Gelaine Santiago, spreading Filipino culture through e-commerce

Gelaine Santiago, spreading Filipino culture through e-commerce
Posted on 07/01/2019 . 6:00am


Cambio & Co

Tell us about yourself (what do you do, interests, where are you from, etc)

I’m an e-commerce social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a digital marketer living in Toronto. I’m also the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company for accessories made by Filipno artisans to celebrate Filipino culture, craftsmanship, and heritage. We’re passionate about helping to connect the younger generation of Filipinos in the diaspora with the Philippines by allowing them to wear a piece of their heritage on a daily basis.

Outside of Cambio & Co., I’m also a speaker, writer, and a marketing consultant. My Why is about sharing stories to create positive change, whether that’s the story of Filiipino artisans and their craft, or the stories of individuals who are doing meaningful work in their communities. 

You can learn more about me and my work through Cambio & Co. and here.

Happy Canadian Filipino Heritage Month! What was your Fil-Can experience like?
A lot of people are surprised when they find out I didn’t grow up very connected to my roots. I grew up in the suburbs of Markham before it became more diverse, and I also attended the University of Guelph. For much of my life, I was accustomed to being one of the few people of colour in the room. I wanted to fit in and “be normal” and I spent a lot of my life wishing I could fit into that narrow definition of what a “real Canadian” was.

To be honest, I didn’t really begin exploring my Filipino roots until I was in my mid-twenties, around the same time that we decided to launch Cambio & Co. Much of what I know about the Philippines, our history as a nation, and our traditions has really only evolved in the last four years AFTER we had already started our business. As a child, I spent a lot of time feeling ashamed of my Filipino roots, and then as an adult, I felt guilty for not being “Filipino enough.”

Like many hyphenated individuals, I grew up with one foot in and out of cultures and I think I internalized a lot of that insecurity for much of my life. Today, it’s a different story. I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin and I realize there’s no such thing as being “Filipino enough.” What does that mean anyway? I’m re-learning how to speak Filipino as an adult, but there are also other ways to express pride in your culture. I love being part of a Filipino community that’s so diverse and full of rich stories.


Cambio & CoWhat did you do before Cambio & Co.?
During university, I was part of a non-profit student leadership organization called AIESEC (which is actually how I met my Cambio & Co. co-founder and husband, Jérôme). I was really involved in the non-profit and social enterprise space, and continued taking on a variety of volunteer roles in various NGO’s even after I graduated from university.

I ended up in various roles involving volunteer coordination, marketing, and operations. This actually led me to my first full-time position in human resources as a talent acquisition specialist (aka. A recruiter) for a financial company in Toronto. I eventually realized that life in a corporate setting was not for me, and that I needed to do something more meaningful. Jérôme felt the same way, and we both decided to quit our corporate jobs at the same time.

Since I had worked in various non-profits AND in corporate, I learned a lot about both worlds. I’ve seen non-profits cancel meaningful projects because they couldn’t find funding, and I’ve also witnessed corporations let go of talented people for the sake of profits.

I’ve learned that if we want to create meaningful, sustainable impact, we have to do things differently. And that means building social enterprises, financially sustainable businesses with a social mission at its core. That led us to creating Cambio & Co.

What inspired you to found Cambio & Co.?

I was born in Bulacan in the Philippines, but we immigrated to Canada when I was three years old. At the age of 22, I returned to the Philippines for the first time and Jérôme came with me. While there, we ended up learning about these amazing brands like Rags2Riches and ANTHILL Fabric Gallery in the Philippines, who were using fashion to create sustainable livelihood for artisan communities across the country. 

Jérôme and I were so inspired. We realized there was an opportunity to support these brands, while also building a meaningful business. So we decided to create Cambio & Co. as a means to support existing artisan communities by sharing their stories, bringing their products into the United States and Canada, and connecting them to customers around the world.


What was your relationship like with Fashion and how did you translate that passion as you grew up?
Funny enough, I was really NOT into fashion at all. I could never keep up with the trends and had resigned myself to being unstylish forever. That is, until I learned about Filipino fashion and sustainable fashion.

A core principle in sustainable fashion is to ignore the trends. Instead, focus on finding YOUR unique style and how to express yourself in a way that’s authentic to you. I found this really empowering and it forced me to look inward and really question what I was wearing and why.

I carry those principles into our work at Cambio & Co. I want people to feel empowered by what they wear, and that’s why we share our stories around #WearYourHeritage. What you wear says so much about who you are as a person, and choosing to buy pieces from fairly paid workers also makes a significant impact on communities. 

As your company continues to grow, how would you like to see Cambio & Co. expand?

Our social mission is really core to what we do, so as Cambio & Co. as a business grows, our ability to provide sustainable livelihood to artisans does as well. I really hope that we can continue to grow our business in a meaningful and positive way.

We’re actually in the process of launching a second company called Sinta & Co., a conscious bridal boutique specialized in helping couples celebrate their Filipino heritage and culture on their wedding day. We offer Filipino accessories, gifts,  and ceremony essentials so everyone can have their dream Filipino wedding.

This is actually an extension of our mission at Cambio & Co. We’re passionate about creating sustainable livelihood for Filipino artisans while also helping younger Filipinos in the diaspora stay connected to our roots. That means providing more avenues for people to celebrate their heritage on a daily basis and during big life moments, too.

Cambio & CoDo you have any advice for anyone looking to either start their own business or looking to make an impact in their communities?

My advice is to always start. So many people wait for that perfect idea or eureka moment to come, but those are rare and few inbetween. If there’s something that makes you passionate and excited, then take small steps today to pursue that. It may not turn into a Fortune 500 company, but so what? The key is that you’ll have learned something and done something you care about. You’ll be a better person as a result.


Check out Cambio & Co’s mission video:

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