My name is Gelaine Santiago and I’m a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. I was born in the Philippines and my family immigrated to Canada when I was three. I was recently named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019.

This is my story.

I was just a little girl when I moved to Canada but as I watched my family find employment and adapt to Canadian life, I grew up being aware of newcomer struggles. Since my upbringing was mostly Canadian, I always sensed a disconnect with my Filipino heritage.

In 2013, for the first time in two decades since our move to Canada, I visited the Philippines with my family and my then fiancé (and now husband), Jérôme. This travel experience had an immense impact on me and it felt as though there was still so much to discover about my familial roots. Our trip piqued my interest in Filipino history and culture and drove me to learn more about my community.

As we explored the Filipino entrepreneurship community, my husband and I had the chance to meet with some young entrepreneurs from the fashion industry who were truly invested in solving social issues such as poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. With the intention of creating a social impact and showcasing their work to the world, we brought to life our passion project — an online directory, ChooseSocial.PH to help people discover socially conscious businesses in the Philippines.

ChooseSocial was just a hobby at the time but as it gathered global interest, our vision to support Filipino businesses became clearer. Eventually, we quit our full-time jobs, and in 2015, set up our first business, Cambio & Co., an ethical online retailer specializing in contemporary, conscious fashion.

Fast-forward to 2018, while planning our wedding, we realized how difficult it was to find Filipino wedding ceremony essentials outside of the Philippines. With the idea of bridging that gap, we founded Sinta & Co., an online conscious wedding boutique empowering couples to celebrate their Filipino heritage on their wedding day. Both our e-commerce businesses are bound by a singular mission of connecting Filipinos and creating sustainable livelihood for Filipino artisans.

The process of setting up these businesses was filled with valuable experiences — I’ve had the opportunity to unlearn, learn, and gain expertise in areas such as online marketing, meaningful storytelling, and business operations, all while enriching my soul culturally.

My advice to ‘budding’ newcomer entrepreneurs in Canada:

  • Use your passion as the driving force and key motivator
    Some people want to start a business for the wrong reasons — they think of it as an easy way to make money or being their own boss. The reality, however, is very different and far from glamorous. Therefore, focus on your passions and the reasons why you care about your venture. Let your passion serve as the main motivator rather than other extrinsic motivators.
  • Have clarity and be invested
    It’s important to have a very clear picture of the problem you’re trying to solve with your venture and the value you’re adding to the ecosystem/community. Being invested in the purpose is crucial!
  • Own your story
    Immigrants overcome many challenges and hail from all walks of life. Instead of trying to change your story to fit in, use your unique story to set yourself apart.

My success today is deeply interwoven with my efforts to reconnect with my cultural roots and understand my Filipino background. Moving to another country and rebuilding your life is not easy; it makes immigrants more courageous, innovative, and entrepreneurial than most people.

Take pride in being a newcomer in Canada and use your story as a strength on your entrepreneurial journey!