Cathy Salimbangon has always been interested in biology. She likes to study the inner workings of the body, how our cells work, and how vitamins and nutrients help keep one’s organs in tiptop shape. As the owner of a global health supplement brand, that is only fitting. But, for a time, this deep curiosity was a lifeline for a job that took her time to appreciate.
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Salimbangon grew up discussing business principles with her father, a self-made entrepreneur. These would later prove useful, but only after a baptism of fire abroad. “Nag-Canada kami before moving to Los Angeles kasi my husband loves to go abroad,” she tells Malipayon Farms owner Gerardo “Gejo” Jimenez in the latest episode of Heroes & Titans. Looking at her options, she took on a post as floor manager of a nursing home that has fallen to neglect. “I dreaded going to work because I really wanted to be in an office. I’m not even interested in learning how to put an IV!” she admits.
Making the best out of the situation, the businesswoman channeled her efforts in the nursing home’s day-to-day operations with her husband Elton. It wasn’t smooth-sailing. Running such a facility, she says, can take a toll on anybody; aside from caring for the patients, other departments such as finance, marketing, sales, and the kitchen had to be maintained under the strictest standards. Before the couple stepped in, the nursing home had hundreds of compliance deficiencies. This entailed creating numerous changes in its operations and workforce culture, which wasn’t an easy adjustment for anyone in the home. Skyrocketing costs also meant that they had to accommodate as many patients as possible, even ones that other nursing homes have refused to take in.
Looking at their situation, it seemed easy to simply give up on such a demanding undertaking. Even the Canadian government wondered why the couple was so adamant in seeing this through. “One time, they even asked us, ‘you’re a nurse, and your husband is in IT. You have jobs waiting for you. Why stick to this?’ And my husband said, ‘Why should I abandon this if they need my help? If I leave this place, it will never be fixed.’ So we stuck to that. It took us six months to change everything. The government was very supportive.”
In the course of running the facility, Salimbangon learned that much of their patients’ predicaments are direct consequences of their lifestyles. The registered nurse also notes how the safest long-term medications can ultimately take a toll on one’s liver and kidneys. “Nakita ko na maybe if there’s a way that we can do something preventive, and not curative, kasi mahirap na ang treatment sa stage na yun,” she says.
The couple soon moved to Los Angeles, where Salimbangon continued to work at nursing homes. Working in different kinds of neighborhoods, she noticed key lifestyle differences which further affirmed her belief in preventive measures. The elderly in Beverly Hills, for example, were high energy, donning tracksuits to jog at noon. At depressed areas, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension plague patients. It then dawned on her how important diet is in shaping a person’s life. The sickly depend on fast food and pre-cooked meals; meanwhile, the active octogenarians ate healthy. And the latter's diets include ample amounts of acai berries.
A dietary staple in the Amazonian region, acai berries became recognized globally for their health benefits in the mid-1990s. Packed with antioxidants and vitamins, the fruit has been used in various supplements, dishes, and juices. Salimbangon would get reacquainted with acai berries through her husband’s job. “He used to work for a nutraceutical company. They manufactured all these healthy, organic beverages sold worldwide. One day, he brought home some of their products,” she recalls. “At that time, we thought, okay, we know experts in this field. Why don’t we ask them what the healthiest fruit in existence is, whatever is there that can help us in our advocacy to go preventive? And all of them said acai berries.”
Encouraged by their friends to sell it as drinks, the couple quit their jobs, packed their bags, and flew back to the Philippines to start Organique Acai. As with any entrepreneur, Salimbangon had to navigate through the ups and downs of running a business—operational costs, shipping of goods, training their staff, among others. Funnily enough, she considers phonetics as the biggest challenge she had to go through in building the company. Acai is pronounced with a soft “c” instead of a hard one. It sounds more like “asai” instead of “akai.” This would cause miscommunication between buyers and sellers. “It took us around three years in our marketing to fix that. We always remind our team that, aside from emphasizing the health benefits, get the pronunciation right, too.”
In retrospect, Salimbangon is thankful for the years she and her husband spent abroad, which have prepared them well for their current business ventures. “Now, when you connect the dots, I won’t be in this business if I didn’t have that experience,” she reflects. Amid the challenges, she is driven by their loyal customers who motivate them to persevere. “It’s not really about the money. It’s about the impact that you can give to fellow Filipinos and their families. It’s more rewarding that way.”