Mylene Abiva was already 48 years old when she climbed her first mountain, Tarak Ridge, with her sons. This was a level-5 climb that takes six hours to complete and was not recommended for beginners. Instead of shirking from the endeavor, Mylene stepped up to the challenge.
Since then, Mylene has made several Philippine and international treks, including Mount Whistler in Canada and Mount Fuji in Japan. In both conquering mountains and running her business, Mylene is fearless. “Either I get traumatized by the experience, or I grow stronger,” she says. “To reach a summit, it takes a lot of physical, emotional, and mental will. By taking things one step at a time, you strengthen your character.”
FROM CHILD OF THE OWNER TO CEO
A business graduate, Mylene was a trade relations officer in the US when her family asked her to come home to help manage their business.
FELTA Books Inc, as it was known at the time, sold educational materials and learning tools. The company faced an uphill battle during the Asian Financial Crisis which began in 1998. The country was coming from a revolution, and the change of leadership created a volatile business environment. Purchase orders made by the Department of Education disappeared as government officials were abruptly replaced. FELTA had to settle payments for imports despite a wildly fluctuating dollar. When the order arrived, the company was left with containers of the shipment and no one from the new government was willing to receive and pay for it. Things were so bad that Mylene’s father contemplated selling the business.
“Even if we sold it, may utang pa rin tayo,” Mylene recalls convincing her father. “I told him, lalaban tayo. Just give me 2 to 3 years, I’ll turn this company around.”
The process of saving the company came with its own set of challenges. As the Child of the Owner, Mylene’s employees weren’t welcoming of her suggestions. “Sinabi ng isang ahente, ‘hindi mo naman alam kung gaano kahirap magbenta.’ Ang sakit n’on. I realized I had to go out on the field.” She joined school caravans with their Franchise business operators to gain practical insight into how to sell their books. “I had to walk the talk. I couldn’t implement all the changes I want without proof that it was going to work.”
NAVIGATING THE FAMILY IN A FAMILY BUSINESS
Her next challenge was navigating the dynamics of being the daughter of the boss. “My parents set up the business. Sometimes they would say, anak ka lang so sumunod ka sa akin.” At the time, Mylene’s mother handled the company’s marketing and finance without any real documentation or commission structure. Agents could get 30% commission or 35% depending on the mom’s mood. Mylene also compares their early business set-up to a sari-sari store. “We had so many products that were not selling. Sometimes we had distributors who would take the products and not pay back the company.”
Mylene made it her goal to instill the professionalism that she learned from the US into their family business. She led the company through digitalization. Files and orders were computerized, and contracts were drawn out for their franchise business operators.
“Entrepreneurs should always see the bottom line,” says Mylene. “To this day, I read financial statements to find ways for the business to move forward. Yung mga non-earning products, tinanggal ko. Mag-focus tayo sa cash cow products. Financial management and the right product mix is important to sustain the business.”
Mylene’s sound business decision gained her parents’ trust and in 1999, she was made president of FELTA Multimedia Inc. As part of their succession plan, FELTA’s management structure was formalized to have Mylene oversee the financials, management, and marketing of the company, while the rest of the family became shareholders. “Other family businesses get in trouble kasi nagkaka-inggitan. The siblings fight, the in-laws come in. So we said, let’s protect our business.”
ENTREPRENEUR, TECH ADVOCATE, AND WOMAN
Under Mylene’s management, FELTA Multimedia continues to innovate by bringing educational materials to learners. The company attends technology shows to discover new ways of making education more engaging for students. They brought LEGO Education to Philippine classrooms and started a robotics program for schools.
In the process, Mylene garnered numerous awards including the ASEAN Special Award for Women Entrepreneurs and the ASEAN Business Award, and SME Excellence Award for Innovation, both in 2022. She was also honored as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipino Women on LinkedIn in 2021. Her other awards include Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Philippines, ASEAN Business Leader (Women’s category), ASIA CEO Most Innovative Company, Asia’s Top Outstanding Woman Marketer, and the UN Women Empowerment Awardee for Leadership Commitment, and Gender Responsive Marketing, among others.
“Science and technology should be enjoyable, interactive, and engaging,” Mylene notes. “Students shouldn’t be anxious to learn. Science and technology are the keys to nation-building.”
Besides training teachers, FELTA kicked off the Philippine Robotics Society, which started with just 8 brave schools and has since grown to 1,800 schools all over the country.
In 2000, FELTA organized the first Philippine Robotics Olympiad as an avenue where schools can showcase their technological brilliance. Just a year later, the Philippine Robotics National Team competed in the World Robot Olympiad in Beijing, where they won a silver medal in the technical category. This solidified Mylene’s conviction that Filipinos can compete at an international level when given the right opportunities and support. Every year since the Philippine Robotics National Team has been winning awards for the country.
Knowing firsthand the challenges that women in technology face, Mylene uses her power as the Chairperson of the Women’s Business Council Philippines to create more opportunities and skills training for Women in tech. Throughout the pandemic, they held webinars and linked up women tech professionals to streamline the skills, upskilling, and employment pipeline as examples of interventions.
Through the Women’s Business Council, Mylene has also worked alongside government agencies to help inform the public about the Safe Space Act, also known as the Bawal Ang Bastos Law, and promote the Magna Carta for Women. With the Department of Trade and Industry, the Council also crafts women's economic empowerment programs to make marketing and finance tools accessible to more women entrepreneurs. Mylene also established the Women Strong Network which brings together women from different regions in the country, including conflict areas like Marawi, to create a country-wide network of women cooperatives in diverse fields like agribusiness, digital technology, weaving, and manufacturing.
A FEARLESS FUTURE
The financial lessons Mylene learned in running her business, also apply to how she manages her personal funds. She is a believer in compartmentalizing her money for different purposes and always has emergency funds. “The Asian Financial crisis caught us off-guard. Wala kaming rainy-day money. That’s what I learned: when times are rough, you have to be prepared.”
Another money tip that Mylene shares is to avoid debt by self-financing. “If you can self-finance your operations, do it. Too many businesses dig themselves a deeper hole because they borrow too much and they can’t pay their way out of it because of interest rates.”
”You have to take good care of your name,” says Mylene. Being an irresponsible borrower can destroy your credit standing, reputation, and ultimately your business. “The reputation of your name and your company name can affect your business relationships.”
Through all of her accomplishments and colored journey as an entrepreneur, Mylene’s vision of the future is one where more young people engage in STEM. Living in a country that faces many challenges in the field of education doesn’t daunt her either. “My dream is to fill the gap between education and industry. Parents would often ask me, ‘Anong kikitain ng anak ko dyan?’ Ang gusto nila, BPO, mag-call center, o mag-nurse. But there are a lot of career paths for robotics, which is in demand now.” Mylene lists the potential and lucrative careers in the robotics field: data analysts, cloud managers, QA managers, social media content managers, software and game developers, software engineers, electronics engineers, mobile robotics. The list goes on and on.
Business-wise, Mylene remains fearless in the face of a looming recession and the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic. She has seen her company through steep and rocky mountains, and pushes ever forward toward the summit. “I believe in what our business is doing, and how it improves people’s lives,” Mylene says. “It’s my inner why. Kung meron kang fire within, kahit anong mangyari, you’ll always have that in you.”