#ForwardFearless14: A Women’s Month Tribute To Millennials We Admire

These women are chasing their dreams and changing the world at the same time.

For Women’s Month, Cosmopolitan invited 14 uncontested queens to celebrate their milestones, businesses, and advocacies. But in a society so hell-bent on making everything glam, glossy, and essentially, all about the ‘gram, we wanted to switch things up by talking about some of the hard stuff, too.

Betsy Cola (Betina Continuado), 24

Hers is probably one of your favorite booths to hoard from whenever you attend sticker conventions and bazaars. Betsy Cola is a freelance illustrator who’s known for championing women’s issues through her artwork. Like most artists, Betsy tested the waters by joining Team Manila, but soon found out that working in an office just wasn’t for her. One of the highlights of her career was being invited to do an anthology comic book with Gantala Press. Along with other Filipina artists, they created a body of work that centered on female relationships. “I felt like there was a real lack of Filipino culture in my artwork. [The experience] made me realize that I’m not just an illustrator—I can be a storyteller as well,” Betsy said.

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On how she wants her art to evolve: “Right now, I’m making art that represents some women, but I want to be more inclusive. I want to tackle more of the issues women face today—beyond their physical attributes. In my head, I have this default image of what my art should look like, and sometimes I forget to take into consideration that there’s more out there.”

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Cheska Altomonte, 26

She’s in to win it: Softball player Cheska Altomonte is a national athlete, but believe it or not, it was never part of the plan: “I played softball because I loved it.” This year, her team’s goal is to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with the qualifiers coming up in September 2019. Cheska shared that when she was invited to try out for the national team, it wasn’t supposed to be “a forever thing.” After graduating college in 2014, she played softball full-time for a bit but then she started working in corporate. Keeping it real, she shared, “While I believe in softball and in my team, it saddens me that I can’t play forever because there’s no money in the sport [here]. It can’t be a career for me.” Right now, Cheska is still trying to find her path, a struggle we’re all too familiar with. She confessed, “I’m doing both at the moment, [working and softball] and it’s great because my bosses are super supportive of my athletic career. But I worry about the time when I’m going to have to choose one over the other.”

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On body positivity: “I consider myself to be body positive, but as an athlete, I’m always striving to be better. It doesn’t bother me anymore that I have thunder thighs. In my head, I just think, if I didn’t have my legs, maybe I wouldn’t be as good as I am right now. I’m not afraid to gain more muscle or look stronger if it means it’ll make me better.”

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Bianca Arcega, 28

Taking matters into her own hands (literally), Bianca Arcega started making her own soap as a way to deal with her eczema, a medical condition that leaves the skin inflamed and irritated. From there, she expanded to room and linen sprays, and eventually, handmade bags. Their products come from different parts of the country. A curation of these items make up By Hand, which was launched in October 2018. With the help of her boyfriend, Bianca does everything for By Hand on her phone, since her full-time job keeps her pretty busy. Bianca is the chief of staff of the president of the Liga ng mga Barangay, the organization for all the barangay captains in the Philippines. (That’s 42,000 barangays!) Working closely with the president, Bianca travels to different provinces often. One day, she could be in Davao; the next, she’s in Cebu. But the exposure helps her grasp the issues facing Filipinos today: “This helps me with By Hand. Since I work with government officials in provinces, I know the concerns they want to address, specifically in terms of employment. Knowing [more makes me want] to try and find a way to change things.” She hopes to grow her By Hand team this year!

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On promoting local artistry: “Filipinos are now recognizing our own. We used to prefer signature or luxury brands, but now I think we see the beauty in local artistry.”

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Maika Cruz, 28

Another girl wearing many, many hats, Maika Cruz is the co-founder and Creative Director of Sandy Cheeks and Sandy Cheers. She and her business partner, Alex Jimenez, started Sandy Cheeks on a whim because they found it difficult to find swimsuits that made them feel comfortable and confident. “We wanted it to be fun and semi-conservative for those who don’t want to show a lot of skin,” Maika shared. Their first collection consisted of onesies, and then they added bikinis after—all high waist. She credits part of their success to having a relatable model: Andi Eigenmann. Things only got better when the brand decided to expand their size chart. The duo invested their own money into Sandy Cheeks but didn’t touch it for a while…that is, until they launched Sandy Cheers, a cute mobile bar perfect for millennials. As expected, things became a little hectic, but Maika had a great partner in Alex, who she describes as “the Queen of Operations.” They also brought in a third member for Sandy Cheers, Iya De Leon, who is in charge of Sales.

