but people like these “pragmatics” secure the head.

3. Create a nurturing and collaborative culture.

Empathy is a magic word in the social enterprise space. Women can be the best drivers of a culture that promotes empathy. A good mentor told me that our enterprises must imbibe more of the maternal characteristics rather than a paternalistic one. This means to build cultures that nurture, not rule. Build relationships, not status. Encourage people to build for the future of their grandchildren, and not just their financial inheritance.

If more female — and male! — social entrepreneurs harness these nurturing characteristics, our world will become more equitable, human and nurturing.

Both Therese Clarence Fernandez-Ruiz and Anna Meloto-Wilk were chosen in 2013 as Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in Manila.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Noreen Marian Bautista

    Noreen Marian Bautista is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of firms like Jacinto & Lirio and The Spark Project in the Philippines. She also consulting and business services general manager at the Institute for Social Enterprise and Development, and is a member of the Global Shapers Community’s hub in Manila.

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