Business Mentor Notes: Chit Juan is the President of the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines and a member of AWEN and the Asean Coffee Federation. She can be reached at puj@echostore,ph

Since the countries in ASEAN are located in the same geographic area, chances are the products we have are almost the same if not exactly the same—coconut, coffee, cacao, tropical fruits and the like. So how do we tweak our business model so we can expand in ASEAN? Or how do we protect ourselves from being taken over by our neighbors?


Author (third from left) with panelists on “How will your business change and what to expect in the Asean Economic Community?” .with representatives from from left: Vietnam Ministry of Women ,UNESCAP, Myanmar, Malaysia and the U.S. State Department

Collaborate.
Rather than bowing out or competing with someone much bigger in size, it would be ideal to have collaborations with other ASEAN counterparts. A good example if the Great Women in ASEAN Initiative (www.echosifoundation.org) that was launched last year in Malaysia’s SME show. Women entrepreneurs from 7 countries shared a booth where their collaborations or products from their collaborations were displayed. There were bags, apparel, fashion accessories made in ASEAN. Not just one country, but a grouping of two or three countries working together.

Another example is the ASEAN Coffee Federation where six countries have started to share knowledge and experience in coffee and agree to promote not just one place but all ASEAN coffee sources or origins (www.aseancoffee.org). You might have noticed that coffees being promoted in today’s third wave cafes are of African or Central American origin or Latin American. But not ASEAN sources. This is where ACF will help in the promotion of the coffees from our own region, including our very own Benguet Arabica and Mt. Apo Kapatagan Arabica, and soon Sulu and Cavite Washed Robusta.

If you are a woman entrepreneur there is a group called AWEN or ASEAN WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS NETWORK where Philippines will be chairing for the next two years starting May 2016. These women get together and collaborate not only for joint projects but for learning from best practices of each country and the challenges brought about by the union or the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Imagine you product being sold together with another country’s product in Europe or Australia. Sometimes, it will take partnerships and joint ventures to hurdle the onslaught of business challenges we are facing as SMEs.

Share best practice.
I have accepted many invitations to speak on sustainable lifestyle, coffee and greening the environment around ASEAN in many conferences that tackle our regional issues —challenges to the environment, challenges to SMEs and yet I come back learning even more than I shared. One example is the World Islamic Economic Forum which I attended in Malaysia last year. It was a huge show that opened my eyes to opportunities in bringing products requiring Halal certification and even the latest in Islamic fashion trends. As you share, you learn. I met a start up Filipina entrepreneur quietly selling her creations and I congratulated her for being there. These fora expose the SMEs to other players who can be their future partners.

Reach out to others.
We can no longer be just Filipino. WE are ASEAN. We are part of 600 million plus people who share similar work environments and share the same produce, too. We need to understand other people’s cultures and open our minds to other languages and tastes. And with today’s affordable travel costs, a smart entrepreneur must go to other ASEAN destinations to become familiar with their cultures. Food is a common topic and you will be amazed at the similarities we all have as ASEAN citizens. Many of us love our traditional food, not the Western imports. We can find other versions of say Matamis na Bao (coconut jam) in Kaya on Toast. We can find a similar bagoong or sambal. But what we need to do is to be open to learn what are our similarities rather than our differences.

I love being Filipino. But I love being ASEAN, too. It is a gift to be part of this area that the whole world is looking to and looking at. Imagine, now we even have ASEAN citizen lanes in immigration counters in airports. I feel really special. I feel good to be in this part of the world. Now, the next best thing is to use this opportunity to develop a sustainable business with, in and about ASEAN.