It's a Sunday afternoon, we had my niece's birthday party the night before, and my uncle asked if i'm home. I replied, and told him he can come by anytime. One week before, I asked if I could interview him regarding his company. I knew he'd say yes, and he did. He used to babysit me, and I think that's one of the reasons why we remained so close. I can sense the similarities when he talks, and especially when we have a discussion. I think the fact that I sometimes ask my friends or, my boyfriend Jonas in particular, such difficult and deep questions, is something I clearly got from my uncle. He does that same thing to me as long as I can remember, and sometimes it kinda frustrates me, maybe because he's able to touch me in a way no one in the family is able to.
Nonetheless, I acknowledge that I inherited some traits from my corny, yet intelligent uncle. Before the interview begins, he asks Jonas to make him a cup of tea, and immediately shows me things which can benefit Diyosa Kultura. I can feel how he's happy his first niece he ever had, is interested in things which in a way connects to what he's trying to achieve through Shopstainable. He takes a sip of his tea and we start the interview.
For the record; Who are you and where were you born?
I am Lauro Relenas, I was born in the Philippines, and arrived in the Netherlands when I was 12 years old, together with my two sisters and my mom. It was a difficult time, I had to learn the language, I had no friends, and no one understood what I was saying. Yes, I was considered "different", I lived in a small village and I'd say, I was a phenomenon, haha!
My goal was really to master the Dutch language, and although it wasn't easy, I did it (although my daughters are correcting me most of the time)
Did you also feel that you were different throughout high school, or was high school a huge difference in comparison to elementary school?
It's always a little bit more difficult as a "foreigner", there are times that you feel like an outsider, especially if you have a different skin color. I mean, you're not "like all the other kids". But for me, it wasn't difficult to make friends. I think that really depends on the person, if you want to make friends you just need to do it, don't stay invisible, don't be afraid. Just do what you need to do.
Did you miss the Philippines?
The first few months, yes of course. But when I started to get better at speaking the language, I started to accept the fact that this was my new home. I needed to move on. That's who I am, I don't overthink the situation. I confront the situation, and rationally think about the pro's and con's and try to think positively to be able to move forward. I think it's really a survival mode. It's inspired by Buddhism, look at the positive side. I mean hey, I'm in a strange country i've never heard of, no one can understand me, I am the person who needs to do something about this, not someone else. And at such a young age, I was able to create this positive mindset. Of course there are ups and downs, but that's life.
Do you like to educate yourself about your heritage?
When I was a kid, no. I was too busy integrating into the Dutch culture, traditions and norms and values. When I studied Tourism I was already thinking about helping out people in the Philippines, but when you're young, there are other things happening around you, you attend parties, you take every chance given to you as long as it makes you money. So it started later on, when I grew older, that I started to get more interested in my heritage, and thinking about helping out people in my homeland.
Do you feel more Dutch or Filipino?
No. I can't identify myself. A spiritual life coach also asked me this, and I told him, I feel at home in the Netherlands, I feel at home in the Philippines, I feel at home in France and Ireland. Yes to preserve a culture is something that's important to me, but what I actually mean with that is that it's something to identify with when you're in a specific country. For example, In the Netherlands you can eat zuurkool and in the Philippines you can play pantintero. It's important for the country to have such things. Some people want to stay in the village I grew up in for example, but that's not me. I left, I lived in different countries because I also felt at home there. It's not just one place. I always wanted to learn from other cultures. I guess i'm a citizen of the world. I'd love to visit a certain country for my company to feel the culture and to be able to tell people look! This country is beautiful, look at their traditions, their food, their language.
What are your thoughts on the Filipino culture?
Philippines is a beautiful country with its diversity in local dialects, food, people, beautiful beaches and mountains. The filipinos are very good in handcrafting, weaving and all other things they can make with their hands. They work very hard for an employer or even leave their families behind to work abroad so they can send money back to their loved ones back home.
