Cecilia Pagkalinawan, CEO and Founder of StyleTrek.com and 2000 NY Businesswoman of the Year AwardeeAsian Journal Nov 12, 2011 Back to press
ONE of her grandfathers survived the Bataan Death March. Another grandfather survived after being shot in the stomach in World War II.
Her grandmother was forced to leave her home in Nueva Ecija during World War II with four children in tow, including her mother who was six months old and had to be carried in a basket.
And when she was eight years old, her dream was to become the first female president of the Philippines. Raised in the Philippines and seeing all the oppression under then President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, she wanted to one day topple the government and make things right in the country.
It’s these hardships Cecilia Pagkalinawan thinks about when she’s feeling down or having a difficult day at work.
Pagkalinawan is the CEO and Founder of StyleTrek.com, a social commerce site that features emerging designers from around the world and a place where people can socially connect and buy from these designers.
With offices in New York, Middle East and Europe, it’s not easy running a company especially overseeing employees all over the world.
But it’s certainly easier than walking 60 miles under constant life threats, surviving a bullet wound or having to be forced out of a home while caring for four children.
“Anytime I feel like giving up, all I have to think about is my grandmother walking for weeks with four children in tow and somehow making it and surviving,” she said to the Asian Journal, adding that after WWII her grandparents from both sides managed to send all of their children to college.
“I want to make sure my life matters. That each day is lived to its fullest. It’s not easy to wake up and be charged every day but I try.”
Her grandparents resilience and parents sacrifices (leaving the Philippines during a turbulent time in the Philippines and raising their children in the US) have made Pagkalinawan the successful person she is today.
Pagkalinawan has been hailed as one of the Top 100 Internet Executives in New York in 1999, named the National Association of Women Business Owner’s “New York Businesswoman of the Year” in 2000, and throughout her career has helped launched and marketed several e-commerce businesses from Nine West, Burberry, Frette, and La Perla where sales grew 40 to 70 percent on a yearly basis. She also co-founded MOUSE (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education), a youth development organization that empowers underserved students to provide technology support and leadership in their schools, supporting their academic and career success.
Though, she’s not part of the non-profit anymore, she said “it’s nice to have been part of its beginning and see it grow to what it is today.”
Internet’s early days
After graduating from Hofstra University, she found herself in the beginning of the internet revolution in New York called Silicon Alley in the early 1990s.
She recalls purchasing her first Mac PowerBook with an AOL start-up disk in 1993 and began to learn about the internet. While working in advertising and public relations at the time for Young & Rubicam, a communications company, clients began inquiring about “what this internet thing was about and what should they do about it,” she said.
“I somehow became the in-house internet expert given the responsibility of getting websites created for our clients.”
She brought in the only three web agencies she knew of K2 Design, Razorfish, Agency.com to help those companies launch websites. Impressed with her work, the CEO of K2 Design offered her a job as a Project Manager. She became the company’s sixth employee.
And within two years and at the young age of 26, she was promoted to Vice President of Creative Affairs and Client Services overseeing over 30 employees and accounts such as Audi, Toys “R” Us, MCI, Nine West, IBM, AOL, among others.
A few years later, an e-commerce software company called Abilon, out of Montreal, Canada recruited her to be their president and start its US branch. The company tanked after six months but rather than accepting a hefty severance package, Pagkalinawan offered to buy the company and their clients for $1 dollar. The company accepted.
She changed the name to Boutique Y3K, an e-commerce consulting firm, and managed to raise $15 million in venture capital.
“As a female chief executive, I thought by focusing our business on fashion and shopping, it would be an advantage that I was a woman,” she said. “At the time only 2 percent of venture investments went to women-owned businesses.”
Unfortunately, the unexpected death of her sister and the tech bubble bursting led to several layoffs and the company falling on hard times.
She said looking back at those early days of the internet it was really unpredictable.
“At the time, there were no rules and set ways of doing things,” she said. “We created ideas, processes, and businesses organically. There were problems which had to be solved, so we fixed them. Mistakes were constantly being made and corrected. We had to wait for people to get online and shop online. We knew the internet was going to be an integral part of our lives, we just didn’t know how long it would take to get there.”
Bringing fashion into the forefront
After receiving $1 million seed money from investors, Pagkalinawan’s latest project is StyleTrek.com, a retail and social site where designers from all over the world can showcase and promote their work, while consumers can connect with each other and give valuable input to designers in the design process.
According to the Wall Street Journal, StyleTrek is “something between online marketplace Etsy and a high-end fashion boutique.”
StyleTrek’s goal is for designers to interact with customers and vice versa. She said for example, “If a designer is on a trip to India and finds a fabric she likes, she can send out a photo to the community and ask for their thoughts,” Pagkalinawan said to WSJ. “Once a consumer actually sees a designer’s process, they’re more inclined to want to buy.”
She’s currently working with 20 designers and expects to feature more in the coming months. One of the designers she’s working with is Fil-Am Daphne Gutierrez of Bruce.
Pagkalinawan has come a long way from the start of the .coms to the tech bubble bursting to where it is now. Though no one knows where the internet industry is heading, she said she’s learned how important it is to adapt quickly or the company can go down the toilet.
“Ups and downs is the nature of business and life,” she said. “It is not all fun and games. Being an entrepreneur is extremely difficult and consuming. Many personal and financial sacrifices have to be made. You have to be driven, fearless, and relentless. Of course, I experience self-doubt and sometimes I feel beaten down and many times have thought of giving up. But as I look into the future and see how technology, e-commerce, and globalization is constantly shifting, I know I have a place in it.
“It a scary and exciting time right now,” she added. “Scary in that industries are being disrupted but for the better. There will be a fallout of companies who do not adapt and move quickly. Mine could be one of those and its a reality I have to be aware of. Borders are being erased, and people with common interests, regardless of backgrounds are connecting via social media.”
She said though she does not do much work in the Philippines, she’s looking into it.
“There is an opportunity for the Philippines to participate in this global knowledge industry,” she said. “I just attended PhilDev’s forum on Education & Technology and there is still much the Philippines should do to train its people for the global economy. The resources and talent are there. It just has to be marketed and promoted properly.”
Her advice to young Fil-Am entrepreneurs: follow your passion.
“It’s important to network and get out of your comfort zone as an entrepreneur,” she said. “My motto is you’ll never know unless you try. You have to learn to ask. Often the answer will be no, but there eventually be yeses. Be relentless, fearless, and persistent. You can’t be shy and be an entrepreneur.
“My advice is to find your passion and pursue it. If you have to spend your life doing something, it might as well something be something you enjoy.”