Commencement Address by John L. Gokongwei Jr. to the Atenean Graduates, March 27, 2004)
I wish I were one of you today, instead of a 77-year-old man, giving a
speech you will probably forget when you wake up from your hangover
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
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
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,
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
For example, a Filipino brand like Maxx candy can be manufactured in
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 later.
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
Entrepreneurship is the answer.
We need young people who will find the idea, grab the opportunity, take
risk, and set aside comfort to set up businesses that will provide
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 market.
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
For example, it is the young entrepreneurs of
countries to the top. Young people like yourselves.
Meanwhile, in the
Hardly anything is fresh. With a few exceptions, the biggest companies
before the war-like PLDT, Ayala, and San Miguel-are still the biggest
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
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
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
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.
Because it was something that I, a 15-year-old boy in short pants,
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
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
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
Now I had enough money to bring my family home from
were all here, they helped me expand our trading business to include
imports. Remember that the war had left the
goods. So we imported whatever was needed and imported them from
everywhere-including used clothes and textile remnants from the
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-including
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
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 discussed.
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 through education.
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 ally.
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 country!
Yes, our government may not be perfect, and our economic 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 and
cosmetics in Asia,
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
"Live with one foot raised and make the world your house."
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".