I have visited some of the big islands like Cebu, Bohol, Palawan, Coron, Guimaras and they all have their own particular way of speaking, cooking and making local products. In the last 3 years i visited the Philippines, i noticed that there is some kind of a revolution going on. There are more and more social enterprises rising up to fight poverty and environment issues and also to try and preserve the traditional crafts and techniques. I am happy to see this because most of the Filipinos are blinded with the western ideas of "I need to have the most expensive branded shoes" or "I need to have lighter skin". Basically everything what the western (rich) countries have we need to have too. I'm not sure where this comes from but it could be through colonial influences in the past or we are just forgetting were we come from. Anyway, if you are ever in the Philippines try the local food and try to skip all junk food places as much as possible. Also buy local, handmade products made by artisans. This way you will support the local enterprises.
Who are your influences in your daily life?
Influences? Wow. This one is difficult. I have several... When it comes to music it's Lenny Kravitz, he was also the reason why I had super long hair! And another important influence is Buddhism. Buddhism really touched me at a young age, it taught me to make the best out of life and that people are who they are. When I got older I started to read more about it, and it also taught me that you can't change someone's mindset. That was something I struggled with, because at first, I had this habit to inform someone with a particular subject, and if I wasn't able to convince that person, I could turn out a little bit annoyed. But now I know you can't just do that, people will believe what they want to believe. Respect people the way they are. I don't meditate by the way, only when I have karate lessons. Meditating for me, is not sitting on the floor and meditate. You can meditate in other ways, such as mowing the grass or going to the grocery store, gardening or preparing food. These things can also help, it's like therapy, because you distract your mind with something that relaxes you; I think it's important to not always follow the mainstream, but do what feels right for YOU. Take all the good things from people with you and learn from the bad ones.
I never knew you were into Buddhism! As we have a whole family who identifies as Catholic, did you ever discuss this difference with the family?
I'm very open about it! I was raised as a Catholic, but since I live in the Netherlands that kind of vanished. And to be honest, when i was young, I was only interested in the drinks and cookies they gave me during church mass.. It really didn't have an effect on me. I never felt something holy, but I do respect all religions.
After your study in Tourism, what did you do then?
I started traveling, because this was my problem: I still didn't have any idea about what I was going to do. Like I said, when I was young, I took every chance that presented itself on my path. When I realized that Tourism wasn't my thing, I went to Dublin with the goal to travel in the weekends and work. In Dublin is where my career actually started. I started to work in customer services, accounting, purchasing and after that I found myself in finances. I did that for 7 years, and I moved back to the Netherlands. I worked in the Netherlands for 6 years, and that was the time when I started to contemplate everything. What am I doing exactly? I have two kids, my second kid was just born, I came home late at night, and I don't like my job. There was even one point i drove around two roundabouts thinking, should i go to work or not? I never liked it. That's why I went from job to job. Yes, they were satisfied with my work strategy, that's because although I didn't like it, it was important to me to take the job seriously, to stay focused, and it's also important to be loyal to your company. If you work for a corporate company you need to work really hard, and for me there was no satisfaction in it. It became more and more obvious that I was married to my job, and less married to my wife. I didn't see them often, and that was my frustration while my kids we're growing up. And that thought went on in my head for three years. I couldn't do it anymore, I had to stop. In 2013, I finally made the hardest decision in my life and went on to start my journey to create www.shopstainable.com . I haven't been any happier than I am now and I even have less pain on my shoulders, haha! Right now, I'm doing something I'm passionate about, I can create something good out of this, not only for the Philippines, but also for my family, and i'm also busy with trying to help the poor in the Netherlands (through www.leergeldijssel.nl) and it feels good doing it. Okay, I still have problems regarding money, we used to earn a lot more when I still had a full-time job, so now we consciously need to think about our purchases, if we really need it, what we're gonna eat, how much it costs, etc..
So, do you think it's more important to earn a lot of money, or earning less money but doing something you actually love to do?
