I have this piece published on my old blog, but somehow, during the migration of the contents to this site, this gem got lost. In honour of our graduates, I am republishing this, John Gokongwei’s speech, with the hope of influencing our graduates today- Sonnie
Commencement Speech of John L. Gokongwei, Jr
March 27, 2004, Ateneo de Manila University
I wish I were one of you today, instead of a 77-year-old man, giving a speech you will probably forget when you wake up from your hangover tomorrow. You may be surprised I feel this way. Many of you are feeling fearful and apprehensive about your future.
You are thinking that, perhaps, your Ateneo diploma will not mean a whole lot in the future in a country with too many problems. And you are probably right.
You are thinking that our country is slipping—no, sliding. Again, you may be right.
Twenty years ago, we were at par with countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Today, we are left way behind. You know the facts.
Twenty years ago, the per capita income of the Filipino was 1,000 US dollars. Today, it’s 1,100 dollars. That’s a growth of only ten percent in twenty years. Meanwhile, Thailand’s per capita income today is double ours; Malaysia, triple ours; and Singapore, almost twenty times ours.
With globalization coming, you know it is even more urgent to wake up. Trade barriers are falling, which means we will have to compete harder.
In the new world, entrepreneurs will be forced to invest their money where it is most efficient. And that is not necessarily in the Philippines. Even for Filipino entrepreneurs, that can be the case.
For example, a Filipino brand like Maxx candy can be manufactured in Bangkok—where labor, taxes, power and financing are cheaper and more efficient—and then exported to other ASEAN countries.
This will be a common scenario—if things do not change.
Pretty soon, we will become a nation that buys everything and produces practically nothing. We will be like the prodigal son who took his father’s money and spent it all. The difference is that we do not have a generous father to run back to.
But despite this, I am still very excited about the future. I will tell you why later.
You have been taught at the Ateneo to be “a person for others.” Of course, that is noble: To serve your countrymen.
Question is: How? And my answer is: Be an entrepreneur!
You may think I am just a foolish man talking mundane stuff when the question before him is almost philosophical. But I am being very thoughtful here, and if I may presume this about myself, being patriotic as well.
Entrepreneurship is the answer.
We need young people who will find the idea, grab the opportunity, take risk, and set aside comfort to set up businesses that will provide jobs.
But why? What are jobs?
Jobs are what allow people to feel useful and build their self-esteem. Jobs make people productive members of the community. Jobs make people feel they are worthy citizens. And jobs make a country worthy players in the world market.
In that order of things, it is the entrepreneurs who have the power to harness the creativity and talents of others to achieve a common good. This should leave the world a better place than it was.
Let me make it clear: Job creation is a priority for any nation to move forward.
For example, it is the young entrepreneurs of Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore who created the dynamic businesses that have propelled their countries to the top. Young people like yourselves.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, progress is slow. Very little is new. Hardly anything is fresh. With a few exceptions, the biggest companies before the war—like PLDT, Ayala, and San Miguel—are still the biggest companies today.
All right, being from the Ateneo, many of you probably have offers from these corporations already. You may even have offers from JG Summit.
I say: Great! Take these offers, work as hard as you can, learn everything these companies can teach—and then leave!
If you dream of creating something great, do not let a 9-to-5 job—even a high-paying one—lull you into a complacent, comfortable life. Let that high-paying job propel you toward entrepreneurship instead. When I speak of the hardship ahead, I do not mean to be skeptical but realistic.
Even you Ateneans, who are famous for your eloquence, you cannot talk your way out of this one. There is nothing to do but to deal with it.
I learned this lesson when, as a 13-year-old, I lost my dad.
Before that, I was like many of you: a privileged kid. I went to Cebu’s best school; lived in a big house; and got free entrance to the Vision, the largest movie house in Cebu, which my father owned. Then my dad died, and I lost all these. My family had become poor—poor enough to split my family. My mother and five siblings moved to China where the cost of living was lower. I was placed under the care of my Grand Uncle Manuel Gotianuy, who put me through school. But just two years later, the war broke out, and even my Uncle Manuel could no longer see me through.
I was out in the streets—literally.
Looking back, this time was one of the best times of my life. We lost everything, true, but so did everybody! War was the great equalizer. In that setting, anyone who was willing to size up the situation, use his wits, and work hard, could make it!
It was every man for himself, and I had to find a way to support myself and my family. I decided to be a market vendor.
Why? Because it was something that I, a 15-year-old boy in short pants, could do.
I started by selling simple products in the palengke half an hour by bike from the city. I had a bicycle. I would wake up at five in the morning, load thread, soap and candles into my bike, and rush to the palengke.
I would rent a stall for one peso a day, lay out my goods on a table as big as this podium, and begin selling. I did that the whole day.
I sold about twenty pesos of goods every day. Today, twenty pesos will only allow you to send twenty text messages to your crush, but 63 years ago, it was enough to support my family. And it left me enough to plow back into my small, but growing, business.
I was the youngest vendor in the palengke, but that didn’t faze me. In fact, I rather saw it as an opportunity. Remember, that was 63 years and 100 pounds ago, so I could move faster, stay under the sun more, and keep selling longer than everyone else.
