Our impact, their voices

Rejected and discriminated: From toilet cleaner to business owner

Zee never gave up on her dream to start a business despite rejection, discrimination, a pandemic and a super typhoon. A hybrid trade fair organized by the ILO and the Women's Business Council Philippines, with the support of J.P. Morgan, gives Zee more chances to grow her business.

Feature | Cebu, Philippines | 26 September 2022
At the hybrid trade fair, Zee met a new customer who purchased 40 kilos of her homemade chorizo, a sweet Filipino sausage from Cebu. ©ILO/M. Rimando
CEBU, PHILIPPINES - While scrubbing tiles and cleaning toilets as a janitor, Zee Pono began to realize her dream of one day starting a business and selling her homemade recipes.

Back in college, Zee asked people to try her own recipe of chorizo, a Filipino sweet sausage with origins in Cebu. She even attempted to sell on Friendster and Multiply, two formerly prominent social networking sites for sharing photographs, videos, and blogs in the Philippines. People thought it was crazy selling online when it was meant for chatting and networking.

Each time I clean the toilet bowl, I always tell myself this is not going to be forever. I have a lot of experiences when I am bullied. It is a form of discrimination that has hurt me, but I am also using it to inspire and motivate myself."

Zee Pono, entrepreneur
Zee also felt rejected and discriminated against as a woman and a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) community. Even her friends called her names.

“Each time I clean the toilet bowl, I always tell myself this is not going to be forever. I have a lot of experiences when I am bullied. It is a form of discrimination that has hurt me, but I am also using it to inspire and motivate myself,” Zee recalled.

Later, Zee worked as a Project Manager, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she lost her job. As people waited in line to get aid from the government, Zee kept her only money, a 500-peso bill (US$ 10) in her pocket and prayed hard that she would survive the pandemic.

At age 36, Zee had a vision to change one person’s life, one grind at a time. She used what money she had left in her pocket to start a business, but she was turned down 21 times.

“I asked 22 of my closest friends to support. Sad to say, 21 of them rejected me. Three of them even laughed. They told me that my idea to sell would fail and that I could not compete with the giants,” Zee painfully remembered.

According to Zee, the 22nd person she talked to believed her and bought everything she was selling that day. Grind meant hustling hard from the ground up to Zee, so she named her business Grnd Up.

Zee sells her homemade recipes like sauteed shrimp, fish chips, bottled turnip, fermented silver fish, bottled bitter gourd, pickled papaya, chilli garlic, and her famous chorizo, a Filipino sausage that comes from Cebu. ©ILO/M. Rimando
“There is no letter I in the name of the business, Grnd Up. Even if I started from the ground, it would not just be about me. It would be about our customers and employees as well. We went from having one customer to having over a hundred and counting," said Zee.

In the next few weeks, the business grew. But it was humbling for Zee to walk more than 10 kilometres back and forth to sell her chorizo by knocking on doors. She also launched an online pet store called Animaux Krib, with a portion of the proceeds going to animal rescue.

Zee was unable to operate her business for more than a month when Super Typhoon Rai (Odette) devastated Cebu. She opened her home to those affected and used her products to feed the community.

Because of this, Go Negosyo, an advocacy arm of the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship (PCE) awarded Zee as an inspiring Filipina and most promising microenterprise. She was the first woman in the Visayas region to be recognized for her tenacity and resilience, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the super typhoon.

Zee now has 15 employees and is still hiring more. She wanted to change someone’s life through employment. Her goal in business is to have a bigger impact as an entrepreneur, as a Filipino, and as an individual.

“What is special about this employment? These are the underserved people in the society. These include the alcohol sobbers, the drug surrenderers, members of the LGBTIQ+ community, single mothers, even cancer survivors, and people who lack the educational attainment. I see it as a chance to employ them because they have less opportunities in the community,” Zee remarked.

Her desire to grow her business led her to the Women Strong Hybrid Trade Fair of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Women’s Business Council Philippines, under the ILO Rebuilding Better Project funded by J.P. Morgan.

“The project helps women entrepreneurs in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and change their business models to be more sustainable and resilient. It does this by making it easier for them to get access to important support services,” said Sara Andersson, ILO Project Technical Officer.

The ILO Rebuilding Better Project works with partners, including the government, workers’ and employers’ organizations, and the private sector to help small businesses get better access to training, financial services, and market information. This also meant growing their online presence and using digital technology.

The hybrid trade fair featured products of women-led enterprises in Cebu in addition to small women-owned businesses. It gave Zee the chance to not only sell in person, but also be a part of the online store for almost a month and connect with buyers online.

Zee said she wanted to be an employer of choice because she wanted to change people's lives through employment. ©ILO/M. Rimando
Many people went to Zee's booth at the trade show. On the third day, a new customer from Mindanao who had tried Zee's homemade chorizo came back and bought 40 kilos, which increased her sales.

Zee felt like crying on the inside because she could never have imagined how the trade fair would open so many doors for her.

“At the trade fair, I was able to meet right-minded people that I looked up to. I met empowered and optimized women doing well in their craft. Strong, powerful women with a vision and mission to help other women,” Zee shared.

Zee thinks of COVID-19 in a positive way. She said that it now stands for Coming Out Victorious, Inspired and Driven (COVID) during and after the period of isolation. She now has a regular space in the mall where the trade fair was held. This helped her sales and customers grow.

The future is always uncertain. Still, Zee remains excited, and she urged everyone to never give up.

“If people tend to humiliate you or to call you crazy, never give up on yourself. Hold on and believe that whatever your life’s passion and purpose, you will surely succeed,” Zee concluded.