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On what 2019 looks like for her: “It’s a bit overwhelming. I just got married, and we’re building our house. Those are two big milestones already. Summer is coming up, and we have a lot of collections to release for Sandy Cheeks. We’re also trying to build Sandy Cheers. As a person, I always feel like I’m not doing enough. So that’s something I’m dealing with. I’m always so anxious. I constantly ask myself, 'Did I do it right?' 'Is it enough?' 'Do they like it?' Looking at the bright side, I’d rather be doing a lot—and loving every single one of them—than be doing one thing I don’t love at all.”

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Coeli San Luis, 25

This woman is music personified. Cello in hand, singer-songwriter Coeli San Luis is here to bless your ears and your soul with her tunes. Describing her sound as “somewhat…experimental folk, baroque folk, contemporary kundiman,” Coeli started writing her own songs when she was just 15. She entered college fully committed to turn her music into a career but Coeli revealed, “I said yes to so many things and I got burnt out. I forgot to take care of myself. Everything fell apart. I stopped going to school, isolated myself, and became depressed.” She made several attempts to rebuild, and when things didn’t work out, it was music that saved her. In 2018, Coeli made the decision to give school another try, saying, “When I went back, I started to love music more. I fell in love with the cello. Then I found out that I was a candidate for graduation…na kaya [ko] pala.”

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On her musical turning point: “My recent breakup in 2017. The day after my breakup, I recorded one of my songs: ‘Puno.’ That song is what people hold on to now.”

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On how she deals with pain: “It’s something I need to listen to in order for me to move forward. It’s something I need to embrace. It’s my guiding force, and it’s translated in my music.”

Daniela Calumba, 31

Daniela Calumba is the Earth momma of Kahilom, a brand with infinite love for the planet. She describes their products best: “personal care and everyday wear that nourishes not only your mind, body, and soul, but also fuels the land it springs from.” She, along with a community of farmers, urban gardeners, herbalists, social workers, and cultural conservationists, are committed to creating products that are long-lasting and plant-based. On top of that, Daniela also has an ethical fine jewelry line—something she’s built for a decade. In the past few years, she started exclusively using reclaimed metals and recycled stones, “which help [her] close the loop in sustainability and indirectly tackle unethical mining.”

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On what she’s personally still working on: “The past few years have been nonstop for me in both my career and personal life. It feels like month after month has gone by with very little time to pause. I gained wider recognition for my work in a very short amount of time, which is great, but I also realized I was slowly neglecting time for myself. These days I’m trying to find more pockets of moments to breathe and reflect. I usually enter the new year with clarity, vision, heightened energy, motivation, and inspiration. This year feels a little bit softer and slower for me. And that’s okay. Slow is good.”

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Em Millan, 34

Even if you don’t know her name, you’ve most definitely seen her work on some of today’s brightest stars. Making up half of Team Rain x Em, she’s the woman behind Maymay Entrata’s evolving style, among other things. And while she kept things hush hush, Em has bigger plans outside of styling this year. For the most part, however, she’ll be concentrating on her personal growth: “I transitioned fairly recently. I’m trying to get a hold of who I really am. I feel like the last three years were spent on ‘catch-up’ mode. In 2019, I just want to know who I am as a woman…by myself—not as a woman in a relationship with a man or as a woman working in fashion. Me, independent of anything and anyone else.”

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On misconceptions about working in fashion: “A lot! For example, we continuously hire interns or assistants and a lot of them quit in two to three months. It’s because all they see are the glossy sides of fashion [on social media]. But that’s just 20 percent of the real work. The other 80 percent involves sourcing, returning products, staying up late for a shoot, borrowing clothes from designers, getting on your knees to tie shoe laces—all those things!”

