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MYRNA PADILLA

Davao City

Former Domestic Helper in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, 1988-2006

Managing Director, Mynd Consulting and Management Services

From Seaweed Diver to BPO Player

By J. Dela Torre

myrna picShe wiped away her tears as she again narrated her story, as if the tears would dilute the pain of the memories she was trying to recall. But there’s nothing shameful about her compelling narrative: how she suffered as a child due to the harshness ofpoverty, worked unpaid for a recruiter for one year, endured fifteen years of backbreaking work in three countries as a domestic helper, and went on to become one of the most successful OFW entrepreneurs in Mindanao.  

I’ve heard snatches of her story before, but each retelling never fails to make me feel good about the toughness of the human spirit: that people of humble beginnings could rise from adversity and achieve their highest potential. Her story is a triumph of womanhood, and it needs one more retelling.

A self-taught, self-made IT entrepreneur, Myrna Padilla is Founder and President of Mynd Consulting and Management Services, a major player in the nascent BPO industry of Davao City, which the Commission for Information and Communications Technology recently ranked no. 4 among the next-wave cities in the country. At Mynd Consulting, Myrna rides out her vision of helping stop the exodus of the country’s best talents. She pays her employees the highest possible rates, competitive with the best in the world, thus effectively dissuading them from looking for jobs overseas. The only one of its kind in Mindanao, Mynd Consulting designs and deploys, among others, social networking applications for US-based newspapers, and mobile apps. Using her experience as a domestic helper in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan as source of inspiration, she’s recently deployed through a Microsoft grant, www.ofwwatch.com, which detects when an OFW “goes dark”, or is no longer online, and alerts volunteers at or near the distressed OFW’s location to take action.  

                Her story begins in central Philippines. Myrna’s father, a fisherman, and her mother, a housewife, struggled to raise a family of eight in a small fishing village in Loay, Bohol. On fine days, her father would wake up at dawn, bundle up his fishing gear and oar the boat out to sea, where he would fish until noontime when the sun was no longer bearable. There were days when the catch was plentiful, so they had something to sell in the market, but on lean days, the catch was good only for the day’s meal and maybe some for drying. On days when the weather was bad, such as during the habagat, and her father couldn’t put out to sea, the family made do with what was on the dinner table, often dried fish and rice.

“My childhood was not a bed of roses, but I’m not blaming anybody for it, least of all my parents,” she says. “My mother was a strong woman: she never gave up in times of difficulties and was willing to sacrifice for the sake of her children and family. She taught us how to handle responsibilities in life and impressed on us the importance of good strong values and character as the bedrock of our lives. What I learned from her was the importance of being strong, innovative, and unselfish. She taught us to serve the community and to never give up and to be God-fearing,” Myrna straightened up, the welling of the tears in her eyes now replaced by a glint of pride. 

Her father on the other hand had his own distinct personality. “My father was a quiet person and prefers peace over confrontation. He’s very objective and a man of honor.  When he talks, his words are full of substance. I learned from him to always keep things simple. Perseverance, hard work, endurance and love of family—these are the things he taught me by example. He’s a very loving father, and I’m very proud of him.”

At the age of 8, Myrna was forced to help in putting food on the table by diving for wild seaweed, shellfish and fish. She’d dive for a minute or two at depths of ten to fifteen feet, scrounging for shellfish and seaweed beneath the corals, surface for air and then dive again. She’d earn P3 to P5, which in the late 1960s was already a tidy sum. She did it so well she became known in the village as “Mermaid’s Daughter”. For spearing fish, she used the sharpened end of an umbrella tube. She sold the collected seaweed and shellfish at the Loay public market, and whatever little she earned, she shared with her Mom.

Often, she’d wake up mornings to the sobbing of her mother because there was no more rice in the tin can. She’d clasp her mother’s hands to comfort her, and when already by herself, she would weep silently at their utter helplessness. Many nights, she and her brothers and sisters slept on empty stomachs.  Being the eldest of the brood, she didn’t know what to do to end their misery, but in her young mind, a resolve was faintly growing that she would do everything possible to raise the family out of the rut of poverty. In times when there was nothing much to eat, she assuaged the hunger of her brothers and sisters by playing a game with them. She would bring them to the seashore and ask each one to look for little crabs, seashells and other edible stuff, which they would cook by the shore. At an early age, Myrna already knew how to innovate, turn adversity into a challenge. This never-say-die, learn-from-your-mistake spirit was to recur many times throughout her life.

After graduating from high school, she decided to try her luck in Manila, with the intention of auditioning to be a singer in Japan.  The recruiter who brought her to Manila made her do domestic work not only for the recruiter’s household but for two other families, and she wasn’t paid for her work for one year. But she persevered because she knew of no other way to meet a Japanese recruiter. Finally, the moment arrived: the recruiter brought her to an audition for entertainers bound for Japan, with several old Japanese recruiters present.

