In celebration of Women’s Month, we put together this interview to raise awareness and contribute to the ongoing discussion of promoting gender equality and empowering women in business and the workforce.
If you missed out on the first part of this inspiring interview series featuring Kara Prieto, Kaye Aboitiz, and Monika Rivilla, don’t worry! You can catch up on their incredible stories right here.
Now, let’s dive into part two, where we’ll introduce you to four more incredible women entrepreneurs from Siargao: Heidi Ganaden, Jordan Prieto Valdés, Joyce Catacutan, and Marnelli Rubinos. Get inspired once again as these women share their stories about believing in yourself and overcoming obstacles.
What inspired you to start your business? Was there a particular moment or experience that sparked your entrepreneurial spirit, or has it always been a part of who you are?
Heidi: What inspired me was my growing family. When we had Zari, our daughter, I wanted to make sure to be there and witness her growing years. I knew that working in corporate will split my time and not be able to give me enough time for my family. So, I decided to let go of my corporate life and pursue being a Mom and an entrepreneur. I’ve always been a lover of the sun, sea, and sand and I’ve always dreamt of living by it or near it. So, this is a gift, we have a business in Siargao, and we have a lifestyle that gives us more family and beach time! I’ve always been part of the corporate world and I also loved it, but when you start having a growing family, some priorities change.
Jordan: Junior Varsity was really started out of a necessity to do better for our planet and the people in it. We’ll be launching a line of women’s surfwear this spring, made of recycled fabrics, but at the core of it, Junior Varsity is a social entrepreneurship venture focused on cleaning up our oceans and uplifting the Filipina surf community. We will also set aside a portion of profits to build an emergency relief fund, to provide aid to victims of climate disasters. I honestly never envisioned myself as a business owner; my ideal life has always been to spend all my time by the ocean, exploring ways to express myself creatively through different art mediums, doing good for the earth in my own way. I suppose I’ve always been an environmentalist, but Typhoon Odette radically shifted my perspective on just how much individual actions can change the world. I was completely disappointed in the lack of relief from government aid after the storm, and so I gathered donations from friends and family all around the world. I managed to raise 1.6 million pesos for relief just through Instagram! I sourced and distributed metal roofs and plywood walls to more than 250 families, but then the donations ran out, and eventually stopped coming. I began to feel this dense void that this is just a bitter taste of all the climate disasters set to wreak havoc on our planet in the years to come. Climate change is undeniable, and we really must prepare for the worst. After seeing how much more can be done for a community with more funds available (i.e. not just what I can afford to give through my own personal savings), I thought it would be better to start a brand that would donate portions of its sales to the causes that are near to my heart. Creating surfwear felt like an obvious choice to me, because I surf every day, and I was really looking for sustainable swimwear that stayed on throughout any waves or wipeouts. I also love being surrounded by strong and confident women in the line-up, so I want to encourage more girls to get in the water – no matter their size, fitness level, age, or skin color.
Joyce: I remember getting in big trouble selling candies and toys to my classmates, back in second grade. Since I used to walk to our community school, I would buy stuff along the way and then resell them a few pesos higher. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing but I was happy to get some money back so I could buy more, then sell them again. In high school, I would ask my friends to model clothes for me which I sold online. In college, I sold cookies, then laptop cases, until I figured we all needed a reliable cleaning service. That was the birth of Lemon Cleaners in Manila, and in the universe’s perfect timing, we are now able to cater here in Siargao. I’m also stoked to embark onto a passion project with my partner, building a space for Jiujitsu and Aerial Arts. So, I believe curiosity starts it all. That same curiosity led me to countless trials and failures throughout the years. Little did I know that it was nurturing me at the same time, to be the entrepreneur that I am today.
