Like a true multi-tasker, Henry Motte-Munoz was walking through the bustling streets of Makati on his way to another meeting when he hopped on a call with me last week. When I asked why he was walking, he answered that he “refused to take taxis” and would rather battle through Makati traffic to get to where he needed to be. This one response, alone, tells you the type of person Henry is: bold, dogged, and unapologetically real. This also explains why he was recently named one of Forbes Asia’s “30 Under 30” (very. big. deal.).
So with jeepney horns blaring and sidewalk vendors heckling in the background, we spoke about Henry’s experiences as a Filipino-French entrepreneur in Manila and the nuances of working in the Philippines’ education sector. Below is our conversation.
Michi: I want to start at the very beginning, since I realized I know very little about your background. What was it like for you growing up?
Henry: Well, I lived in European cities like London and Paris and Zurich, but I was spending a lot of time in Manila and my home province of Pampanga. I have probably spent more time in Pampanga than Manila, actually.
Michi: There must have been jarring differences between all the places you lived. Has that affected the way you view the Philippines at all?
Henry: Definitely. When I look at the Philippines, I don’t really think about it in the Manila-centric way a lot of us tend to do. If you grow up being close to the province, you see that the type of inequality that exists in Manila and the inequality that exists in the province are very different. At the same time, you’ll find that lack of good information permeates across Philippine society both in terms of geographies and income level. I’d like to think that I can see opportunities in the provinces because I grew up there. Manila has changed but so has Pampanga. The economic development that’s possible there is just as strong if not stronger than Manila because you’re almost starting from scratch. For example, in provinces, it’s easier to apply progressive urban planning because it has not been through the type of development that Manila has yet. I think this has helped me understand the relationship between the provinces and Manila and this has actually helped in my work with Edukasyon.
Michi: I know you’ve always been proud of your Filipino and French heritage, but how do you grapple with being both those things and living in two cultures?
Henry: You pick the best of both worlds. There are things I identify more with being French, others with being Filipino. For example, I am much more direct than the average Filipino. I will say what I think. Regardless, you cannot attribute your entire personality to your culture. There are millions of Filipinos and we all speak and think differently. At the end of the day, you form your own personality. I am still different from the other French-Filipinos I’ve met. It’s about the choices you make as a person.
Michi: Do you feel that being Filipino-French has changed the way people perceive you?
Henry: Definitely. In some situations, people look at me, see that I look different, and think: “How can you understand my plight?” A lot of people initially think that I’m probably a white boy whose family owns an hacienda. But if I was really that well-off, I wouldn’t be paying off student loans! I’ve never gotten into Harvard or LSE based on my family name, and I owe a lot to the hard work of my grandparents and parents. These assumptions disappear when people learn about my background, and as long as you have good intentions, people will be able to see that. Luckily, I’m operating in fields where a lot of people care. It matters less whether I’m foreign or not, but whether they believe in the cause for education.
Michi: Why did you move back to the Philippines?
Henry: I moved back because I care and because I think there’s a real opportunity. Higher education in this country is broken in the sense that we’re spending 6 billion a year on it and we still end up with so many unemployed grads, so many kids who can’t afford college, and so many employers who complain about unfilled jobs. When you have a system that’s broken like that, it’s an exciting problem to fix but it’s also a great economic opportunity.
Michi: What has been the hardest part about moving back?
Henry: I always felt that I would be prepared knowing about corruption, etc., but the hardest part has been seeing how corrupt some people can actually be. Privately owned, respectable companies explain to me how they wine and dine guidance counselors, essentially bribing them. Another person once told me to my face: “Poor people don’t deserve a good education. If they did, they would move to better schools. Even if it would be profitable, I wouldn’t want to help the poor.” How on earth can someone say something like that? But I remind myself: there are progressive people and unprogressive people everywhere. For every person like that, I have met five great people who are so inspiring–who do not earn much, but are trying so hard to give everyone a quality education. You just have to accept that while a lot of the conversations are going to be negative, these positive conversations make it worth it. We also have to stop talking about poverty and corruption as part of Filipino culture. It’s not.
Michi: I know that much of your time in the Philippines now has been devoted to Edukasyon.ph. How did you initially conceive this idea?
Henry: I was in the Philippines working on Bantay.ph, when I was speaking to my cousin about his college application. I was quite shocked at how uninformed he and his friends were. They were kids going to private schools in Manila, and their standard answer was: “I want to go to Ateneo, La Salle or UP, and once I’m there, I’ll figure out what I want to study.” In Filipino culture, education is important. That’s great. Filipinos don’t have to be sold on the value of an education. The problem is: education is not as well understood as it should be. So the mentality defaults to “the more education the better.” Longer degrees are better than shorter degrees, and more expensive degrees are better too. Parents think that putting their kid in an expensive college means that they will get a better education, which is not true. At Edukasyon, we’re trying to get people to understand that cost and quality are not necessarily correlated, and same with duration. You can possibly do an inexpensive, good-quality tech-voc course and you’ll get more employment chances that way. That’s where Edukasyon comes in.
Michi: That’s amazing. In general, do you think that the non-profit sector is the most effective way to make impact in the Philippines, or is there another path?
Henry: I think it depends on your sector and on the type of impact you want to have. My general preference is for for-profit social enterprises or enterprises that get aligned with a social mission. The reason I say this is that government changes every 6 years. You can have the most idealistic person on the best project but that can be derailed by politics or bureaucracy. You’re one veto or one corrupt policy away from getting derailed. When you’re in government, there’s a lot of resources and smart people but there are also a lot of bad apples. And it’s hard to navigate around those bad apples. In the structure of non-profit sectors, on the other hand, you’re constantly begging for funding. There’s also this expectation that you shouldn’t be paying people too much, which makes it difficult to attract top talent. It’s great to have people who are passionate, but you also have to reward them. People have to feed families. You cut yourself off from special talent if you can’t afford to pay them. For now, I’m still comfortable in the for-profit sector.
Michi: If there was one thing you could tell someone who was deciding whether or not to come back home, what would it be?
Henry: Going home is exciting and you can have great impact. But you need to come back with your eyes wide open about the challenges you will face and you will need to make an effort to reintegrate, whether that’s by brushing up on Tagalog, taking up a masters in a Filipino university, spending time in the province, or working in government for a few months. You must be armed with patience, and also a little bit of humor, as you get used to a new type of environment again.
Michi: Last question: what is your favorite thing about the Philippines?
Henry: The spirit of Bayanihan–that you’re never alone. It’s a very Filipino thing in that you’re never alone. Whatever your endeavor, you will find help.
Henry Motte-Munoz attended the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School before founding Edukasyon.ph. He recently returned to the Philippines to dedicate himself fully to working for the cause of education.
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