Former actress Nanette Medved-Po is now CEO of Generation Hope and runs several social enterprises.
Culture Spotlight

From Darna to builder of classrooms: The many lifetimes of Nanette Medved-Po

The actress turned social entrepreneur talks candidly about honoring one’s past and how that one moment while playing Darna many years back led to her life’s passion.  
ANCX | Jan 23 2020

The last time we met was at a dinner party where she had the audacity to, albeit gently, chastise the guest of honor. The company was composed of some of the most influential names in business, and the host was shipping heir Doris Magsaysay Ho. The guest of honor was Manila Mayor Isko Moreno who was regaling the well heeled guests about his stint in the movies as a younger man. “Baka ikahiya niyo ako pag napanood niyo ang mga pelikula ko,” recalled the mayor. “Naghuhubad kasi ako sa trabaho, nakakahiya.” He was referring, of course, to his days as a Seiko Films star; Seiko was the production company that famously produced the sex trip films of the late 80s. 

When we meet again, its at her home office in South Forbes, a cozy space, adjoining the garage, from which Nanette Medved-Po, former actress and now CEO of Generation Hope, runs several social enterprises. Outside, the pool mimics a beach with sand and beach umbrellas. She impishly recalls her remarks at that power dinner table in August. “I just said to him, don’t discount those experiences, no matter how embarrassing, they contribute to who you are today,” she says. “He needs to frame that experience properly. We all go through our own journeys and we don’t necessarily understand why. In the case of Isko, he’s had several chapters in his life and they all contribute to who he is today—and I am pretty sure he is proud of who he is today."

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Medved-Po can very well relate, for she herself is a product of many journeys, having been through the ups and downs of having to start over, not just once, but several times. She glances at her laptop, checking figures on her latest endeavor called the Plastic Credit Exchange, while perched so elegantly on the exercise ball she uses as a chair. “I think we’re all a work in progress and we always hope that we are a better version of ourselves today than we were yesterday.”

In her first public transition, Nanette retired from a controversial showbiz career for love. “I recall the exact moment when it was clear to me that I had decided to retire from show business. I did not want to have my private life be the latest tragedy of a life lived in the tabloids. But Fernando Poe Jr. called me in Hong Kong and said, ‘Last, I promise. Isang hirit na lang.'” Da King was asking her to star opposite him again in a movie. “I said ‘Ronnie, I’m retired, I’m not going to do movies anymore.’ And then he said, ‘Sige na para Mr. and Mrs. Poe.’ Kasi he’s Poe and I’m Po. He was really corny,” Nanette says, laughing. But she could not resist the legendary FPJ. And so she starred in Ang Dalubhasa, which was screened in 2000. It was her farewell movie. “I told him, ‘That’s it. It’s only for you.’ I couldn't imagine not doing the film with him as my last.” 

Nanette with Fernando Poe Jr. in ‘Dito sa Pitong Gatang.' She also acted opposite the film legend in the last film she did, 'Ang Dalubhasa.'

 

The Darna effect

In 2007, Nanette was in search for her next transition—to work for the social good. She embarked on a pilot microfinance project with the late Father James Reuter. “I did it because it was something close to my heart. I wanted to help the poor.” As a student in Babson, it was micro finance she was drawn to. “It was a big interest of mine because the Philippines I thought was such a great place to use microfinance as a tool for development.”

She traces her epiphany to a moment earlier in her life, while in her twenties and on a float promoting the movie, Darna. She played the classic Mars Ravelo superhero character at the 1991 Metro Manila Film Festival. “I remember looking down and seeing both young and old alike,” she says. “It had nothing to do with me but with Darna. I personally didn’t have a strong appreciation for the history around the character but when you look at these people who kind of have their hopes and dreams in their faces, how could you, in good conscience, let that down? Prior to that, I wasn’t necessarily doing movies with characters who were inspiring. And so that’s when it clicked in my mind—I literally had a platform to do good and an obligation to these people to do so." 

Nanette played the titular character Darna in Joel Lamangan's 1991 film about the classic Mars Ravelo superhero.