Marnelli: From my elementary to college years, I had always created side hustles through creative things I enjoyed doing like drawing, painting, photography, styling, and set design. In elementary school, I would make dresses for dolls that were popular at the time and sell them to my schoolmates. In high school, I charged my classmates to make projects for them that involved drawing and/or painting. And in college, I started freelancing for a small film and media company. I got my first laptop and digital camera in college from my side hustles and started doing photoshoots and small video ad projects for local companies around Mindanao. While I was still profiting from all of these side hustles, my primary impetus was the excitement of being able to be creative. How did I get into jewelry? One day while I was walking around a market, I found a stall that sold colorful bead bracelets. The vendor explained that they were handmade lampwork beads. She then went on to show me how I can make the bracelets myself and pointed to a corner full of loose Murano beads in different shapes and sizes. I fell in love. I spent all of the little money I had buying as much as I could with the basic tools and materials. So at age 16, I found myself learning how to make jewelry. I first designed a few and showed them to my friends to see their responses. I told them they can have one if they help me sell. I wanted to sell Murano bracelets primarily because I just wanted to keep working with them. I spent a lot of my free time just staring at them and deciding how to arrange the beads. That was my first venture into the world of jewelry making. However, I sold all the bracelets and that was it. At that time, it wasn’t even in my realm of dreaming to own a business one day. So when I ran out of beads (except for the few that I didn’t want to let go), I just stopped selling. Fast forward 10 years later when I was managing a furniture factory that didn’t want to evolve or grow and that caused me to have many existential moments for the four years I worked there. I finally mustered the courage to quit my job and decided to start my own business. I realized that no matter what I decided to do, it was not going to be easy. Work is work. I might as well choose work that I can be proud of, that I find joy in, and that I think I can love for the rest of my life. My mindset was that If I hustle enough, surely at some point it will take off…right? How I started Isla? I always had a special connection with the ocean. Most of my paintings and other creative ideas are inspired by the ocean and the life around it. I also wanted to take pride in the fact that the brand is a Filipino brand. Hence the name Isla.ph. Isla did not start as a jewelry business. Because I was frugal (or perhaps scared), I decided to start with something that didn’t need much investment. In June 2016, I turned my paintings into print-on-demand towels, totes, pouches, framed prints, and an assortment of home décor all inspired by the ocean and island living. I had no idea what I was doing – all I had was creative energy and courage. One day as I was walking down the streets of El Borne, Barcelona that were lined with shops selling hand-crafted products of all sorts, I found myself spending hours in jewelry shops and arts & craft stores. And once again, I found myself spending a lot of time designing and making jewelry. I started consigning Isla jewelry in 3 local shops in Davao and Mati. I remember how hard it was during that time too. Business was slow and I was constantly questioning myself and my work. My solace was my personal and creative freedom. It wasn’t until I moved to Siargao and opened a shop that things started rolling. That is where, and when, I found my happy place…literally. It’s as if the island wants to keep handing me endless inspiration and motivation. Siargao is Isla’s adopted home. And as local Siargaonons call the island “Isla” as well, the brand has now evolved into a Siargao brand. Siargao is home.
What do you hope to achieve through your business, and how do you see it positively impacting Siargao and its community? Is there a particular cause, vision, or mission that drives your business and gives it a more profound purpose?
Heidi: I will be honest, at the onset, we just wanted a reason to come to Siargao often that’s why we wanted to set up something. So, when we started brainstorming, we wanted a business that can be our way of living too. So, we set up our hotel, Lubihan Siargao and opened fully in 2020. When the pandemic hit, we found a bigger purpose as a business on the island. We are able to provide jobs to several people who are breadwinners, we are able to promote this island to more people outside who can appreciate our little paradise and we get a chance to be part of this developing part of the country and ensure that we grow with the environment in mind and sharing the same mindset with the locals.
Jordan: I want Junior Varsity to be the financial avenue that I use to empower the communities around me. A portion of every sale is set aside in order to benefit both environmental and societal causes that are important to me. Through S.E.A.Movement’s Adopt-an-MPA program, Junior Varsity has vowed to adopt the marine protected area of Corregidor, an island south of Siargao. MPAs play a crucial role in the conservation of biodiversity, and also in maintaining the livelihood and food security of coastal communities. It is my hope that our contributions to the upkeep of this marine sanctuary will help maintain the beauty of this island and the community that lives there. Corregidor is a very special place to me, because that’s where I got my very first backside barrel, and also my first hang 10! Aside from marine conservation, I also want to sponsor Filipina surfers within the competition sphere. Although I firmly believe that surfing is not just a competitive sport – it is a beautiful way to connect with the power of our bodies and of the ocean – competitions open up the world to local surfers. They get a chance to develop their skills further, and even improve their lives through international recognition and grand prizes. Though like in most things in life, women are not given the same opportunities as men. I want to help change that, by covering competition necessities like entrance fees, travel expenses, new gear, and perhaps even sponsoring events to raise the prize money for female divisions (spoiler alert: the men’s divisions usually have higher cash prizes). Lastly, I also believe that it is crucial to set up a relief fund for environmental disasters that are sadly now inevitable, and are perhaps only going to get stronger and more frequent as the years go on. It is a financial defense to help out victims of climate change, whether that be another tropical storm, flash floods, drought.
