Today was perhaps the most anticipated of all the days of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Many of the world’s leaders in politics and business gathered in one room, and some like US President Barack Obama and Alibaba founder Jack Ma even shared the stage to discuss pressing issues. But wait, who’s that lady sitting right next to those influential men?
That’s Aisa Mijeno, a Filipina engineer who developed a lamp fueled by saltwater, and she’s come a long way.
When Tech in Asia first interviewed Aisa for a story last year, her startup had just come out of an incubation program. Today, Aisa told no less than the most powerful man in the world and the founder of China’s largest ecommerce company that her firm is in the process of scaling up.
Obama asked Aisa what her biggest challenge was and she replied, “We need support in terms of funding […] we are in a critical place where we’re trying to mass-produce the lamps so we’re just looking for someone to fund us to get the project moving.”
Obama then pointed at Ma, drawing laughs and applause from the audience. “Serving as a matchmaker here a little bit,” the US president quipped.
Like having a baby
Aisa stressed how her product addresses an overwhelming need. In the Philippines alone, she said up to 20 percent of the country’s over 100 million population live in island communities that aren’t connected to the power grid. These communities turn to dangerous and expensive substitutes like kerosene, which is a fire hazard as well as a major contributor to indoor air pollution.
“What we want is to provide these people a lighting option that is more cost-effective, safer, and more sustainable and environment friendly,” she explained.
Aisa, Obama said, is one of so many young entrepreneurs in numerous countries who have come up with innovative technologies.
The question now becomes: what else could be done to support people like her?
Obama turned to Ma, who’s been on both sides – he was once an entrepreneur struggling to get something off the ground before turning into one of the world’s most successful businessmen. “For government, it’s simple: reduce the tax or no tax at all for these guys,” said China’s second-richest man.
Likening entrepreneurship to parenthood, Ma gave Aisa some advice: “A startup, for entrepreneurs, is like a baby. I have five babies, I’m an experienced father. My advice to you is: nobody can help you. We can only help ourselves. Investors, the government, the partners, they are uncles and aunties but you are the mother of your kid. Don’t give up on the kid.”
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