I moved from the Philippines to the San Francisco Bay area when I was seven. In the Philippines, I shared the house I lived in with my ten relatives. And it wasn’t a big house, only two bedrooms. All the kids slept on the floor. We had electricity but no indoor plumbing. The house was very basic. We weren’t wealthy, but I remember it being a happy time. I was surrounded by all my cousins, my aunt and uncle. We knew everybody in the town, which was fun.
I studied accounting at Saint Mary’s College of California—the practical choice, even though I’m a natural artist. Then I decided to move to New York City. I wanted to be a star. I knew with my degree I would always have a job, if not in finance then in bookkeeping—as long as there are businesses there will be a need for bookkeepers. So I tried it out as a dancer for a while. Really I was too old to start pursuing that dream, but I didn’t want to regret anything. I thought, ‘This is my last chance. Let me just try.’ I had always been a responsible kid. Up until that point, I did everything my Asian parents told me to do.
After the dancing thing didn’t work out, I went to business school. For graduation, I treated myself to a trip to Barcelona. That’s when I fell in love...with the city. When I first moved here, I was using all my savings from working as a controller for a boutique Wall Street company to create my own fashion business. That lasted for about a year and a half until I realised I wasn’t going to be successful at it and moved on.
I opened the Pink Peony on Valentine’s Day nine years ago. Every year for the company’s anniversary, we offer free express manicures to the community. The Pink Peony originally came into existence because I missed the manicures and pedicures that I used to get in New York. Besides the main idea of creating a business, the Pink Peony has a strong social responsibility component to it. When I first moved here, I noticed that Filipino women are associated with cleaning. Coming from the States, where a lot of my friends and relatives were nurses and accountants, this didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to create more opportunities for Filipinos here, as aestheticians, receptionists and managers of the salon.
The Pink Peony is more than a beauty salon. It’s a school. I went to beauty school myself so that I could teach the girls I hired. I recruited cleaning ladies initially and taught them how to do everything. I invested a lot of time in training all my girls, then trained trainers, and that’s how we grew. I didn’t start telling this part of the Pink Peony story until maybe last year when I was asked to speak to young entrepreneurs at a business school. I didn’t want to play on people’s sympathy. I wanted to compete in the business world based on the quality of our services, not the social component. Now I’m confident that we are really good at what we do, and I can start explaining the whole story.
I think we’ve been able to change lives. For example, when the girls start out, a lot of them won’t even answer the phone. Because they have never had to deal with the general public, apart from ‘Si, Señora’, they get nervous. After five to seven years in Spain, they still can’t speak Spanish because there is no opportunity for conversation while working in the house or in a hotel. In the salon, they’re forced to speak to customers on the telephone, as well as in person. So training was not only about mastering difficult skills like threading, but also building self-confidence. Depending on ability, I know when to push more. There’s a lot of crying. I can be such a bitch. But then they have a breakthrough and are really grateful for the opportunity to break out of a dead-end job like cleaning houses.
My work actually inspired two other Filipino-owned salons. My employees and clients would say, “Are you worried?” Of course, I’m worried. You can never take your business for granted, but I’m actually glad that I’ve inspired other Filipino entrepreneurs. There was originally one other Filipino-owned salon in Raval, but it specifically catered to Filipinos. So the fact that these new salons are in the Eixample, catering to Spanish people and general society, is pretty amazing. It feels good to witness that progress.
I’m working on a project now to inspire entrepreneurial youth in Andorra. I lived there for a few months and got to observe the country. Andorra is a country full of merchants and bankers, but there’s not much creativity coming from there. I wanted to support a programme that inspires people from there to start their own businesses like I did.