Joyce: While Lemon Cleaners aim for quality cleaning services and empowering local workers, the idea of “Catangnan Beach Dojo” (CBD) is different. We wanted to create a space for movement and other off-water activities that compliments the lifestyle of the members of the community. The term ‘dojo’ means a place of learning and meditation. Centered on Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) and also Aerial Arts (Circus), we envision CBD as an avenue where people can get together and learn from each other. Through classes and activities, our goal is to promote movement as medicine not only to our body but also to our mind and overall well-being. We also aim to hone young talents and athletes, with hopes that they get to represent the island and our country in the future.
Marnelli: One of the things I want to do with Isla is to provide local livelihood projects for the locals of Siargao. I want to create a beautiful and nurturing community of local women who want to spend their days crafting beautiful and sustainable products. Although that plan was delayed due to Covid (then typhoon Odette, THEN motherhood), I have my design book ready for when I feel like it’s time to move forward to that chapter.
As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to blur the lines between work and play, so how do you ensure you take care of yourself, your relationships, and your well-being? How do you balance your personal life with your business responsibilities?
Heidi: I’m a believer that if you take care of yourself, your output will be better and you’ll also be a better person to others. It can be hard sometimes here on the island because you can just spend a day with just chilling and not working. But the discipline of putting in the time to “work” is a conscious effort. I make sure to focus, like sit down and just work, for 3-4 hours in a day, and of course, the rest of the day I will have A LOT of smaller tasks to look into. But in between, I make sure to do physical activities for endorphins — surf and crossfit are my thing for play. For the heart, we have a tight community here on the island, so we often have get togethers and support other businesses who are up and coming. Plus, I’ve promised myself that I will not miss major family and friends happenings even outside of the island, now that travel is more open. For the soul, a chill picnic by the beach often. My daughter, my husband, and I have started this ritual where we have a picnic by the beach every afternoon after school. We bring snacks, bring my daughter’s surfboard or just swim and take it all in.
Jordan: Meditation and journaling keep me grounded. No matter how busy a day can get, I always find time to sit with myself. Surfing also helps to keep me both active and away from hours of mindless scrolling. Even just a few waves help wash away stress, anxiety, and depression. Also, being glued to our phones is never a good thing. With them constantly at our sides, it’s a challenge not to be preoccupied 24/7, so I’ve had to relearn how to focus on one task at a time and not overload my brain with the things I see on social media. It’s good to feel inspired by others, but remember that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Cheesily enough, I am blessed that all my “work” really feels like play. I hope it’s not insensitive to suggest that perhaps most of the things we do in life can have some element of fun, if we just change our mindsets about them. Perhaps I also delude myself a bit, because for me, if I’m out in the water in my gear (product testing), snap some good pictures and videos (social media management), talk to some ladies about my suits (building an organic audience), that’s work!
Joyce: Many people think island life is all laid-back and slow-going, but truth is, many of us who settled here are actually hustlers! It’s awesome that I don’t have to deal with traffic every day and that most of my work are just around where I live. I get to meet my cleaners, check the dojo, and still have ample time for my little family. If I’m lucky enough, I get to squeeze in some surf or aerial play. I don’t think my ways are perfectly balanced but rather just fluid. I’m also guilty of checking the tides before setting up a meeting and it’s so easy to drop everything when the boatmen call for surf. But, what keeps me afloat is constantly trying to set my priorities. In any case that I need to skip surf, no matter how epic the swell looks like, I would sigh and just wish the next day will still be good. I do get the fear of missing out, but it also just makes me more grateful for the times I get to surf.
Marnelli: I think of entrepreneurship as a practice, not as an ego-bloating label. It’s a life-long journey. No need to hurry or reach for the stars immediately; I’m just here doing my own thing at my own pace where I can maximize the most fun from it. I am, though, totally guilty of working till the wee hours of the morning, sometimes letting myself dream of designs and photoshoot pegs, or just doing reports. Work and play are definitely blended together in my world – there’s no line in between. And I love it. That’s just who I am and how I like my life to be. For example, most of my friends are also people that I work with. I love my work and I love being surrounded by people who also love what they do and help each other out. That is part of what I love about the community in Siargao – we always help each other out. There is so much love, joy, and excitement around doing your own thing and working with others. Part of the decision to quit my job and start Isla was not only for the creative freedom, but also the lifestyle freedom. I can own my time and I can decide how to spend it – one week I can be fully immersed in Isla with like-minded people or taking care of the shop and then the next week leave for a surf trip. And that to me is a pretty darn good work-life balance. Not a typical one, but one that really works for me.
Have you ever faced a setback, failure, or challenge that made you stronger, wiser, or more resilient?