Pamela Mejia, 28

We first got to know Pamela Mejia in 2016, back when Phinix, her social fashion enterprise, was just trying to spread its wings. Now recognized in eight countries, Phinix is running on grants given by the UN. Pamela detailed, “I came across this competition called Low Carbon Sustainability wherein they give $10k-20k USD to brands that practice sustainability. I won the grant twice in Thailand.” Right now, Phinix is in retail production, launching soon in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Last year, Pamela spent five months in Malaysia because that’s where Phinix was “incubated.” She explained, “The Malaysian Global Innovation Creativity Center gets startups from all over the world and stations them in Kuala Lumpur for five months. They help you refine your business and eventually launch in your own country and even in Malaysia.” Phinix employs 10 sapateros and four bag makers: “We have a new way of recycling fabric now; we cut the clothes into strips and then we weave them to a whole new fabric. The best part about the woven fabrics is that all our weavers are persons with disability. Our best weavers are all deaf.”

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On her biggest struggle: “I lack discipline. I’m all about the vision—I can plan everything in detail but when it comes to execution, if it’s just me, ang hirap. I really hope it’s also the year that people get to know this brand when it comes to sustainable fashion.”

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Gab Pangilinan, 27

Can you believe this theatre powerhouse used to be a broker? Things changed for Gab Pangilinan when she saw an ad for an audition for her favorite musical, Once on This Island. She landed the part and cried. A month later, someone messaged her about trying out for Rak of Aegis. Laughing, Gab said, “I sang and danced in my corporate attire!” Every day, for a month, she went to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. then rehearsed until 10 p.m. Then she resigned from her day job and never looked back. Her next big gig was Side Show, where she played a conjoined twin alongside Kayla Rivera. It was the first time during call backs that she ever felt sure, telling herself, “I think I can do this. I want this role. Akin ‘to.” Now, she’s wowing the crowd while playing her most challenging role as Young Joy in Ang Huling El Bimbo.

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On self-care: “I’m very hard on myself. After almost four years of theatre, I need to take better care of my health. I’ve been hospitalized twice because of dehydration. I’m finally learning how to handle it.”

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Gela Petines, 28

If you’ve been paralyzed by fear of the water your entire life, Gela Petines is here to help you. As the Managing Director of Reef Nomads, they provide lessons and tours for skin divers. ICYDK, skin diving is basically snorkeling, but you hold your breath to explore and appreciate marine life. Apart from an unparalleled view, you’ll also be doing some good, because part of Reef Nomads’ proceeds go to the benefit of fishing communities, particularly in Isla Verde. Reef Nomads also has a non-profit arm called Batang VIP, which promotes marine conservation through fisherfolk. According to Gela, they have “about 30 guides, all of whom have full-time jobs.” And the feedback they’ve been getting has been motivating.

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On what she wants for Reef Nomads in 2019: “I want to widen our reach. I really want to turn fear into love for the ocean. It’s a time when love for the ocean is most needed. I want to eradicate the stigma against promoting conservation because environmentalists can be pretty aggressive. They can turn some people off. My approach to getting more people to care is through something that is fun and inviting.”

Gabby Padilla, 24

Don’t underestimate this sweet face; this actress has got a fire burning within her. Born and raised in Iloilo, Gabby Padilla burst into the scene in 2015 when she starred in Dahling Nick. She also acted in Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, but it was her role in Billie and Emma that had people talking. To play Emma, Gabby sat down with friends she trusted to see if there was anything problematic about the role. She told Cosmo, “I know there aren’t a lot of roles for people in the LGBTQ community so [it was important] for me to acknowledge the privilege of playing that role. I had to talk to Direk Sam [Lee] about it. Emma battles a little bit with her sexuality, but her main conflict was really, as a woman, having to deal with this pregnancy and not having autonomy of her own body. It was a conscious effort for me. I was given this platform and the opportunity to educate, in a way, through my art, so it was a big responsibility.”

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On feminism and self-awareness: “I’m always painted as this angry feminist. When you’re so sensitive to it, it becomes a reflex, and you see it in everything. I need to be more compassionate and to be kinder about educating people.”