                One of them, after hearing her sing, came on to her by wrapping his arms around her, in a manner which Myrna didn’t consider friendly. She slapped him on the face with such force she herself was stunned. She fled the scene with the local recruiter screaming after her and never auditioned for a singing job in Japan again. “If that malicious recruiter represents Japanese employers, well, I would rather not venture there. I want a decent, honest work which I can be proud of and help us out of poverty,” she thought.             

She found herself at the Baclaran Redemptorist Church, where Ponyang, a domestic helper also from Bohol, found her sobbing. Myrna had prayed for a miracle that would show her there was still hope left in her crises-filled life. Ponyang, whom she considers her miracle, brought her to a bakery where she found a job as pandesal hawker. Each dawn, she hit the road and call out buyers  by singing. She had a knack for selling, she found out, and was using her singing as a marketing come-on, although she didn’t know it then. One job led to another. She worked for a department store, whose owner noticed how hard she worked, and asked her to try out office work. She was not afraid to tell her boss she didn’t know how to operate office machines, but was willing to learn. It was this enthusiasm to learn more which must have caught the owner’s attention. Without any sales experience, she became sales lady and, later, branch manager of a beverage distribution company in Guadalupe, Makati. But they only paid her so much so she indicated it was time to move on. The owner of the company begged her to stay on because she was doing so well as branch manager, but her take-home pay just didn’t do it for her: it was barely enough for her own needs. She wanted to increase her earnings considerably, and thought that a good and decent job abroad would do it.

                She finally had her start in her overseas employment career when she went to Singapore in 1988, where she successfully finished two consecutive contracts. It was the first time her employer ever had a domestic helper from abroad and they treated her, in her own words, “like a slave.” But when Myrna threatened to resign if they continued to treat her badly, the employer blinked, and henceforth, she got better treatment. That was when Myrna realized all it takes is for the domestic helper to assert her rights if threatened. Many of the cases of maltreatment arise from the fact that many of Filipino domestic helpers are afraid to be assertive for fear of losing their jobs, she reflected.

After Singapore, Myrna went to Taiwan as a nanny for a family that spoke very little English. It was touch and go for her: she knew no Mandarin and was always at the receiving end of the relationship. Every time she wanted to communicate with her employer, she would write it down on paper and the employer would look for a dictionary and decipher it. She didn’t want to endanger the well-being of the child with her inability to communicate with her employers, so she decided to quit after only 6 months. Because it was her who pre-terminated her contract, the agency in Manila wanted her to pay off her loan. Fortunately, she had the foresight to keep a copy of the loan agreement with the bank, which clearly showed that the agency overcharged her for the placement fee. Myrna was now a “hot potato” to the agency, so she was promptly deployed to Hong Kong, lest she’d wise up and show the evidence to the authorities. Turning a sticky situation to her advantage worked out well for her. She wasn’t even made to pay the placement fee for Hong Kong.

                In Hong Kong, her first employer treated her shabbily. She slept on the kitchen floor with only flattened cardboard boxes to protect her from the cold winters. She wasn’t given enough food so she was forced to buy her own. She didn’t have her day off, and when she demanded it, she was told she could go, but only after she’s cooked breakfast and lunch and cleaned the house. Back from her day off, she still had to cook dinner. Demonstrating her street-smartness again, she convinced her employer to put her instructions in writing, so there could be no doubt about what her duties were on her day off, which the not-so-smart employer did. Armed with the incriminating evidence, she broke her contract, justifiably, and the Immigration Officer ruled in her favor. Fortunately for her, she found a good replacement employer, the Feungs from The Peak, for whom she worked until her return to the Philippines over ten years later.

                Myrna made up for her lack of a college degree by enrolling in short technical courses in Hong Kong, which she attended on her days off. Basic information technology, computer secretarial, basic business management and advanced cosmetology from the City College of Hong Kong—skills which she thought she needed to increase her value in the job market. She forced herself not to delve on the fact that she wasn’t given a formal education by her parents, but instead worked hard to learn as much as she could from the educational opportunities available to foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

                What started her interest in information technology—the field she’s in now—was when she saw her 9-year old ward use a wireless mouse and his desktop. She was actually making sure he did his homework, per her employer’s orders.

“What’s this, Jon?” she asked the boy, fingering the accessory.

“It’s a mouse, Nanny,” the boy answered.

“You mean there’s a mouse inside?” Myrna persisted, quite seriously. The little boy stopped himself from laughing aloud. “And what’s this red light at the bottom?”

“No, Nanny, it’s just a part of the computer. Here, look . . .” and the boy demonstrated how to use the computer and the mouse. “C’mon, try it.” It took a while before Myrna had the courage to use the mouse. She had to summon the same courage she had when she was diving for seaweed in Bohol to overcome her fear of new technology represented by the mouse.

                Her involvement in the affairs of the Filipino community developed her leadership skills. It was a stroke of luck, but which, in retrospect, she considers as one of the most significant events in her life. In one meeting of Mindanaoans called by the author for the purpose of organizing a Mindanao-wide federation, she was appointed as interim chairperson of the Mindanao Hong Kong Workers Federation (Minfed), when nobody else wanted the position. She says she took on the challenge because she felt honoured that the Labor Attache had recognized her potential as a leader. Later, largely due to her recruitment efforts, Minfed became one of the largest OFW groups in Hong Kong, with twelve member associations and 500 individual members.