The important thing we need to realize is that we need to do something we want to do, something that makes us happy. Do things you are good at. When I was young that wasn't what I was doing, I just wanted to earn money, I didn't want to go to school anymore, I tried everything I was able to do and that turned out pretty good, they hired me although I didn't have any experience in accounting, but.. It wasn't my thing. I made me good money but I wasn't happy. Materialism is a problem we all have. We need to look in the mirror and tell ourselves, what do we really need? What is important? When I look back to my younger version I think to myself, where did it all bring me? Now, money isn't that important to me anymore. Although i was not really satisfied with the work I did it still gave me experiences which came in handy to help set up my own company and put the money I saved on the way to invest in the company, and right now I really want to help people to escape the vicious circle of poverty and that they'll be able to attend school and find their own talents in early stage.
What is the message you want to bring with Shopstainable, and what is something you want to highlight with your company?
I want to fight poverty, I want to highlight the talents these people have, and I want to preserve their culture. We're sitting here, with three laptops and mobile phones, but not everyone can purchase these things, not everyone can type, or build websites. But they do have different things they're very good at; and I want to give them a chance to use these talents, so they may earn some money out of it. I'm doing this through social enterprises who are already helping these people, with for example the bags they weave and the traditional clothes they make. they can earn money AND preserve their culture by doing this, and their children will know the importance of preserving their culture by seeing their mothers making these products. I want the children to be able to study, but if they can't they'll be able to do the same thing their mothers did. Yes, preserving culture is something that's important to me. I also want to have the old Filipino script written on my bamboo products. That's what i'm trying to achieve besides the fact that I want it to be sustainable and I hope people will eventually realize how bad it is for the environment to use certain materials like plastic, and that they'll instead look for sustainable and indigenous materials. We need to think rationally about which materials to use when we make products, if the materials are harmful for our environment and which materials aren't. That's why Shopstainable works with social entrepeneurs who recycles, upcycles, and uses indigenous and natural materials for our products.
You regularly visit the places where your products are made. What do you feel when you meet the people who make your products?
The bonding is there, because they want to do this with me. They know I want to help them, and the fact that I can also speak their language, is a benefit. They feel that they can trust me, I listen to them, and they know I'm there for them. I think that's important to be able to deeply bond with them, because they feel the connection. It'd be different if I was a foreigner. For example, I'm talking to a man who's Dutch and Vietnamese, and he wants to sell perfumes. He speaks Vietnamese, and I said, that's a good thing, because it's important to me to actually talk to the people. To be able to have an actual, genuine conversation with those people. I also want to help Vietnam, but first I want to finish the projects i'm working on right now.
Do you ever feel setbacks while your trying to build your company?
I only had setbacks so far. Products not delivered on time by my supplier, questions not being answered, website-builders who don't finish their work on time, who eventually bail on me; that all happened this year. But you can also learn from these moments. Only because you had setbacks doesn't mean the thing you're doing doesn't work! It doesn't mean you should just stop, that's just a waste of time. I've gone so far, it's too late to stop. It actually makes me try to think of a better solution, I try to adapt. Is there a product you are just not able to sell? Let's search for the reason why it doesn't want to sell. What is my target group? If you ask yourself such questions, that's when you're starting to learn from the setbacks. Setbacks are just thoughts, you expect something to work and it doesn't, you give up. But I've done that my entire life. You need to find your expertise, and I wasn't able to find that because I went from job to job. I'm dedicated now. Life is not a straight line. There are gonna be obstacles. I mean, to be able to maintain this company, I was forced to look for other jobs. I'm also working for a customer service of a company I knew nothing about, and I had a lot of customers who were mad at me because they knew more about the products than me! That frustrates me once in a while. It's a perfect example of doing something you actually don't like, but for me it's necessary to realise my dreams and goals, and that's how I can move forward. I may struggle, but i'm learning. I don't feel guilty for my numerous jobs, because I know I can use the knowledge I got from working for these companies, for my own company.
In life, you shouldn't overthink. If you struggle with this, search for a piece of paper and write down the pro's and con's. Look for what will add value to you. And if you don't know your purpose in life like me when I was young, please take a look at yourself. take a look at our planet. Try to live in a way that doesn't destroy our planet. Don't eat a lot of junk food, don't to do drugs. Vote. Think this through. Start with yourself. What kind of value can you add around you, the world, the universe?