John Gokongwei Speech before Ateneo 2004 Graduates
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
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 the 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
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
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-includin g 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-includin g 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
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
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
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
Yes, our government may not be perfect, and
oureconomic 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 andcosmetics in Asia, America, and the Middle
In doing so, these young Filipino entrepreneurs
created jobs while doing something they were
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. Trade
barriers have fallen. The only barriers left are the
barriers you have in your mind. 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
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".