Heidi: The pandemic was quite a setback. I quit my corporate life thinking that we will be able to start the hotel business here in Siargao. But then when the lock down was in effect, tourism was close to zero. We were finishing the hotel and was hoping to open already in 2020. We didn’t know what was going to happen with the pandemic, but we agreed to continue as planned. We finished the hotel in 2020 and opened, we just said, pandemic can’t take that long to resolve. But it was more than a year! But we just had to change course for our business to survive and sustain our employees. So we did try to pivot for a while to go with the times. And then, when there was a bit of light from the Covid-19 issues, our island got hit by Odette. Almost the entire island was in ruins. This is where resilience had to further kick-in. If we had anything left, this was our last bit of it. We picked ourselves up, prioritised helping our community then when they were okay, we started rebuilding our business again. Tough years, but we made it alive and we’re stronger!
Jordan: Launching Junior Varsity was a completely new experience for me. I got into it not knowing anything about fabric, manufacturing, distribution, etc. But with the internet at our disposal, I believe we can truly achieve anything we set our minds to if we put in the work. The biggest challenge that I had to overcome was my own laziness. As my first big project after university, I really had to come to understand that if I don’t push myself to work, to stay motivated, to put in the time needed, then nothing would come to fruition. I used to be disciplined by deadlines and when you’re not in school anymore, you need to find better ways to push past procrastination. As my first venture into the fashion industry, I also had to struggle with the realization that, at the moment, there is no way to be 100% sustainable, to do absolutely no damage to the environment. Everything has a cost. I had to keep in mind that I wanted to make this company in order to have funds that I could use to help other people. That means doing the best with what is currently available, and working towards the more idealistic views on sustainability and eco-friendliness that I want my business to eventually have. I also had to learn that it takes a long time to make a good product. Don’t rush the process because one of the most important aspects of sustainability is to make something that lasts.
Joyce: ‘Risk’ wasn’t in my vocabulary when I was younger. I wasn’t afraid of failing. I was always just curious and eager to try. That’s why I’ve had numerous businesses that didn’t fly – but they only allowed me to commit as many mistakes as I could. The biggest mishap though was when I lost everything to a scam back in 2018. It was the lowest point in my life but I definitely came out stronger from it. The same incident encouraged me to travel alone, which eventually led me to Siargao. I guess, it all made sense.
Marnelli: The Covid pandemic hit me, and Isla, so hard that I entertained the thought of closing down completely. Isla is my main source of income and when Covid hit, sales plummeted as there were no longer any tourists on the island. But what really got me going during that time was my staff – I felt responsible for them like you would with family. And even though I pre-occupied myself with surfing and other fun activities during that time, I had isla at the back of my mind. I had no choice but to learn how to sell online given the times. I had stopped working on the online side of Isla ever since the shop opened in Siargao. Even through all of that, I’m grateful for what Covid forced me to work on for Isla. After typhoon Odette decimated my shop, I decided not to renovate and re-open partly because of my recent pre-occupation of motherhood and mostly because I am currently not on the island. Thankfully, the online side of Isla is fully set up running. And on a side note, it is so amazing to belong to a community like Siargao – the way it bounced back after Odette and how helpful everyone is to each other. I cannot be more overwhelmingly grateful.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life, and how have you applied it to your business?
Heidi: Knowing yourself and what you’re capable of mentally and emotionally is a good foundation for doing business. I knew that I was persistent, a dreamer, and had high expectations for myself, and this gave me the strength to pursue things which I never knew I would when I was younger. And always, surround yourself with the people who can inspire you and help you.
Jordan: Many of my favorite and most important life lessons have been taught to me by the ocean. Learning to surf was a complete perspective shift for me. As an avid multitasker with a short attention span, I really had to learn that we aren’t meant to catch all the waves that come our way. If we constantly paddle for whatever we see, whether they are breaking or not, we’ll just tire ourselves out and miss out on the waves we actually want to ride. Conserve and protect your energy. Things will unfold in their own time. And if you miss it – it just wasn’t meant for you, and that’s okay. Take a deep breath, let it go, and move on.
Joyce: One thing I love about surfing is that it teaches us values and life lessons. Surfing gave me a different perspective on life and changed the way I see failures. I learned that one cannot succeed without wiping out. Failure is part of life and we learn more from it than our triumphs. Just like in surfing, we have to be comfortable with our mistakes in order to get better. Sometimes, we obsess so much about perfection and dwell on things that don’t go our way. But when we’re comfortable with falling, we can deal with our adversities with a calmer mind and it’s easier for us to figure out what to do next. I like to remind myself that no matter how bad my wipeout is, it shouldn’t discourage me from trying again.