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Tish Martinez-Castillo, 32

Tish Martinez-Castillo is an active volunteer for The Foundation Foundation PH, a Christian group of beauty enthusiasts—makeup artists, writers, bloggers, and beauty executives—that helps women recover from sex trafficking through self-care. Originally a student group in Ateneo, Tish got involved when her best friend had to dispose of 80 tubes of mostly unused lipsticks. The Foundation Foundation PH aids two organizations: Wipe Every Tear and She Works. “Wipe Every Tear has safe houses. When you decide to leave the industry, they will help you. They will pay your debt. They will send you to school. They will send your children to school. She Works is for women who’ve been in the system for a while. They’ll help you if you want to have a job,” Tish said. She described being sexually trafficked as a “spiritual captivity. The women aren’t held against their will, but the shame is so great.” Through their shared faith, the victims are transformed.

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On empathy: “I can never say I know everything. It’s really about education—it’ll bring more empathy. I tend to live in a bubble. I am so conscious of my privilege. I’ve never had to face that problem, and it’s so easy to be dismissive. It takes a lot to know that this is their suffering. I’m really trying to be more empathetic.”

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Valenice Balace, 30

Valenice Balace was only 22 years old when she founded Honesty Apps, a dating, conference, and community apps platform. When she recently turned 30, she re-evaluated her life and asked herself, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” In the beginning, she was the developer and designer, but as Honesty grew, so did her work load. She started overseeing accounting, reviewing contracts, and communicating with the lawyers. Despite having a team of almost 50, everything still had to go through her because she was the signatory. Valenice confessed, “Although we were very successful, considering it was my first venture, I felt kind of trapped. I really just wanted to build. I’m happy I got everything out of my first try, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.” Now, she is the Head of Product Development at JG Summit: “Every time there’s a digital project within the conglomerate that has to be built from the ground up, I consult. My background is a Solutions Architect. For me, it’s really all about the craftsmanship of an app, not the business side. I’m happier now.”

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On success: “People aren’t limited to one shot of success. Some think, 'Successful na ako dito, hindi ko na ‘to iiwanan.' I think people have to learn that you have multiple shots in failures and successes. If you decide to leave something [you’re good at], it doesn’t mean you’re going to fail trying to do something else.”

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Jana Bunagan, 24

She is a stock trader by profession and an eco-warrior by heart. Jana Bunagan wanted to do more for the world, and it all began with a Street Store in 2016. Along with a friend, they stationed themselves in Luneta and gathered donations for the homeless, eventually giving away 2,000 clothes to 150 people. Since then, she’s pioneered Re-Store, which acts as a fundraiser because they ask brands for their old inventory. They resell those and whatever is raised is used to fund the Street Store. Another initiative she has under her belt is called Refresh, an idea she got from a Singaporean who collects flowers after weddings and events and delivers them to hospices. All three fall under Create Good. Her new baby, The Good Trade, focuses on zero-waste and sustainability. It’s a fair that serves as a gathering for people who want to make more environmentally-friendly decisions. Despite her best efforts, things haven’t been easy for Jana: “In the past two years, I’ve just been pushing myself to get the work done. Now, I’m tired. I feel like I’m in an endless loop of chasing deadlines and preparations. I’m working on being more mindful.”

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On what she wants to learn in 2019: “The Good Trade is at a vanguard of a moment that proves that sustainability isn’t just a buzzword in Manila. With this, there are tons of opportunities for the initiative to grow and as much as I wanna say yes to everything to help and support people and organizations who are choosing to do their part, I have to learn to say no when it’s already too much for me. It isn’t sustainable if I don’t look after my well-being. I first have to fill my cup before it can overflow and fill others’ as well.”

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PRODUCED BY: Ysa Singson

CO-PRODUCED BY: Ira Nopuente, Tisha Caedo, Jacinda Lopez, Lily Tabanera

PHOTOGRAPHY: Mixi Ignacio

ART DIRECTION: Jico Joson & Mixi Ignacio

SHOOT COORDINATOR: Lou Ferrer

SOCIAL MEDIA: Andie Estella

SITTINGS EDITORS: Jillian Gatcheco, Retty Contreras

HAIR: Marie Tan, Martin Alonzo, Francis Guintu

MAKEUP: Jopie Sanchez, Sassa Carlos, Joyce Ignacio, Christine Laviña using NARS Cosmetics, Tin Albano using NARS cosmetics

STYLING: Bela Vitug

ASSISTANT STYLIST: Allan Yabut of Styled by Bela #TeamBelaVitug

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