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A Conversation with Filipino Shoepreneur Tal de Guzman (GS ‘02, HS ‘06) of Risque Designs and Stride Collective

From Banaag to business, from student to social entrepreneur. A finalist of CITEM’s Red Box Design Talents Competition and one of Wacoal’s Women of the World in 2019, Knoller Tal de Guzman shares her passion for Filipino creativity, the importance of collaboration, and her journey to becoming an entrepreneur who aims to make a social impact. 

Why shoes? What was your inspiration for starting this business?

I started Risque Designs in 2012, just wanting to create pieces that uses local materials and inspired by Filipino themes. I was very much inspired by the weaving and crafting communities that I went to, which enabled me to understand that there is so much beauty in something handmade. I spent my time understanding all the people behind the designs that we do, from the shoe makers, to the weavers, to the carvers -- they are and will always be the hands, hearts and souls of what we do. 

But eventually, I decided to go to manufacturing too. In 2015, I opened up my own manufacturing facility for footwear and started accepting other shoe entrepreneurs ("shoepreneurs") to have their shoes done with me. Right now, we have around 30 local brands manufacturing with us, most of them founded by young women who didn't know anything about the shoe industry when they started (same as myself). More than the business, I really have been wanting to bring people together, creating partnerships and collaborations. I wanted to promote a kind of entrepreneurship that allows people in the same industry to be friends with each other, by being transparent, supportive, and ultimately, kind to each other.

I made sure that the brands that we work with actually have the same vision, to create good impact in the businesses that we do. Together, we have formed Stride Collective -- a community of shoe brands that aims to share resources, and to collaborate, not compete. 

They say that being an entrepreneur is a risk, and not many young graduates go on this path. What made you decide to be one?

I knew early on I wasn't cut out to be in the corporate world. I didn't last long in jobs that I took. I felt that my growth was too slow or that I can do so many things more. But back then, I didn't know yet what business I would pursue, so I decided to go back to school and study fashion. From there I realized I wanted to create something that uses local craftsmanship. 

It is really a risky path to take. You have to be ready to do the dirty work and struggle, especially in the beginning. I had experienced all kinds of hardships, from emotional to financial. While I was starting and had no team to speak of, I was a one-woman-team, I literally had to carry boxes and boxes of shoes during those times that I joined events. My car was my delivery van, and sometimes even my showroom, when I didn't have a store or office yet. I had instances when people took advantage of me since I was a new designer/entrepreneur. But I learned from my mistakes and kept on moving forward. I realized eventually, that one of the differences between those who make it and those who don't, is that those who don't probably quit what they're doing once the going got tough. 

Do you think social entrepreneurship is for everyone? What kind of attitude would make for a great social entrepreneur?

I would like to say that it is, but I don't want to be idealistic. I myself did not see myself as a social entrepreneur when I started. I felt that my impact was not yet deep enough for me to don that label. It's actually still not a big deal for me if they call me a social entrepreneur or not. I just want to be an entrepreneur that tries to do good. I think all businesses must at least try to be that. Regardless of labels, regardless of whatever good perception comes with that title "social entrepreneur." What matters is what you do, on the ground. It's not even how many lives you have affected, as there are "social entrepreneurs" merely all about counting the numbers of how many people they claim to have improved the lives of. It's about how deep the impact is that you have done in the lives of those you work with. Even I am still working for that, so everyday, I can help deepen the impact of the work that we do. I feel that it is merely a handful that we are still getting to touch on, just a drop in the sea of businesses. But if more people will do their part in whatever way they can, not going wide, but deep in terms of impact, then that drop will be more than just a drop, but a bucket or a pond, even. 

Trying to do good in business may not be for everyone, as it is really a difficult path to take, especially in the first few years. Profits will definitely come a bit later on in your business. It is a hard and crazy path, but if you get to find peers who are like-minded, or other entrepreneurs who have the same values as you, someday you'll realize that you're not that crazy after all. You just need to be resilient, you have to be creative, and most of all you have to be open to learning. 

Your business concept revolves around Filipino designs and craftsmanship. What are your thoughts on promoting the Filipino talent?

When I started Risque, it was in a time when most brands and designers were referencing Greek or Roman mythology in their designs. I wanted to explore the realm of our culture as a source of inspiration for the things that I do. I always believed that there is more to our culture than the jeepney and the pinya. Now, I am actually happy that there are already more people doing that, digging deeper into our culture and creating innovative designs. Right now, I am moving towards experimenting beyond the usual materials in their original forms, but in transforming them to make different materials for commercial and design application. 

I think Filipinos have so much creativity, that even in adversity, we are pushed to excel. There is so much talent that needs to be harnessed, that needs to shine. I personally try, in my own little way, to find these people, collaborate with those, or lead them to collaborations that will enrich them. 

What is your vision for your business? Where will Tal de Guzman be 10 years from now?

Business, life and other plans, for me, evolves consistently. I allow myself to be surprised with the opportunities that open up and with the crazy ideas that might come to mind in the future. But what I want to happen most definitely, is to help create more entrepreneurs. I don't know where I will or won't be, and it doesn't really faze me that I don't know. It will never be a straight path to anything anyway, but I am striving to make more meaningful work every day. 

What about your Miriam High School experience stands out? What learnings have your carried forward to your personal or professional life?

I think what enabled me to do what I do now is the discipline that I have learned in MC. Those homeworks, projects and extra-curriculars made me learn how it is to work either individually or with others. I guess striving for excellence in everything I do is rooted in the kind of environment that I had back in high school. I have also been ingrained with good work ethics and good ethics in general that I hope I give justice to what an alumna of MC needs to be. 

The Stride Collective is a retail space that houses 18 ethically-made brands, including Risque Designs. From exceptional hand-made shoes to uniquely flavoured style, Stride makes it easier to discover and support upcoming local Filipino brands. Stride is located in #4 J.P. Laurel Street Corner Chestnut Street Marikina East San Roque Marikina City. Location can be also found through the Waze app, just type “Stride Collective”

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