Teenagers grow micro business amid pandemic

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LEARNING WHILE HELPING The David family (above) opened EZ “Sari-sari” store with the help of young philanthropists Ethan Qua (lower left) and Zachary Lee. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

During the darkest days of COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that shone through was the Filipinos’ indomitable “bayanihan” spirit. As Charles Dickens wrote, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Two teenagers living in the opposite sides of the world are among the kindred souls who could not sit idly by.

Ethan Qua, 17, now incoming high school junior at St. Ignatius College Prep in California, and Zachary Lee, 16, incoming high school sophomore at International School Manila, were linked up by Classikids Manila, a nonprofit group that helps marginalized communities.

When Classikids’ 21-year-old founder Mandy Qua visited San Francisco during her summer break from Princeton University last year, her cousin Ethan sought her advice on how he could help. He then had two jobs—tutoring at a Math center and coaching at a tennis camp—and wanted to contribute his savings to a good cause.

At about the same time in Manila, Zach reached out to Classikids to learn about its outreach programs. Teaming up, the boys decided to help out Aiza and Erick David, a couple from western Bicutan. Erick, a construction worker doubling as a security guard and Aiza, a laundry woman, lost their jobs in 2020.

To make ends meet, the couple initially set up a barbecue stand but this took a toll on their family. They woke up as early as 2 a.m. to buy and prepare the meat, and grilled and sold barbecue until 10 p.m. They hardly saw their two young kids.

Sustainable solution

“At the onset, Zach and I agreed that we wanted to help Aiza and Erick with a longer term solution. We both had saved up some money from various summer jobs over the years, but we weren’t looking to just help with a one-time payout. We wanted a more sustainable approach and be directly involved,” Ethan says.

After brainstorming, the boys came up with the idea of setting up a “sari-sari” (variety) store outside the couple’s house. It is a “win-win” solution: Aiza can manage the store while looking after the children. The additional income will allow Erick to take a few days off each week to rest and spend more time with the family.

The boys pitched the idea to Classikids, which matched them with mentors, such as Mark Ruiz, founder of social enterprise Hapinoy, and Nono Coliangco, cofounder of social enterprise incubator Xchange. The boys also enrolled in an intensive business course to hone their skills.

Via countless Zoom meetings, Ethan and Zach helped Aiza make key decisions such as capitalization, product selection, initial inventory, pricing and performance tracking. On September 2021, their brainchild EZ Sari-Sari Store welcomed its first customers.

One valuable insight that the boys learned from this project is to analyze market competition in order to create sound marketing strategies.

“When we started in September, we focused on selling neighborhood essentials like canned goods and instant noodles. However, in one of our visits to the area, we saw other stores selling cellphone loads and GCash service so we decided to offer those too. Today, they are among our top sellers,” says Zach.

They also learned to practice good bookkeeping: recording everything from sales to expenses, and even debt management. Ethan created a spreadsheet to serve as a tracking system. “You need this information to manage the business and identify areas for improvement,” he says.

The boys also learned that sales and profit management are both crucial in running a business. “Sales are not profits that you can spend immediately. If you don’t set aside adequate funds, you can’t buy goods to replenish and sell,” says Zach, who closely monitors inventory purchases and performs periodic sales analysis.

Sales have grown steadily during the first six months of operation, and are now 25 percent higher than what the store generated in its first month.

The boys have also focused on making a positive impact on the community through an innovative loyalty program, which aims to educate the neighborhood while driving incremental sales.

For every P50 spent at EZ, a customer earns one stamp placed on a store-issued loyalty card. Once the card accumulates four stamps, it can be exchanged for a “care package” funded by a sponsor.

The sponsors were tapped by Ethan and Zach during their fundraising efforts these past months to educate Erick and Aiza’s community on key topics such as nutrition, personal hygiene, exercise, health and safety. The boys also created short educational seminars.

After the customers and their children attend the monthly virtual seminar, they can claim their care packages containing a dental hygiene kit, alcohol, soap, detergent, canned goods, powdered milk etc.

The loyalty program has been well-received by the customers. Aiza says that most clients are eager to participate in the virtual seminars. Other members of the community are excited to unbox their care packages.

Ethan and Zach are keen on replicating the business model to help more families. They are developing a “sari-sari store starter kit” to scale this model. They are also looking for partner-institutions willing to fund small businesses and provide livelihood to communities. INQ

To find out more or if you wish to help this cause, email [email protected]

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