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Lenora Cabili Commencement Speech June 7, 2019
“When purpose spurs your life, it will manifest in ways you can never imagine because purpose is always outward looking, always for others and not for personal gain. The burden is light when hard work is for a purpose.”
The Beacon Academy was honored to have Lenora “Len” Cabili founder and creative director of Filipino lifestyle brand Filip + Inna as the Beacon Academy's Commencement Speaker for our 2019 Graduation. Here is Ms. Cabili’s Commencement Speech in full given to our graduating cohort on June 7, 2019
Beacon Commencement Speech
June 7, 2019
To the graduating class of Beacon for 2019, it is with deep pleasure to meet you and stand here before you to speak in your commencement. You are celebrating an important marker in your life and you are turning the page and letting another chapter in your story unfold.
I am here to share my story thus far.
I was born in Iligan City - a small industrial town in Mindanao. When I was growing up, there was only one thing that you would hear from my lips - I wanted to be a wife and a mom. And so I thought I was going to have this linear life - I was going to get good grades in high school - go to University, graduate and get a good job, then I would meet a nice man, get married, and have 3 kids.
I did get good grades in high school, I ended up going to the University of the Philippines and earned a degree, after college I got involved with our family retail business. I thought I was in the right path, en-route to a life I dreamed of.
In 2000, right in the middle of earning a Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship at the Asian Institute of Management - I was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer.
Thankfully I had a friendly type of cancer - that’s what my doctor said - true enough, it was so friendly that it stayed with me up until 6 years ago. For around 13 years, I went through treatments until I had used up my lifetime allotment for radioactive iodine.
When life dealt me the cancer card, I was changed forever. Somehow death became a reality - and it forced me to think of what I was going to leave behind.
HOW YOU CAN LEARN FROM FAILURES AND NOT GIVE UP.
The cancer diagnosis was a low point in my life but four years into my bout with cancer, I hit rock bottom. Everything around my life just fell apart. Financially, emotionally, you name it - I had it all. I need to share this very intimate moment - at the lowest point of my life. I was on my bathroom floor sobbing, crying, the world had caved in around me. I could not even bring myself to share with my family what I was going through because I was ashamed for bringing myself to that low point. I wanted to go home to my hometown Iligan to see my Papa but I didn’t have money to do so - and as I cried out to God, I could feel and I could hear him saying to me, “Len, I am your Father too. And I’m here with you.” A sliver of hope pierced through the gloom of my heart and I said out loud, “Okay God, you and I are in this together.” I got up, dried my tears and first thing I did was to admit and take full responsibility for my mistakes then resolved to change.
One of my favorite writers Tim Keller has said, “Let all your failures and disappointments and weaknesses drive you like a nail into the love of God.” It sure did for me.
HOW PAIN AND OBSTACLES CAN BE USED TO FIND PURPOSE AND GOOD. PAIN IS GOD'S MEGAPHONE TO THE WORLD.
I started praying for purpose in my life. As I prayed, the word ‘fashion’ would come up. I had stayed away from the competitive world of fashion, yet it was what I was being called to do. I remember talking to God and surrendering with a condition - I said, “Okay, all right I will do fashion, but it has to be some kind of special fashion.”
In 2007, I took a trip to New York and met a Textile Designer - as I was sitting in his studio that was filled with beautiful patterns inspired from different parts of the world, I started flipping through his collection of books. I noticed that he had encircled different villages around Asia and he had written a particular skill that they each had. It was a eureka moment for me as I sat there and thought to myself, I wanted to do the same thing and start working with Indigenous artisans around the Philippines.
The Philippines has a history of varied cultural influences. These influences come from previous colonization, deriving mainly from the culture of Spain and the United States. Despite the influences, the old Asian culture of Filipinos has been retained and are evident in their way of life, beliefs and customs. Our country is physically fragmented into 7,107 islands which naturally nurtured a diversity in indigenous culture. I always say that Culture is our Fingerprint. Our traditions need to be a part of our everyday life as it is what defines us as a people, as a nation.
In 2008, I founded a brand, I didn’t want an eponymous line but I wanted a brand name that would point back to the Philippines. I started with the most obvious - I am a Filipina. Thus the brand became Filip + Inna.
HOW IT IS IMPORTANT TO TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR FILIPINO ROOTS AND TO GIVE BACK. MINDANAO AND FILIP + INNA.
Filip + Inna is inspired by artistic and indigenous traditions around the Philippines. Tradition is the warp and contemporary is the weft, weaving together to create timeless and unique pieces of clothing that reflect the culture of the Philippines. We bring into each garment, ancient techniques of weaving, embroidery and beadwork from different Indigenous groups around the Philippines. The human hand is seen and felt in each creation as the artisan breathes life into it. We believe that to take inspiration from our culture is the best way to honor it. There is nothing like the work of the hands.
Our mission is to preserve or revive traditions that are in danger of becoming lost. Eleven years ago, we started working with 5 artisans from the Tboli of South Cotabato. We are now working with 22 Indigenous groups across the country and the 5 artisans have multiplied into round 400 artisans. These artisans use a skill that is innate to their indigenous group, giving them an opportunity to earn a living. It is our hope that through the pieces we create, a deeper appreciation for Philippine culture will be spurred.
