“You think of the Philippines as this place that people leave because they don’t have jobs,” Ligot-Gordon says. But in the BPO (business process outsourcing) industry, which includes call centers among other back office support work, there are some 500,000 new job openings a year.
Ligot-Gordon, 33, is California born and bred. He left behind a six-figure salary, a significant position at the San Francisco city government and a clean, new condo to move to Manila—the city his parents left behind.
After a few months in the country, he hooked up with an old classmate from his days at UC Berkeley to start Kalibrr as the chief operating officer. Like many startups in the Silicon Valley vein, Ligot-Gordon and CEO Paul Rivera spent the business’ first days working out of coffee shops. In the last year and a half, the two have built the company into a real player, attracting some serious Filipino and expat talent—their CTO (chief technology officer) is a French-Canadian MIT graduate and a lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman; and one of their top engineers, a 19-year-old Filipino kid, earned more during his summer job in Manila than the average American does in a year.
Kalibrr was also the first Philippine-based company to be accepted to the prestigious and highly competitive YCombinator startup incubator, which counts shiny startup luminaries like Airbnb, Reddit and Dropbox among its alumni.
Kalibrr’s Makati offices are in a brightly painted, 1950s-era mid-century modern house surrounded by dripping old balete trees. They share the building with a small design school and Kickstart, Globe Telecom’s new startup incubator. On that Thursday afternoon, Kickstart was hosting a startup mixer, and entrepreneurs in khakis and plaid shirts with rolled up sleeves were chatting over San Miguels and canapés. The air was buzzing with optimism and possibility.
They say the difference between an entrepreneur and a small business owner is that a business owner is looking towards opening their next branch, while an entrepreneur wants to change the system. That’s certainly true of Ligot-Gordon and the Kalibrr team.
They want to change the way BPO companies hire workers. Ligot-Gordon says that one of their clients has to fill 3,100 job openings a month. To do that, they have to screen—using a paper and pencil system—41,000 applications. It takes an applicant 10–12 hours to apply for a single position. The process is so tedious that industry-wide, thousands of openings go unfilled. To call it highly inefficient is an understatement.
Kalibrr’s programmers are building a system from scratch that screens and analyzes an applicant’s skills for the employer, and it only takes the applicant a couple of hours to apply to a dozen jobs. Ligot-Gordon’s eyes light up as he takes me through the slick platform.
Beyond that, Ligot-Gordon recognizes that this is a key moment in the Philippines. Five or eight years ago, he would go to Singapore, “I took a look, and I was a little envious.” He couldn’t help but feel that the Philippines was left behind. “But when I came back [to Manila] two years ago, I thought, this is possible.”
He wants to be part of developing the Philippines, and believes “we can do it as entrepreneurs.”
Ligot-Gordon knows that Kalibrr is part of a small and brand new startup culture in the country. They’re figuring out how to court huge clients without the pedigree that often lubricates these kinds of business deals. (Think Zóbel de Ayala; none of them have that last name.)
The government’s regulatory environment for startups is being built as they go along. Right now it’s not especially friendly to entrepreneurial tactics like selling equity, and the tax rate is a killer. But Ligot-Gordon says they’re sucking it up and playing by the rules: “We have to earn the right to complain.”
Hiring the right people is difficult anywhere, and Filipino workers are frequently conditioned to follow rules and to execute instructions rather than take the creative risks that make startups tick. But Ligot-Gordon has found that this problem is a managerial one rather than some essential trait of the Filipino.
“They are creative,” he emphasizes, “they are innovative, they just have to be given license to do it.” Once he instilled a workplace culture where failure and mistakes are understood to be part of the path to success, he just had to watch the creativity fly.
In hacking through these challenges, Ligot-Gordon hopes to make it easier for other Filipinos to jump into the startup game. Because once you’re in it, it can be exhilarating. Sure it’s hard, and he’s living off savings right now, but the rewards are much higher than those at his lofty government job back in San Francisco. He says, “If you love what you’re doing, the frills don’t matter. I would have given it up over and over again.”
“I love the Philippines,” Ligot-Gordon says, “It’s my home.” Which is why he’s doing what he can to make it a better place. “If we’re successful, literally hundreds of thousands of people will be able to get jobs.”
Motherland is a series about how the Philippines looks through the eyes of the returned Filipinos. If you know someone who may want to be profiled, email the author at aurora [at] auroraalmendral.com.
Aurora Almendral is a print- and radio journalist from New York currently based in Manila.