EMPLOYEE TO EMPLOYER: Ex-factory seamstress tailor-made for Citi’s Microentrepreneurship Award

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MANILA – After working for 10 years as a tailor in a garments factory, Richel Vargas realized that being an employee would not help give her family the comfortable life she hoped for. “What I earned was enough only for our food and our life had not changed much,” she said.

Last December, Vargas was named the regional awardee for Luzon of the 14-year-old Citi Microentrepreneurship Awards (CMA). The annual CMA, a partnership among Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), Citi Philippines and Microfinance Council of the Philippines, is a nationwide search for outstanding micro business owners. CMA recognizes entrepreneurs with assets of P3 million or less, who have achieved remarkable growth as evidenced by employment generation, profits and sales turnover, and have contributed to community development. Awardees should also have maintained healthy repayment records on loans even as they build their savings.

Funded by Citi Foundation, CMA was launched in 2002 to celebrate Citi’s 100th year in the Philippines. The award has since recognized more than 100 winners across the country.  It has also been adopted as a global program by Citi Foundation, now implemented in over 30 countries.

Richel with husband Raul and their two children, Ma. Irish and Khalil Shaun.

Taking the bold step

Vargas had always worked in a garments factory, first in her native Masbate. When the factory closed down, she and her husband Raul moved to Rizal where they found employment in another garments factory. But what they earned was not enough to support a family that now included two school-aged children and this emboldened Vargas to set up her own shop and go from employee to employer.

Her neighbors were in the business of making gloves so Vargas and her husband decided to do the same. When First Macro Bank (FMB) visited her neighborhood and offered them its services, Vargas decided to take up the offer. Through a P3,000 loan, Vargas bought her first sewing machine and launched her manufacturing enterprise, making armbands, gloves, bonnets and masks for motorcycle and bicycle riders in Antipolo City where the family had settled.

A hands-on entrepreneur, Richel ensures the quality of her products.

Vargas was introduced to FMB at a critical time in her life. Not only was she planning to embark on a solo venture but her neighborhood was constantly being threatened with demolition.  As her business grew and she earned enough, she immediately bought a lot near her rented place where she built her three-storey factory. When the demolition finally happened, Vargas and her business were secure in their new location.

Scaling up from one machine to 33

From one sewing machine, Vargas now has 33, producing thousands of riding accessories every week. She has bought other machines to make production more efficient and faster and the business more sustainable.

As she copes with competition that brings down prices, Vargas gives priority to quality and has earned the loyalty of her clients.  At the end of a production day, she and her husband personally pack the products so they can check for defects.

Her products are sold in major Metro Manila retail hubs like Divisoria, Greenhills and Baclaran; in neighboring Rizal towns and her own factory. She now owns two tricycles and one Toyota Avanza car, and these are used for the delivery of her products. Her range of products has expanded, too, to include biking shorts, leggings and undershirts. During lean months, Vargas sells ready-to-wear (RTW) clothes, aside from her usual items.

She has opened a stall near Antipolo’s Ynares Center where she sells her RTW and other products. Now a shrewd businesswoman, she also uses one of her tricycles to ferry passengers to bring in additional income.

Today, she has 36 regular employees, many of them relatives and friends from Masbate and other Bicol provinces, as well as working students in her neighborhood. She has also distributed 11 sewing machines to neighbors, who she supplies with materials, so the women can work at home.

Richel has her eyes set on supplying to other areas, setting up an additional stall, buying more sewing machines and adding items in her product line.

Just as her life has changed for the better, with her children moving from public to private schools, Vargas also wants to help her neighbors improve their lot, saying, “I want to empower other people by making them productive.”

Vargas plans to grow her business further and bring her products to more markets. She may open her own outlet in Baclaran, as one of her regular buyers is moving and is offering her space to her. She also plans to buy more sewing machines and add more items to her product line.

Tenacity has worked well for Vargas. “Don’t give up no matter what happens,” she advised other people who might want to become entrepreneurs like her. “Keep fighting,” said the woman who also relies on her faith to see her through tough times.

READ ALSO: Youngest winner of Citi Microentrepreneurship Awards leaves a big mark with her micro business

This is the second in a series of profiles we are running on successful microentrepreneurs, recently recognized by Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Citi Philippines and Microfinance Council of the Philippines as part of the annual Citi Microentrepreneurship Awards. Watch this space for more highly inspiring stories of triumph against poverty.