Illac Diaz: the Making of a Global Leader

First Posted 16:09:00 03/19/2008

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Just named a ?Young Global Leader of 2008? by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Geneva, Manila-born Illac Diaz, 36, is making waves not by leaving the Philippines (though he?s done that too) but by calling the world?s attention to Filipino vision sparked by brilliance and marked by compassion.

Illac joins Senator Francis ?Chiz? Escudero and 243 other public figures, executives and intellectuals 40 years old or younger who ?initiate, develop and drive innovative solutions to globally-oriented issues," in the words of the head of WEF?s Young Global Leaders Forum David Aikman.

Selected from 5000 nominees worldwide, Diaz and Escudero now count with the likes of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, tennis superstar Steffi Graf, the King of Bhutan Jigme Wangchuck, the Queen of Morocco Lala Salma, Harvard Law School director Daniel Shapiro and president/CEO of the Neiman Marcus Group Brendan Hoffman in giving ?a preview of what effective, collaborative leadership in the 21st century might look like.?

Many know already of Chiz Escudero, but who is Illac (pronounced ee-lak) Diaz?

Nature and nurture both have answers. His father Ramon is an accomplished visual artist who also happens to be a brother of the first Filipina Miss Universe, Gloria Diaz. His Italian-born mother Silvana, nee Ancellotti, runs the dynamic art house Galeria Duemila adjacent to the family home in Pasay City. Surrounded by both art and squatters in the neighborhood, Illac?s childhood memories include accompanying his mother on her weekly feeding program for street children.

Today he credits what he initially resisted as a chore for the human connection he developed with people outside the ?cloistered groups? he was born to. Before Illac became a model, party figure and sometime executive for Smart Communications, he had already closed a crucial inner gap separating the educated Filipino from the teeming ranks of the Philippine poor.

?Why can't there be a business that we could sustain everyday, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and continuously solve problems?? Illac asked. He had both the head and the heart to answer his own question.

With a bachelor?s degree in Management Economics as a full academic as well as athletic scholar at the Ateneo, the seed his mother planted began its blossoming as Illac next earned a masters degree in social entrepreneurship at the Asian Institute of Management. His graduate thesis, ?Shanties to Jobs: Creating a Migrant Center in Manila,? was not only chosen Best of the Year at AIM. It would be the first proof of a well-grounded, compassionate vision.

?My priority is to answer the call of service on my own terms in confronting poverty,? Illac told the writer Ria V. Ferro. Warm human encounters in his own Pasay neighborhood taught him that the poor are ?often people of high intelligence who are unfortunately under-employed or unemployed, with little or no prospects to improve their lives.?

Establishing Pier One in Intramuros the year he graduated from AIM in 2001 was the beginning of Illac?s lengthening trail of firsts. This first migrant housing center in Manila met an urgent demand for affordable, clean and safe transient housing for men coming to Manila from the provinces to look for work as seamen, and seamen awaiting the next voyage out. Before then their housing options had been unhygienic shanties, expensive but run-down government shelters or the open air at the Luneta.

Today Pier One?s initial 40 beds have increased to 2000. When skyrocketing rent in Intramuros drove its recent transfer to Ermita, it had already benefitted a total of 120,000 Filipino seamen beyond affordable shelter to job search assistance, creation of small business opportunities and HIV/AIDS treatment.

Pier One made Illac Diaz the youngest AIM alumnus to receive an Honors & Prestige award in 2003. CNN reported the story and three new awards came in 2004 ? an Everyday Hero Special Award from Readers Digest Asia; an Entrepreneur Award from the 1st Johnny Walker Social Awards; and a runner-up award in New York?s Next Big Idea International Design Competition. In 2005 came a TOYM Award, the first for Social Entrepreneurship.

In September that year, Illac left for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston as a Fulbright-Humphrey Scholar and Research Fellow in a Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS). This would lead to a grand slam of firsts never before accomplished by Filipinos at MIT ? three grand prizes for teams either led by or with Illac Diaz as a member: the inaugural $ 100 K Business Plan Competition on the ?development track?; the $1K Business Ideas Competition; and the IDEAS Competition.

The latter included a ?Peanut Revolution? to help women manually shelling peanuts with simple pedal-powered machines, and First Step Coral, an artificial coral reef system to attract fish stock to shallower waters and hasten the growth of the shellfish population ? important sources of nutrition for coastal communities in the Philippines and beyond.

Practically without a pause next came Illac?s new MyShelter Foundation, Inc. and its ?earthbag? construction, the first in Asia. This more affordable, indigenous rather than fully manufactured construction material addressed the shortage of clinics and schools in rural Philippines. MyShelter has thus far built five clinics and twenty classrooms at one fourth the cost in 10 provinces, as well as conducted complementary seminars on preserving dwindling forest resources.

Housing and all forms of shelter have been a constant theme of Illac Diaz?s public life. ?(The) dome houses he worked on some years back impressed me as a project that combined pragmatism with aesthetic sensibility. Bonus points on the work's ?compassion? and ?creativity? scale went through the roof. In this case, literally an egg shaped roof, made of soil, lime, water and some cement,? wrote Ria Ferro in an interview for the magazine Pinoy Global Access in November, 2006.

?Nearly fireproof and earthquake proof, with a naturally cooler internal environment, such houses would take less energy to maintain, and cost about 50% less to construct than a traditional assembled box house. I remember thinking: what sort of mind would come up with something as unique, unexpected and relevant as that??

The idea had alighted on Illac while visiting his late aunt Rio Diaz-Cojuangco in Negros, where he noticed adobe bridges built in Spanish times. Internet research and visits to India and America made him realize that the idea of adobe houses was eminently applicable to the Philippines. More important than the ?what? and ?how? is the ?why? that he shared with Ferro:

?The issue here is the need for more housing. As population escalates, so will the gap. The main point is the involvement of the residents themselves in the task of sustainable construction and community building. By the way they build their own settlements even at the barest of resources, we can see that they that they are willing to work and capable of coming together.?

Ria Ferro observes that ?identifying gaps of service, devising ingenious business solutions based on pioneering ideas and achieving significant gains in the quality of life of a marginalized group? have been the themes of Illac Diaz?s world trajectory, with awards trailing behind.

In 2006, his year at MIT, he was named one the Ten Outstanding Persons of the World by Jaycees International. Word of the WEF Young Global Leaders Award came as he presently works on a global architectural competition to design more disaster resistant classrooms in the Philippines. Back in Boston, this time he?s on a mid-career Masters in Public Administration as a Catherine Reynolds scholar in Social Entrepreneurship in Harvard?s Kennedy School of Government.

As Illac?s now trademark vision, compassion, creativity (and good looks) make his naming after the Aztec god of light progressively more descriptive, he has reflected, ?It?s really weird. When I was an advertising executive for Smart, I made a lot of money, but I would never be able to afford anything I do today. When I started helping out, people started offering advice, consultancy and I got this scholarship.

?Somehow by giving, you get so much more. I made more friends than I ever had before, I travel more than I?ve ever done before, study in the best schools. If you do something good, the future will come. By doing good, the world will conspire to work with you to achieve new heights.? Amen.


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