The Philippines

International Women's Day: Beauty is as beauty does

Ms Anna Meloto-Wilk, the founder of Human Nature, which produces all-natural beauty products by employing the poor. PHOTO: PATRICK CABUSAY

MANILA - Rummaging through trash bins, begging for food, sharing what little he has with stray cats. Such is the life of the homeless like Mr Mang Arturo (not his real name).

Mr Arturo is one of 12 million Filipinos living in poverty. They are the people Ms Anna Meloto-Wilk turns to when she is hiring workers for her company.

"From the beginning, we were committed to hiring the working poor," said Ms Meloto-Wilk. That was in 2007, when she and her sister, Ms Camille Meloto, founded Human Nature, a unique social enterprise.

At the time, Ms Meloto-Wilk was a young mother looking for safe products for her children; Ms Meloto was a beauty junkie in search of natural makeup.

Noting the growing popularity of all-natural products in other countries, they became convinced that a similar concept could work in the Philippines, especially given that many of the ingredients were found in abundance in the country.

Neither woman had experience in business or the beauty industry - Ms Meloto-Wilk worked in communications and advertising, Ms Meloto was a teacher - but they nonetheless launched their venture using their life savings, and money borrowed from friends and relatives.

"Camille chose the name Human Nature. We wanted to highlight the relationship between humans and nature - if we love the environment, it will love us back, providing everything we need," said Ms Meloto-Wilk.

The sisters knew they had to learn about capital, manufacturing, distribution, and other aspects of their business, but they were certain about one thing from the start: They would employ the poor, and would give them significantly higher incomes than they could earn elsewhere.

"That's been our main motivation, to hire people who otherwise would not have opportunities," said Ms Meloto-Wilk. "But we don't see our responsibility ending at just giving them jobs, we want to help them escape poverty."

The cost of living in the Philippines keeps going up, she said, so there is a shrinking middle class. "It's not as if we're going to import people to compose a new middle class. The way to do it is to lift people here out of poverty. Businesses have a big role to play in terms of creating a new middle class."

Ms Anna Meloto-Wilk (in violet) with the Makati branch store staff. PHOTO: PATRICK CABUSAY

Human Nature started by giving workers almost double the minimum wage, opening new possibilities for them - the ability to send their children to school, for example.

"We recognise that the minimum wage is not a living wage, it's not enough to give people a good quality of life," said Ms Meloto-Wilk. "It leaves people vulnerable to hunger, to not being able to pay their bills."

As workers advance in the company, they are often able to buy a car or a house. The company also fosters a healthier lifestyle for employees, providing paid vacations, health insurance and wedding assistance for those who have postponed marriage because of a lack of funds.

This year, Human Nature plans to build a daycare centre and a school for employees' children. "Our public school system is not enough to meet the demands of modern society," said Ms Meloto-Wilk.

Human Nature's ethos also includes using only locally sourced ingredients to produce its health and beauty products.

Farming remains one of the country's poorest sectors, and Ms Meloto-Wilk and her team now partner directly with those communities, many of which have been able to build schools and daycare centres thanks to the company's support.

Human Nature also helps farmers to produce more and sell to other companies.

Two of the leading ingredients in Human Nature products are coconut protein, which is believed to help repair hair and promote its growth; and citronella, a potent natural mosquito repellent that helps in the fight against dengue - a major concern in tropical climates.

"Filipinos are proud to use local botanicals that have been proven to be safe and effective," said Ms Meloto-Wilk.

She acknowledged that testing and setting up production and distribution for new products take a long time and require a huge investment. In fact, there were many times when the sisters nearly wanted to quit.

But Ms Meloto-Wilk's husband, Dylan, who later joined the business, gave her three pieces of advice: "First, don't quit. Stay committed to finding solutions, no matter what problems come your way.

"Second, don't even think about quitting because it saps your creativity and you can't find ways to solve your problems. And third, just don't quit. It really comes down to committing to make things work."

As a mother of six children aged between 10 months and 12 years, Ms Meloto-Wilk's main goal is to make sure her children are kind and achieve their full potential.

"I see my work as an extension of my parenting - to help fix things that are broken in society - because this is the society that my children are going to grow up in."

Human Nature now has 34 stores across the country and almost 500 employees reporting to its Laguna and Quezon City offices. It also works with suppliers in 20 local communities and exports to five countries.

It has also earned numerous awards. In 2016, it became the first Asian brand to win the Sustainability Pioneer Award from Ecovia Intelligence, a global consulting firm for the natural and organic beauty industry.

Despite these achievements, Ms Meloto-Wilk believes there is still much to be done, not only in creating safe and groundbreaking products but also in promoting women in business.

"If you are a middle-class woman with an education, the Philippines is one of the best places to be in business. In fact, the World Economic Forum's Women At Work study says that the Philippines is one of the most women-friendly countries - there are greater percentages of women in management and who succeed," she said.

"But things are still very difficult for poor women. There's still a lot of abuse, imbalances of power. So there's still work to be done at the bottom of the pyramid, here and in the rest of the world."

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