In 2007, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz visited the Payatas community in Manila. What the 22-year-old saw there—a seven-story tower of garbage, women and children swarming over it in search of usable materials to sell—both shocked and inspired her. Many of the women were making and selling rugs woven from fabric scraps that middelmen had found at the dump, but the middlemen were taking most of the profits.
Shortly following that visit, Fernandez-Ruiz cofounded Rags2riches, now a thriving for-profit social enterprise that became the women’s business partner and helps them find markets for the products they create. The company works with factories to use materials that would otherwise go to waste and has partnered with top Filipino designers to create designs for its products. It directly employs 50 people and has trained more than 900 artisans. The sty-lish handbags have been sold at Anthropologie and featured on Vogue.com.
Fernandez-Ruiz studied management at Ateneo University and credits her mother, a missionary who worked in poor communities across the Philippines, with instilling her with a drive to help others. Her company’s mission goes well beyond selling accessories: its key goal is to lift women—and, by extension, their children—out of poverty. The company teaches financial literacy, business, and values formation to the women who work with it.
Fernandez-Ruiz says that having a “risk-taking and optimistic” nature has helped her navigate the challenges of social entrepreneurship. “Change that starts with a single individual,” she says, “[can] change the world.”