A Filipina Entrepreneur Struggles to Succeed
The petite lady, beaming with charm and confidence, walked into a room full of leaders and achievers from the Filipino American community. Gina Lopez Alexander was being honored that day.
Hers is a story of a Filipina entrepreneur who rose to the top amidst adversity. Nine years ago, Gina opened a kiosk at the upscale Hollywood and Highland complex, peddling her one-of-a-kind photo bags. Manning the store between 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. took up most of her daily routine. After the store closed, she would proceed to Starbucks where she earned seven dollars an hour working until 3:30 am. This back-breaking daily routine paid her bills.
Gina recalls, “I was just laid off at a handbag designer company due to a merger. I was totally depressed. I was living near Hollywood at the time and saw the Hollywood and Highland being built. Then I saw a sign about opening a kiosk store. I quickly drew some sketches of handbags that met the required needs for the grand opening. I stood in line with hundreds of vendors and my product was accepted! I didn’t have any money at all. I hustled and asked friends and family to help. My friend Matt Stone gave me $10,000. Matt said it was his gift to my husband, Richard, and me. I was in tears. I was touched by the kindness of Matt’s heart and to see my dreams come true. I worked super hard in turn.”
In two years, the photo handbags were being sold at Saks, Nordstrom, HSN, ICE Accessories and others. Gina made $1.2 million on her second year.
Passion to Succeed
Gina’s bags were featured by Oprah Winfrey in her top-rated show. She was included in Go Negosyo, Joey Concepcion’s book that showcased 55 inspiring stories of Filipino women entrepreneurs. Her A-list clientele includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keyes, Usher, Faith Hill and Kelly Ripa, to name a few.
Gina’s passion to succeed was ignited by her personal setbacks. She and Richard lost three kids through miscarriages and a failed adoption—they were all set to adopt a newborn but the mother took the baby back.
“With these devastating incidents, I created the photo handbag as an outlet. It became, in a sense, ‘my baby.’ I dove into [the process of] creating the bags. My main motivation was to raise money to adopt a baby, but it also became a healing process for me.”
When she spoke as an awardee at the recent anniversary luncheon of the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), Gina pointed out that one of her dreams is to help inspire other Filipinos to take risks and become entrepreneurs. The CEO and designer of Gina Alexander, Inc. posed a challenge: “Instead of becoming a nurse, dream of owning your own hospital or a chain of convalescent homes. Instead of becoming a chef, own your restaurant.” She was misty-eyed as she narrated her struggle to rise from her personal tragedies and become the million-dollar success story that she is now.
Gina’s drive was honed early in her life by her parents, Cesar Lopez and Esmeralda Lopez-Bell, who were among the first to own a Denny’s franchise. “My mother is a huge inspiration to me,” said the woman who was raised in Southern California and Hawaii. “She is always there to lift me up and help me not to give up. She not only has excellent people skills but she also gave me the fighting spirit. Running a business is tough but through faith and her skills, I was able to make it through anything, as she did.”
As for her dad, who has passed away, she shared, “My father was a dreamer and a doer. He would always get the job done. He would say something, and next thing I know, he was buying a business, purchasing a hotel, or buying apartments. He would drive by places and say he wants to own that someday. One of the gems that he shared with me was to be my own boss. He would ask me, ‘Gina, do you want one paycheck or 18 paychecks?’ I didn’t understand that then, but he stood in front of our apartment complex and pointed out the 18 units. I was just 10 or 12 and that was the time when I understood leveraging. Another gem he shared was to dream big, not to think small. On his deathbed, he said, ‘Take care of our people—the Filipino people.’”
Gina confided that she was also influenced by her grandparents who later adopted her. She revealed, “My grandparents adopted me when I was young. They traveled to Hawaii a lot. They added Aquino to my name. I was legally living with them. They raised me, so I lived in Hawaii half of the time and in the Torrance-Carson, California area half of the time.”
It was her step-grandfather, Lazaro Aquino, though, who was the most influential person to her. Gina reminisced, “He loved me so much he would call me the apple of his eye. I could do no wrong! He was the greatest example of a spiritual man. I would watch him do the same routine everyday, go to church and serve all day. He was quiet but his actions spoke very loud to me. He would take me to the beach in San Pedro and we would chisel the opihis (limpets, a delicacy in Hawaii) off the rocks and bring them back home and make soup for everyone. It was from our routine that I learned to enjoy doing things and to never quit. Building little by little makes a woman prosper.”
Recently, Gina was chosen by a lady named Dani Johnson to be in her mentoring program for nine weeks. She only picks 30 out of thousands each year. According to Gina, “Dani became a millionaire at age 22, lived in Hawaii, was previously a broke cocktail waitress with no college degree. Dani takes me out of my comfort zone, helps me with my closing ratio, and helps me balance my life with my family. Right now, I’m being trained to build a dynasty. My homework is pretty hardcore. One of my assignments is to talk to a thousand people a week. She also told me to have a day of rest—no cell phones, no computers, no Facebook, just rest. I can’t even do laundry. Oprah practices this too. It’s to prepare my mind for the busy week. I am already seeing results in all my businesses. I don’t just have the handbag business. I am a business developer.”
Gina has also appeared on “Dr. Phil,” “Real Simple,” “HSN,” and “QVC.” Right now, MTV Style Network is looking into a show on her handbags. Gina’s creations will be on a reality show with Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas, formerly of the band TLC. She even had her own reality show.
Gina wishes that her father was alive to see all her accomplishments. “My mom says I’m just like my father from the way I arrange my desk to my work ethic to his giving heart. I started my business with no money but just a dream to raise money to adopt my daughter Katelyn. I never knew that my business would be a success and [would] enable me to set up a foundation for the kids in the Philippines. Now we help a village that rehabilitates sexually abused children. I support the workers who give 100 percent of their life to loving these kids and helping build up their morale.”
She acknowledged that Richard and her entire family are very supportive in everything that she does. “My husband runs the company and he is the CFO,” she says. “He helps with marketing and leads all the meetings. His gift is understanding people’s talents and raising leaders. I wouldn’t have this company without him.”
Gina is very grateful that after her heartbreaking failure to have biological children and then to adopt one child, she and Richard eventually got to adopt two kids, Katelyn and Makena. Gina makes sure that they feel more important than her business. “I have realized that they may not want to be handbag makers in the future, but I know that they will have their own businesses one day. I am teaching the next generation not to rely on corporate America or work for other people.”
Her dream is to help develop leaders who will make the Philippines as self-supporting as possible. “I don’t believe in co-dependence and being a caretaker for others. My dream is to bring a leadership program to raise leaders. I truly believe the orphans are the future kings and queens of our country.”
During this economic downturn, Gina does not deny that she is also affected. “Our handbags are luxury items. Many of our customers are buying less expensive items like the cosmetic bags, wallets, and journals.” And just like any business nowadays, Gina Alexander Inc. is cutting back on expenses to keep afloat. “We should do a reality show on the way we cope with the economic situation,” she quips.
Asked what she would advise an aspiring businesswoman, Gina says she would ask her to “Go to www.danijohnson.com and take the First Steps to Success and Creating a Dynasty. Dani Johnson has given me the results I needed in my business and is teaching me to triple my income even during a recession.”
She added, “You have to know what you want and desire to help many.”
Lastly, she said, “Be humble and teachable. Consider others better than you.”
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