Marnelli: I honestly don’t know how to answer this question or what answer to give. There have been so many lessons and I’m sure there will be more to come. It’s just part of life and business. What I realized that is really important though from the many mistakes that taught me many lessons, is the importance of authenticity / self-exploration. This is where we can anchor our decisions. This will remind us of our purpose when things get really rough and we feel like we want to give up. When we run our own business, we not only lead others but also ourselves. For me, it is important to explore what drives me and to define my own meanings. What success, beauty, happiness, and luxury means to me. What lifestyle I really want. What an ideal day looks like. What kind of relationships I want to have? What company culture to cultivate? If you own a business, you are a leader. And as a leader, we make a lot of decisions. We need to continuously explore what drives us and we need to define our own meanings. Otherwise, we cannot lead ourselves and lose our purpose easily. Explore what success means for you in life and business. What do you need and want for you to be happy? When I was starting, I questioned myself a lot about the success of Isla. I spent a lot of my energy thinking of ways to be successful without defining what success was for me. And naturally, I felt lost. My purpose was murky. I was consumed with chasing sales. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but it did cause me to make some silly decisions from that mindset, such as lowering my prices and forcing myself to create low-cost designs just to make sure I would have sales. I know, silly right? I don’t think it was entirely a mistake, but it felt inauthentic when I could have spent my time and energy working on defining the brand instead. My creative drive and business goals were out of sync. It was cringy and I was engulfed with existential bouts – what am I doing? Why? Is it fun? Am I happy with my work? What am I striving for? Am I being authentic? The same line of questioning and needing to define success is just as important for my home life, from deciding where to live to deciding to become a mom. It is in our nature to always strive to be better if not perfect. But what is our reference for that? We need to craft our own idea of what is beautiful, what is perfection, what is happiness, what is success. We need to continuously explore what drives us and we need to define our own meanings. Otherwise, we cannot lead ourselves.
What message would you like to share with other aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Heidi: Never be seen as “just a woman” we have all the strengths that men don’t have in the same manner that they have strengths that we don’t have. Women can be whatever they put their mind to. You just need to know yourself, so you can play alongside your strengths while you still learn to empower your weaknesses.
Jordan: Remember why you set out to do something in the first place. If you have the right purpose, and keep it close to your heart, it will help you get through the hard times. Make a mood board and keep a journal! And of course, it’s good to make money to support ourselves, but it’s even better to share those blessings with the people around us, and to uplift the communities we live in.
Joyce: Just remember, “It only takes one good wave to forget your wipeouts.” No matter how shit it gets, it only takes one good day or just another satisfied customer that makes everything all worth it.
Marnelli: Think long, like life-long, term. What will bring you joy during that whole time? How can you translate that into a profit-making hustle? The point is whether you work for somebody or yourself, work is work. It’s time and energy spent. It’s what you do most of the time. It’s a big part of your life. If in the end your goal is to write a book or design fabric patterns, just start doing it. Fail and learn early, cry then regroup and try again, romanticize the struggles, cringe on stupid decisions but also be proud and authentic of your progress, share your adventure story with all the ups and downs, work with like-minded people, get passionate, fall in love with your craft, immerse yourself in the poetry of entrepreneurship. And have a freaking blast! I love this quote by Pema Chödrön: “All you need to know is that the future is wide open and you are about to create it by what you do.”
Thank you again for your time, and we are excited about your journey and where your entrepreneurial spirit will take you! Would you like to share where our readers can reach you or your business?
Jordan: You can keep up with Junior Varsity on IG and TikTok at @juniorvarsitysurf, and we’ll be launching pre-orders this coming March 23, 2023, on our website juniorvarsitysurf.com!! We’ll have sizes XS-XXL available and absolutely zero plastic in our packaging. Can’t wait to share our first collection with all of you!
Marnelli: You can find isla online at www.isla.ph and @isla.ph on Instagram and Facebook. Store Locations: Tropical Nomad Boracay, Seaside Collective La Union, Kudo Surf Shop Siargao, The Beachbaby Home Siargao, Goodies Siargao, Cabuntog Surf Shop Siargao, Malayah Siargao, and C9 Shop Siargao.
These women have proven that success is not just about profit, but about creating positive change in our communities. They inspire us to pursue our passions, follow our hearts, and make a difference in the world. We hope that their stories have inspired you to do the same.
We would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to these remarkable women for sharing their journeys with us. Their stories have taught us valuable lessons, and we are honored to have had the opportunity to learn from them. If you’d like to support these incredible women entrepreneurs, we encourage you to check out their websites, social media accounts, and local stores.
By supporting women-owned businesses, we’re not only investing in the success of individual entrepreneurs, but we’re also contributing to the growth and empowerment of our communities. Let’s continue to uplift and celebrate the incredible women who are making a difference in their own unique ways. Together, we can create a better, more equal world for all.