Then, when I had enough money and more confidence, I decided to travel to Manila from Cebu to sell all kinds of goods like rubber tires.
Instead of my bike, I now traveled on a batel—a boat so small that on windless days, we would just float there.
On bad days, the trip could take two weeks!
During one trip, our batel sank! We would have all perished in the sea were it not for my inventory of tires. The viajeros were happy because my tires saved their lives, and I was happy because the viajeros, by hanging on to them, saved my tires. On these long and lonely trips I had to entertain myself with books, like Gone With The Wind.
After the war, I had saved up 50,000 pesos. That was when you could buy a chicken for 20 centavos and a car for 2,000 pesos. I was 19 years old.
Now I had enough money to bring my family home from China. Once they were all here, they helped me expand our trading business to include imports. Remember that the war had left the Philippines with very few goods. So we imported whatever was needed and imported them from everywhere—including used clothes and textile remnants from the United States. We were probably the first ukay-ukay dealers here.
Then, when I had gained more experience and built my reputation, I borrowed money from the bank and got into manufacturing. I saw that coffee was abundant, and Nescafe of Nestle was too expensive for a country still rebuilding from the war, so my company created Blend 45.
That was our first branded hit. And from there, we had enough profits to launch Jack and Jill.
From one market stall, we are now in nine core businesses—including retail, real estate, publishing, petrochemicals, textiles, banking, food manufacturing, Cebu Pacific Air and Sun Cellular.
When we had shown success in the smaller businesses, we were able to raise money in the capital markets—through IPOs and bond offerings– and then get into more complex, capital-intensive enterprises. We did it slow, but sure.
Success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the small successes achieved day by day that build a company. So, don’t be impatient or focused on immediate financial rewards. I only started flying business class when I got too fat to fit in the economy seats.
And I even wore a used overcoat while courting my wife—it came from my ukay-ukay business. Thank God Elizabeth didn’t mind the mothball smell of my overcoat or maybe she wouldn’t have married me.
Save what you earn and plow it back.
And never forget your families! Your parents denied themselves many things to send you here. They could have traveled around the world a couple of times with the money they set aside for your education, and your social life, and your comforts.
Remember them—and thank them.
When you have families of your own, you must be home with them for at least one meal everyday. I did that while I was building my company. Now, with all my six children married, I ask that we spend every Sunday lunch together, when everything under the sun is discussed.
As it is with business, so it is with family. There are no short cuts for building either one.
Remember, no short cuts.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, your patron saint, and founder of this 450-year old organization I admire, described an ideal Jesuit as one who “lives with one foot raised.” I believe that means someone who is always ready to respond to opportunities.
Saint Ignatius knew that, to build a successful organization, he needed to recruit and educate men who were not afraid of change but were in fact excited by it.
In fact, the Jesuits were one of the earliest practitioners of globalization. As early as the 16th century, upon reaching a foreign country, they compiled dictionaries in local languages like Tamil and Vietnamese so that they could spread their message in the local language. In a few centuries, they have been able to spread their mission in many countries through education.
The Jesuits have another quote. “Make the whole world your house” which means that the ideal Jesuit must be at home everywhere. By adapting to change, but at the same time staying true to their beliefs, the Society of Jesus has become the long-lasting and successful organization it is today and has made the world their house.
So, let live with one foot raised in facing the next big opportunity: globalization. Globalization can be your greatest enemy. It will be your downfall if you are too afraid and too weak to fight it out. But it can also be your biggest ally.
With the Asian Free Trade agreement and tariffs near zero, your market has grown from 80 million Filipinos to half a billion Southeast Asians.
Imagine what that means to you as an entrepreneur if you are able to find a need and fill it. And imagine, too, what that will do for the economy of our country!
Yes, our government may not be perfect, and our economic environment not ideal, but true entrepreneurs will find opportunities anywhere.
Look at the young Filipino entrepreneurs who made it. When I say young—and I’m 77, remember—I am talking about those in their 50s and below. Tony Tan of Jollibee, Ben Chan of Bench, Rolando Hortaleza of Splash, and Wilson Lim of Abensons.
They’re the guys who weren’t content with the 9-to-5 job, who were willing to delay their gratification and comfort, and who created something new, something fresh.
Something Filipinos are now very proud of. They all started small but now sell their hamburgers, T-shirts and cosmetics in Asia, America, and the Middle East.
In doing so, these young Filipino entrepreneurs created jobs while doing something they were passionate about.
Globalization is an opportunity of a lifetime—for you. And that is why I want to be out there with you instead of here behind this podium—perhaps too old and too slow to seize the opportunities you can.
Let me leave you with one last thought.
So, Ateneans, Class of 2004, heed the call of entrepreneurship.
With a little bit of will and a little bit of imagination, you can turn this crisis into your patriotic moment—and truly become a person for others.
“Live with one foot raised and make the world your house.”
To this great University, my sincerest thanks for this singular honor conferred on me today.
To the graduates, congratulations and Godspeed. “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam”. Thank you.