For most Filipinos who go to colleges abroad, the big question that looms come senior year is: “Should I go back to the Philippines to work or should I stay in the U.S.?” For Evan Chen, who graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, the answer was always clear.
“I didn’t really think about staying in the U.S., to be perfectly frank,” Evan admits. “I always found myself going back home. It was just a matter of time.”
Evan considers himself part of an increasing number of internationally-educated young Filipinos who are growing more and more eager to return to the Philippines after their undergraduate years. While this trend may not have been as popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s, Evan believes that the country’s recent success, a changing political landscape, and Filipinos’ strong ties with their families are encouraging more and more graduates to come back.
“A lot of Filipinos abroad are starting to think about coming home because they can actually see that they can get stuff done here,” Evan says. “There are also a couple of Fil-Ams who have not even grown up in the Philippines but have decided to come back. It’s encouraging.”
After nearly two years working with the Secretary of Finance, Evan’s decision to stay in the Philippines has also been shaped by a strong belief that Philippine politics is heading in a positive direction. The changing rhetoric spurred by the current administration, he said, seems to be changing the youth’s perception and understanding of what the government should and can do:
“When President Aquino won, a lot of the youth that were part of his campaign joined government. [The election] sparked something in people’s minds about democracy and people power and what that means to everyone collectively. It has become about making government work for the people.”
This outlook on Philippine politics stems from Evan’s meaningful interactions with government workers, some of whom he says face enormous bureaucratic challenges everyday but continue to uphold the good fight. In fact, these encounters are what Evan shares have surprised him most about returning to the Philippines:
“There are really pockets of excellence everywhere. Sometimes, you just hear about all the bad stuff, but you don’t really know if it’s actually true. I think that, in working with the government, I really saw that there are a lot of people who are serious about their jobs and who are trying to do what they can in their own ways–whether that’s teaching a class of 60 kids the best they can or running a department of government the best way they know how. I didn’t really expect that.”
On the flip side, Evan also acknowledges that public sector work in the Philippines is not all so rosy. He remains cognizant of these institutional difficulties, but described to me the need to play the game to some extent in order to get something done. This has been one of the many factors of re-adjustment that he has had to maneuver since returning:
“Sometimes, politics is politics. Certain decisions are made because they need to be made in that way. To some extent, you have to be pragmatic about it. When you’re talking about changing the system, some of that also means that you have to be part of the system. You can’t go in there with guns blazing. No one’s going to want to work with you. They’ll think you’re haughty, arrogant, and proud. Part of growing up is making the idealism a little bit more practical. It may helpful you achieve long-term goals even though the short-term may not be so great. As an observer, I think it’s about being a little bit practical now to achieve something later.”
Despite these challenges, Evan continues to work in development and describes himself as a “typical millennial” who has hopped from job to job in the last four years. Currently, he works for Endeavor, a non-profit organization that selects and supports high-impact entrepreneurs whose businesses show potential for scale and growth. More importantly, these high-impact entrepreneurs pay it forward by investing their credibility, time, and even finances into the next generation of entrepreneurs. Though the organization opened just recently in late 2014, their work has already made waves in Manila’s nascent entrepreneurship scene.
“I think we still don’t dream big,” Evan says, when talking about the Filipino approach to entrepreneurship. “A lot of the people we see are still focusing on having a business that they can call their own, but not necessarily growing it to become a national player or regional player or international player. For that reason, it seems that a number of the people we look at for Endeavor have some experience abroad. It seems that being outside of your home country gives you a different perspective on what you can do and where you can go. With the ecosystem Endeavor is supporting, however, we’re hoping that it will become the case that you don’t have to go abroad to experience these things. Maybe we can build the culture of dreaming big.”
While Evan remains committed to development work for the next few years, his future plans involve joining a thriving family business, which was also a big motivator for his return to the Philippines. He laughed as he told me that his family works in the poultry business, but he is eager and excited to one day be a part of it and discover ways to use it to do good. His vision for the Philippines is simple and hopeful:
“I think the last six years has put us on a different path altogether. No matter who becomes president or which politician is in power, it would be great for us to continue that. I’m not just talking about growth in terms of GDP, but about distributing the success to actually have everyone feel it. Both the government and private sector can work together to help develop that.”
Evan Chen graduated from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. He is currently a Senior Associate for Endeavor Philippines, and before that, he worked as the executive assistant for the Secretary of Finance and as the Director of Human Resources for Teach for the Philippines. His favorite thing about the Philippines is that people smile a lot!
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