By Zsarlene B. Chua
BEYOND BEING AN ON-CALL, on-demand, housekeeping and cleaning service, Happy Helpers also prides itself in being a company which allows women – mostly mothers – to dream.
“We were working with mothers like me. We were working with women who at my age – I’m 38 years old – are telling me, ‘Ma’am, I’m too old. My dreams are for my children,’” Maan Sicam, co-founder of Happy Helpers, told BusinessWorld during an interview on Oct. 18 at the BPI Bldg. in Makati City.
“Women, when they become mothers, everything revolves around their children and husband [so much so] that you don’t have your own identity and life anymore other than your family,” she said, adding that this is something that hurts and frustrates her – that women her age have stopped dreaming for themselves, and that it’s not a problem exclusive to those in the lower socioeconomic classes.
She aims to solve that problem by not only helping the women she employs financially, but also helping them “realize their value” beyond being “just” a mother.
Happy Helpers started in 2014 and is currently working with 25 women who were hired from a Gawad Kalinga community in Taguig.
“We change their mindset and [teach them] to dream for themselves,” Ms. Sicam said.
The women earn P5,000 a month working four to five times a week for an average of five hours a day. Ms. Sicam said most of the women get to their homes by 3 to 4 p.m. so they still have time to be a mother.
Depending on the job assigned, a woman can earn an average of P300 a day, though larger jobs can get them P400-P450.
“The mothers are happy and they want to do what they’re doing with Happy Helpers,” she said, noting that some women who have been working with them for a time have begun thinking about opening a branch of Happy Helpers on their own.
Though at first she hesitated to name the venture as a social enterprise (“I thought being a social enterprise means you need to be a saint and that it has to be a non-profit”), she is now embracing the moniker after finding their goal of letting women in poor communities dream of better lives.
HOW IT STARTED
After following her husband, who was working for a multinational company, to London in 2008 and relocating their entire family in the process, Ms. Sicam recounted that at first she didn’t want to be a housewife.
“I thought: I didn’t study in Pisay (Philippine Science High School) and Ateneo just to wipe my children’s bum. I spent the first month crying,” she said.
But since housekeepers are expensive in London, she had to do much of the housekeeping on her own, save for the occasional babysitter who would come in a few times a month.
Looking back, she said that while it was challenging, she would not exchange the relationship she forged with her two daughters (she now has three children with another on the way).
Aside from the closeness with her children, she also discovered her love for cleaning, cooking, and organizing things. When the family moved to Sao Paulo in 2012, she followed the same arrangement she had settled on in London where Ms. Sicam took care of the house and someone would come in a few times a week to help with the more difficult jobs like cleaning the bathroom and changing sheets.
When they came back to the Philippines in 2014, Ms. Sicam looked for a housekeeper who would come in a few times a week and help her around the house (she admits that while she still does most of the cleaning, she is not able to do the ironing). “I thought maybe there’s a company in the Philippines where I could just do that, having someone come over twice a week, but I couldn’t find anyone offering the service,” she said, adding that that was when she got the idea of putting up her own company.
“So I thought maybe I could set up one because I at least knew what a client needed, though I didn’t know how to run a business. But I think this is something that’s urgently needed,” she explained.
She then asked her friend, Jo Bernardo Endaya, to join her in the venture.
Ms. Endaya, who also came back to the Philippines in 2014, wanted to focus on her yoga practice and caring for her newborn and didn’t want to go back to the corporate world, so Ms. Sicam got her to help her set up the business as she’s “the only friend who I knew had time and loved cleaning” as much as she did.
In October of 2014, they started asking around for where they could find women to clean houses for them and they were introduced to Gconomics – a group of women who wanted to support Gawad Kalinga and who focused on the women living in the Gawad Kalinga communities.
It was this group of women who made Ms. Sicam realize what a social enterprise is.
“I wanted it to be a business. I wanted it to be worth my while. They were the ones who explained to me that a social enterprise has to be a business, it has to be sustainable, it has to be profitable because charity is not sustainable,” she said.
Happy Helpers started with the encouragement of the ladies of Gconomics. Ms. Sicam said it was more like an experiment at first as they had no business plan, only a concept: providing part-time cleaning services to the homes that need it.
They started recruiting women from Gawad Kalinga communities in Taguig and initially had five women working for them.
Ms. Sicam said they ran the business out of Ms. Endaya’s garage and had an initial investment of P100,000 for the cleaning materials, from the rags (“we use microfiber cloths because the pranelas – rags from leftover cloth – from Divisoria don’t work”) to the vacuum cleaners. They provide the cleaning materials so their clients won’t have to trouble themselves.
“We were the drivers, we drove our cleaners to the jobs. We didn’t refuse any jobs,” she said.
There was a particularly large job they did in Quezon City, she recounted, where it took all the five women – and herself – to clean a huge house with equally huge glass windows.
Now, their current market includes newly-weds to older moms who value their privacy, though they do get a lot of jobs cleaning newly constructed houses or condominium units.
In 2015, Happy Helpers bought an L300 van to shuttle the cleaners to their jobs and back to their homes at the end of the day.
They are planning to buy one more van as the number of employees increases.
Ms. Sicam said they are actively recruiting more Happy Helpers – the company plans to recruit 1,000 women in five years starting 2018 and they are talking with local government units to pinpoint the communities and help vet prospective employees. She said they welcome women at any age as they have people in their late twenties to those well in their fifties.
Since they are investing in people this year, Ms. Sicam said they expect to be in the red (their first year saw them earn a net income of P2,000). They are also planning to develop a booking web site among other expansion efforts which will cost them an investment of P1 million.
Happy Helpers currently serves the Makati and Taguig areas though they also get jobs in Mandaluyong. As Ms. Sicam wants the women to get back to their homes relatively early, that’s also the reason why they only hire women who live in walking distance from their headquarters in Taguig.
“I want them to take their pay home in full and not have to pay for transportation,” she said.
Aside from providing jobs for women in poor communities, Happy Helpers also conducts monthly seminars where they invite speakers to talk about a wide variety of things – from proper hygiene to conduct. They also employ a merit system where every good deed or achievement gets a helper a star. Accumulating three stars will afford the helper a kilo of rice.
“We encourage them to dream. Because, why not? Declare your dreams then do what you need to do to achieve those dreams,” she said.
Aside from housekeeping, Ms. Sicam said she sees the future of Happy Helpers as a one-stop-shop for people who need services like basic plumbing, fixing stuff, or even part-time drivers (“that’s why our name is Happy Helpers”) but stressed that she wants to focus on having an all-female workforce.
Happy Helpers was recently named as one of the finalists of BPI Foundation’s BPI Sinag business challenge for social enterprises, or businesses that target the triple bottom line of planet, people, and profit.