But the microfinance project proved difficult to sustain. Chris and Nanette were still not based in the Philippines then, and were traveling between Manila and Hongkong. It was when Nanette chanced upon U2 frontman Bono’s Red campaign that she had a lightbulb moment. 

Red is a licensed brand that seeks to raise awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in Africa. In the business model, each partner company such as Nike or Gap creates a product with the Product Red logo. In return for the opportunity to increase revenue through the Product Red license, profits gained by each partner are donated to a global fund. “I had exposure in non-profits and I found that we were spending an inordinate amount of time fundraising and not a lot of time focusing on impact. And the reason is because the fundraising component just took so much time. So I thought this is brilliant because he [Bono] has now engaged the public to vote with their purchase about what was important to them.”

Something clicked in her head. “I thought, why aren’t we doing something like this in the Philippines? And my big thing is education. I feel like that’s where our future lies so maybe that’s our version of AIDS.” 

So upon moving to Manila, with husband Chris now heading Century Pacific Group, Nanette had plans brewing in her head as well. 

She called on companies, pitching an idea similar to Bono’s Product Red campaign. Doors were opened out of curiosity, but reception was cold. “Why don’t you support social good with one of your SKUs?” she would say. “I think every single FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods Company) I approached thought I had lost my mind.” 

Nanette took the rejection hard. “I was very frustrated. So out of anger, I said ‘I’m going to show you, I’m going to do it myself,” she recalls with some amusement. “I figured if I fail, no one’s going to notice anyway. I had nothing to lose, it’ll just be a bruised ego.”

Hope in a Bottle donates 100 percent of its profits to the non-profit Friends of Hope which spends the money on classrooms.

 

Her way 

It was in 2012 when Nanette made the big leap and formed the non-profit Friends of Hope, or Hope for short. An impact company, she calls it, rather than just a simple water company. She is in a crowded, competitive arena—the bottled water business—where “everyone else is an 800 pound gorilla.” Just about any big consumer goods company has a bottled water product. But her brand, Hope in a Bottle, has a unique selling point: water equals classrooms.

Why water? She says because it was easy; she didn’t have to worry about trends. Why classrooms? Because it’s tangible. “We wanted it easy for people to understand. If you’re a taipan or you’re the driver of the taipan you understand the concept of a classroom. If you tell your guard or hardinero—‘teacher training’ is medyo abstract, hindi nila ma-appreciate.” Hope in a Bottle donates 100 percent of its profits to the non-profit Friends of Hope which spends the money on classrooms.

It began as a scrappy operation with Nanette doing the sales calls personally, and in some instances even the deliveries.

Hope in a Bottle has sold over 30 million products and built 95 classrooms.

The first batch of Hope in a Bottle, about 30 to 40 thousand cases, were toll-packed by San Miguel Corporation. Nanette sought the help of a friend who had retired from the conglomerate and was knowledgeable about the business. “I didn’t have the money to invest in my own production. Medyo risky baka hiwalayan ako ni Chris. Pag-gising niya nasanla na pala ang bahay,” Nanette jokes.

It was a gamble, because then Nanette had to find the customers for the first run. She was pitching the idea to players in the food industry. The first believers were big names like Starbucks, Seattle’s Best and Krispy Creme.

With 95 classrooms built and over 30 million products sold as of this writing, Nanette can afford to gloat. But she isn’t. Hope in a Bottle just proved to be the beginning and she refuses to keep still.

 

A new Hope

Today, Hope has its own manufacturing facility and holds contracts with several toll manufacturers to assure a steady supply. They now sell boxed water as well.

It holds many firsts in the Philippines. It is the first company to give away 100 percent of its profits, says Nanette, the first to offer non-plastic packaging and, since 2018, the first plastic-neutral company. What this means is the amount of plastic Hope (as the company is called for short) puts out in the market is recovered by charging itself a ‘plastic tax’. “Depending on the weight of the packaging,” Nanette explains, “whenever we generate an invoice, it will automatically remove an amount of money that it will cost us to recover the same amount of plastic in the trash and get rid of it. That’s what we call our plastic tax.” She explains further: “Let’s just say for this month I put out one ton of plastic to the market, I will work with our partners to collect one ton. It doesn’t have to be Hope (in a bottle). It can be Coke, Nestlè, snack sachets, Colgate, etc.”