Myrna was a natural leader: she knew what her members needed because she was just like them—trying to keep her head above water and be able to send money to her family back home. In Myrna’s case, she had two daughters in school. Mayette is a graduate of Electronics and Communications Engineering, while the younger one, Arianne, now studies in Sweden. Because she was so effective in her work as President, she became the Federation’s “perpetual succour” who was always around when needed. She was never replaced as President until she came home in 2006. Even now, three years after she had returned to Davao, she still receives calls from distressed OFWs in Hong Kong, seeking her help with their problems.

                One night, while Myrna was researching social networks, she bumped into one particular website developed by The Port, an IT firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. She wasn’t too happy with the way the site navigated so she decided to send a short letter to The Port to tell them what she thought about the site. A week later, she received word from the US company that they wanted more of her feedback. Not only that, they said, she could earn money from doing so. Myrna couldn’t believe her luck: she would be learning and at the same time earning. The concept was alien to her. And she didn’t have to do it full time, only two or three hours every night after work.

                In 2006, precipitated by her decision to undergo surgery in the Philippines for a minor medical condition, she decided to go home for good. Although not obliged to pay her severance pay, Mrs. Feung asked for Myrna’s bank account number, and the following day, she received a considerable sum. With the money and her life savings, she started her IT business in Davao with just one computer in an upscale business address. Her accomplishments since then would make us believe in the story of Cinderella.

How did she re-invent herself to become what she is today, without a formal education on computer science and technology?

“It’s all because of the computer mouse. It was my instrument in researching in the internet and learning from the great body of knowledge available in cyberspace. I slowly began to grasp the concepts behind social computing, virtual offices, outsourcing and software development. As an OFW, I saw the technology from a different perspective than most. I saw a way for a person to work abroad, without leaving home, without the heartbreak of leaving his family and without contributing to the brain drain that sees the best and the brightest of our people leaving the Philippines.”

                She has really come a long way from her seaweed diving days in Bohol. In 2008, she was given the Outstanding Achievement Award by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.  In 2008 , she became Advisor to Microsoft Tulay.  In the same year, she was given the Outstanding Achievement Award For Landbased OFW by OWWA.  In 2009 , she was elected Vice President of Davao Software Industry Inc. In the same year,  the Department of Trade and Industry Region X1 DTI , and Go Negosyo proclaimed her “Most Inspiring Entrepreneur in Davao Award” under the SMEs Category. In 2010, she was the recipient of the Global Pinoy Award by SM Supermalls.

In 2011, she was named First Global Ambassador from the Philippines of the Telecentre Women: Digital Literacy Campaign. after delivering a rousing speech at the launching of the Campaign in Santiago, Chile. http://youtu.be/_AEoGWoCsAQ

Also in 2011, she gave an inspiring speech at the International Outsourcing Summit in Manila. She spoke right before President Aquino and received the first standing ovation of the conference. http://youtu.be/4nFTB8DVZHE .

In 2012, after receiving a grant from Microsoft, she founded the OFW Watch Team, Inc., dedicated to applying information technology in getting OFWs out of harm’s way. The following year, she launched the OFW Watch website, www.ofwwatch.com  and its accompanying mobile app.

Continuing her social advocacy, she received another grant, this time from Xamarin to develop cross platform mobile development tools.

Her accomplishments could put to shame all those government and private sector executives with their fancy MBAs and high-flying perks. She was just a seaweed diver from a poor community in Bohol, and look at her now.

                Is it true businesses run by returning OFWs generally fail? “Not at all,” she says. “Would you consider me a failure?” I could only say, “Touché!”

She advises other OFWs who are entertaining thoughts of going into business:

                “You must first identify a business for which you have a passion. You have to know who you are, what you’re capable of, and what your own limitations are. The idea is to engage in business in which you can find your expertise zone, not the comfort zone, but one where your expertise may be honed to the fullest extent possible. Discipline is important too. Self-discipline, discipline for employees and discipline for suppliers. Through discipline, we’re able to sacrifice personal comfort and present conveniences for the sake of a better future. Fair dealing is also a factor in the success of a business. The business succeeds only when it deals fairly with its employees and its suppliers. I consider myself and my company a failure if the company grows while my own employees haven’t improved their socio-economic condition. The entrepreneur must also be a risk taker. You must seize every opportunity for self-growth and for business innovation, and not allow the business to stagnate. You must adapt with the changes that constantly evolve out there in the world, because every change represents an opportunity for innovation and growth.”

Continuing her social advocacy, she received another grant, this time from Xamarin to develop cross platform mobile development tools.

Her accomplishments could put to shame all those government and private sector executives with their fancy MBAs and high-flying perks. She was just a seaweed diver from a poor community in Bohol, and look at her now.