Each piece of clothing takes a journey of its own - through the sea, across rivers and up the mountains. The farthest group that I work with is the Tagakaolo. To get to them, I have to take a 2 hour flight to Mindanao, on to a 2 hour drive up the mountains then a 6 hour hike up and down a few mountains to reach their village.
While the world says it is all about the product. We say that for Filip + Inna, the starting point and the end point is the artisan. Our initial contact with any artisan is to encourage their creative spirit. They are given a blank canvas and are given free reigns to work on the garment whichever way they please. Then we eventually come in and work on the design together with them in a way that complements their skills and culture.
Working with artisans can be daunting as you navigate through distance and different sub-cultures. But what goes on between us is not a transaction but a covenant, a deep relationship. So it means standing beside them and no matter what obstacles face us, we resolve to work things out. We stand side by side, taking the step together.
The stories abound and if I were to share all of them, there won’t be enough pages to a book. But there is one story that I need to share.
Last year, we did a shoot in Palawan and paired a traditional Tagakaolo blouse with a Bikini. When it was published by the stylist in his column, there were reactions - everyone was shouting Cultural Appropriation. The Tagakaolo community was offended and it practically gave everyone the license to criticize the brand, myself, and the work we do with the artisans. It was a humbling time and for the first time in the 10 years that I was working with the artisans - I made a mistake and this mistake was cause to be subjected to online social bashing.
While everyone had something to say - I resolved not to read anything people were saying but decided to fly down to Saranggani to meet with the elders and apologize personally. I remember while waiting for them to call me into the office of the Mayor - I had time to reflect. Of course I was scared - the Tagakaolo is one group that has a special place in my heart and I was worried I was going to be forbidden to continue to work with them.
When I was finally called in - I faced 17 Tribal leaders together with the Municipal Mayor - all very hurt and upset over the photo. They took turns expressing that hurt and disappointment to me and to the others who were there. When I was given the chance to stand up and say something - I kept it simple by apologizing and taking full blame for what happened and said that I was willing to accept whatever consequence.
Their response to my apology was something I did not expect. First, they acknowledged their appreciation in my effort to see them personally to sincerely apologize. Second, they confirmed and acknowledged the good work we were doing with the women of Laginan. Third, they shared with me the Tagakaolo value on forgiveness. They enumerated certain obligations that I had to do which included a ritual for forgiveness. In the end they said, once they forgive, it is not mentioned ever again.
What a beautiful lesson learned out of something that was very painful. Forgiveness prevailed. Their forgiveness was all that mattered to me. What people said about me during that time was silenced by the grace given by the Tagakaolo. Last October, the whole team went down to Saranggani to meet with the elders, we performed the ritual. We were granted forgiveness and the ritual ended with hugs and tears all around. The work continues and I am most grateful
Each visit to the villages of the artisans - I always come away with important lessons - they have taught me by example: love of family, contentment and forgiveness.
HOW BEAUTIFUL THINGS TAKE TIME. TIME IS SAVORED RATHER THAN RUSHED THROUGH. PROCESS OF FILIP+INNA.
I am so thankful that through Filip + Inna - we are on the road less travelled. While the world screams of more and faster, we take our time to create. I often say that we are the turtles of fashion - working with artisans has taught me to slow down and appreciate each step of the journey. At whatever stage we are in, I have learned to be all there. This way of living and doing things have shown me that the beauty of patience is the unmeasured distinct beauty of the product.
The low points in my life - the moments I have had to grieve for lost dreams and lost love. What I didn’t see was pain redirecting me, pain was producing in me something that no other experience could do.
Let me quote CS Lewis on pain : God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
FINDING PURPOSE LATE IN LIFE AND THE IMPORTANCE OF FINDING A PATH WITH PURPOSE.
There were times when I thought I had wasted years - I was regretting not figuring things out in my life earlier on. My agonizing, unplanned detour I realize now was not a waste because I have seen God’s unexpected work. I have come to realize and accept that There are other beautiful stories out there other than what I had decided on and wanted in my head.
Looking back, I see now that grief or pain do not tell the whole story. Tears do not reflect weakness, but it tells us that we live in a broken world. I have seen how God has used my pain, and he has used it for good. God showed me that my suffering was not pointless - no matter how painful. There was a purpose for it. Little did I know then that 15 years later, I would be living a life that is more than I could ever imagine. Look, it has even brought me here in front of you.
How it is important to find fulfilment not just in yourself but in what you do for others.
When purpose spurs your life, it will manifest in ways you can never imagine because purpose is always outward looking, always for others and not for personal gain. The burden is light when hard work is for a purpose.
When people give praises, what they don’t realize is that behind those supposedly accomplishments you will find hard work and personal sacrifices - and most of all, those were moments I fully depended and trusted God.
In life, there is no such thing as self-made. You are where you are now because of people around you equipping you. Everyone has contributed to where you are now - your ancestors, your parents, your family, your teachers, your school and your friends, the list goes on.
(Mentions the graduates individually)
This is my prayer for you :
Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Be full of wonder and live life with purpose. Always carry hope in your heart, it will carry you through the tough times. Let God be God - Trust him to work things out.
Take courage that God has wonderful plans for you.
I hope this is not the last time that we meet and that somewhere in the future our paths will cross and we will share a moment to tell each other of the ongoing story we are living out.
Your story is meant to be heard. Each one of you have a special and unique story to share with the people that you will come across.
Congratulations to you, wherever your steps take you - we hope that you will always return home to your motherland. She needs you.