Currently, Nanette’s favored way to recycle Hope’s plastic has been to co-process with cement manufacturers which use them as fuel instead of coal.

The road to becoming plastic neutral has even led to another pioneering venture: the establishment of the Plastic Credit Exchange, which aims to be global in scope. “What happened was some people heard about this,” Nanette says, unable to hide her excitement, “and so we actually have companies from the U.S. and from China calling us and saying ‘Can you help us figure out our plastic neutral strategy?’ Since this mechanism is not available to them in their country, a plastic offset is geographically agnostic.” This simply means that a company in Japan or China can acquire plastic credits from a cleanup of ocean plastics in the Philippines.

For Nanette, the prospects are enormous. “We’re super excited because you always hear about the Philippines being the third worst ocean polluter,” she says, adding she intends to go on a road show internationally. “This is a Philippine solution, right? It’s not perfect, but until we get the perfect one, we don’t want to do nothing.”

Nanette is also involved in agriculture. In 2014, she pitched a project to the United States-based Vita Coco, one of the bestselling coconut water brands in the world. The Po-owned Century Pacific Group is a toll manufacturer for Vita Coco and is also a distributor of their products in the Philippines. Called the Vita Coco Project, it helps increase the income of Filipino coconut farmers.

Of all her initiatives, this last one is the less public as it is fully funded by Vita Coco. Five pesos from each pack goes to help small coconut farmers in Mindanao. “We help them with replanting because more than 50 percent [of farmers], at least in the areas where we operate, are senile so they no longer are productive. We provide them with hybrid seedlings,” offers Nanette.

The Vita Coco project has trained over 9000 farmers in intercropping, irrigation and other means to improve their yield. It has given out 21,000 coconut seedlings that will generate over 2 million coconuts annually.

On her relationship with Chris, Nanette says, “We are very complementary. I think that he and I shared goals, and that each other being successful helped us both get to those goals.”

 

A new role 

Last year, Nanette was entrusted with a new responsibility. She was chosen by the Pos to chair their family council. Forbes Magazine lists the Po patriarch, Ricardo Sr. as the 19th richest in the Philippines, with a net worth of $950 million. The new role is perhaps her most meaningful given the family history. At the SharePhil forum where the couple went public about it, Chris, who is Executive Chairman of the Century Pacific Group, said, “The family council is separate from the company, the company’s board of directors, management etc. The family council is primarily a Po family structure. Those things are separate.”

Nanette is treading very carefully in this new role. “What’s most important is that we all support and protect each other. As an in-law I am particularly careful about how what I do might be perceived.”

Throughout the interview, Nanette talks very emphatically and confidently, and rephrases what she says for clarity.

On handling rejection and starting her own impact company: “I figured if I fail, no one’s going to notice anyway. I had nothing to lose, it’ll just be a bruised ego.”

Of her relationship with Chris, she says, “We are very complementary. I think that he and I shared goals, and that each other being successful helped us both get to those goals.”

“I talk to her about decisions about strategy,” Chris says of his wife. “Even day-to-day decisions, I use her as my closest adviser.  It’s a clichĂ©, but for a man, the most important decision he makes is who he marries. But in my case, having found my wife, I’d say, I won the wife lottery. I’m so lucky that it turned out this way. She’s a great mother and she takes care of our home. Of course, I’m there for the kids, I’m there for her, and I have my family responsibilities. But when the home is stable I can also be focused on and plan my businesses. We work together on many levels.”

The pair has very much come full circle. When Nanette looks back at the tough times they endured as a couple, she feels gratitude. “In many ways, we’re better for it. Chris became the incredible man he is and I have been forced outside my comfort zone to grow in ways I could not have imagined. I never anticipated that we would be where we are today.”