How this entrepreneur learned that life on earth, including business, is about connecting to the least, the lost, and the last
By Andrea Zulueta-Lorenzana
In a talk given by Ateneo professor Dr. Bobby Guevara on the story of Exodus, when Moses was leading the Israelites from the clutches of the Egyptians to the promised land, right when they were on the precipice of the Red Sea, there was a palpable fear among the crowd. If they moved on, they would be subject to starvation in the desert where there was nothingness and uncertainty. If they stayed, they would have been subject to slavery, but at least they were already familiar with that kind of suffering. In both cases, death was almost a certainty. If you were an Israelite, which would you choose?
In the first few days of last year’s lockdown, when there was so much panic and uncertainty, my mother, our CEO, called a meeting on Facebook live with our 400+ staff. Without knowing how much we had in our bank accounts, she assured the staff that we would take care of their salaries even when they couldn’t go to work. Our mantra then was walang iwanan, no one gets left behind. Aside from just the financial aid, we launched Piandreflix, a daily Facebook live show where my mother, siblings, and I would come out every day to talk about anything to keep them informed or entertained, and mostly to calm their fears and worries.
I posted my cellphone number on our Facebook group. “If you need anything, message me.” Not many people asked for help. And when they did, it was very small amounts, P1,000, P2,000. It was really just about getting through the week. At one point, I stayed up until 2 a.m. chatting with a manicurist who just had a miscarriage. More often than not, it wasn’t about financial assistance.
If the lockdown had ended after a month, we would have gone back to normal, without much reflection. But it wore on. As we continued to pay salaries, we were given advice by well-meaning people.
“Put them on furlough.”
“The government allows no work, no pay.”
“They will get used to being paid even if they are not working.”
“How can you sustain this? It’s unsustainable. You will run yourselves to the ground.”
It was not easy. We knew we had a finite amount of cash, and it was earmarked for other projects. But we decided, given the unprecedented circumstances, that it was important to take care of our people.
When we did open, government guidelines on reduced occupancy and our fear of halted operations due to having an infected person forced us to create two teams in the salon. One team would come in to work from Sunday to Tuesday, another team for the rest of the week. At this point, we reviewed our finances. If we just paid our staff for the days they would come in, we would reduce our payroll by 60 percent. Since we now had rental obligations that were previously waived, it would be a big help, but I remember my mom saying, “When you had zero sales, you paid full salaries. Now that you have money coming in, you’re going to reduce salaries? That doesn’t make sense.” So we trudged on, even with reduced income. Each payroll was completed, each rental check deposited.
Again, well-meaning friends who found out about this had much to say.
“Do not pay them for what they did not earn.”
“They will be abusive.”
“They will take advantage.”
“How is it fair for some to come for three days and the others to come in four.”
And we kept quiet thinking in the back of our heads that they might be right.
Twelve months since, our fund has dwindled. We are surprised at how much we’ve lost. “It’s not that bad. It could have been worse,” we would tell each other, as we gave virtual high fives on a family Zoom call a few weeks ago. After one year of bracing for the worst, we have learned to live with more modest expectations. We celebrate small joys and small wins. As a family, we have also developed a certain level of detachment. We can rebuild everything in better times.
Through it all, I’ve been in touch with many entrepreneurs. Some have understandably chosen to cut their losses and closed their businesses. Many have put their staff on a no-work-no-pay basis since the beginning, putting some staff on furlough, taking all legal recourse to save on personnel costs. When we compare battle scars of how much business has taken a turn, it seems to me that their books look no different from ours. They ask me, “How will we survive?” And I see myself asking ourselves the same thing. We all lost a lot of money. But as we all know, there is a lot more to life than money.
The question was, if death was a certainty, what’s the difference between dying in the desert or dying in slavery? Dr. Bobby Guevarra explained that there were two kinds of dying. One is diminishing, and the other is freeing and life giving. If death is a certainty, in both instances, he asks, aren’t you dying anyway?
Last year’s many wake masses for friends and relatives have made me question my mortality, reflecting on my life’s trajectory, and whether the values and dreams I had when I was younger are still in line with who I want to be and what our business has become. My mom has been talking a lot about the inevitability of death—memento mori, from a Latin phrase that means “remember that you must die.” Because we’ve been stuck together in quarantine, our mealtimes always have these long reflections on death and legacy.
On our second Holy Week in lockdown, many people felt that the whole year has been one long Good Friday. Our suffering echoes that of Christ. For me, Jesus’s suffering on the cross also symbolizes great love. Jesus lived a life of radical loving. His life was all about connecting to the least, the lost, and the last and, since He is our true north, I guess, the challenge for us is how to be like Him. More specifically, my family and I ask ourselves how we can be like Jesus with a business like Piandre in this day and age? We’re still figuring this out.
We were surprised at how much we had lost, but we decided, given the unprecedented circumstances, that it was important to take care of our people.
One year later, our problems are not much different from before COVID-19. We still have staff problems. We still make many mistakes. I still have very irate clients calling my cellphone in the middle of the day. But I have to say we’ve also had small miracles. When one of our staff tested positive and we had to do contact tracing, we were met with compassion and concern by all of the clients we called. Not one client was angry. And when the problem subsided, the clients came back too. When one of our staff went through a monthlong hospitalization, we were wondering how she could stay in the hospital for so long without asking for financial assistance from management and we realized later that the staff had pooled money together for her hospital expenses.
Every day, we see the same problems, but every day we also experience many little joys and miracles. It’s a constant calibration for us to try to live out the values of Jesus in our lives and in our business.
Our constant reflection as a family keeps coming back to this: Is what we have enough? How can we use what we have to help more people? The past year has also made us closer, especially me and my siblings, and helped us make more solid decisions together. So this is where we are now. Like last year, we cannot see that far ahead, but we have enough light for the next step.