I Am Her: Aya Fernandez On Her Social Enterprise, Beauty Pageants & Show Business

Meet the lady behind Project Lily

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

At 22 years old, Aya Fernandez is spearheading a sustainable social enterprise, is a beauty pageant titleholder and is building a career in show business. In every venture she undertakes, she gives her best effort and her perseverance shines through. 

Project Lily — a livelihood enterprise operated by Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) who make sustainable charcoal from water hyacinth, coconut husks and other agri-forest wastes — has gained recognition for its noble purpose as the most promising poverty-reduction youth enterprise. Aya also received a nomination as one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Youth Leaders for it. 

But that's not all she's achieved. Aya has dove into show business, and is now a video jockey for a local youth-targeted channel called MYX. She also recently got a supporting role in a new television series Ang Iyo Ay Akin ("What's Yours Is Mine" in English), the first drama made by the Filipino network ABS-CBN since its shutdown

In this interview with Aya Fernandez, we talk about how Project Lily came to be, what it's like to be a young beauty queen and her new life as a budding actress.

I’m a social entrepreneur, a youth icon and a ___________.

Sinigang (a Filipino sour-savoury stew delicacy) lover!

Tell us about Project Lily. How did it start and how did it grow to become a social enterprise?

During my senior year in high school, I had a research project about fibreglass reinforcement made from the water lily. While working on the project, we went to source water lily from the communities and I got acquainted with the people and they were sharing all the things you could do with water hyacinth. That’s when I really realised how much potential it has.

Fast forward to 2015 — I already graduated from high school — it was when the Project Lily became a livelihood project. It started in Barangay Rosario in Pasig where we made "leather-look bags" from water hyacinth. It was also during this time when I wanted to bring up Project Lily to the attention of local officials, and so I joined Miss Teen Earth - Philippines 2015 to gain leverage so it doesn’t look like I’m suggesting a livelihood project out of nowhere.

In that same year, I met a group of differently-abled individuals who are making water hyacinth charcoal. At first, I only got minimally involved in their organisation; I just posted on social media for awareness and helped with marketing. One day, they told me that they have already stopped production and are being evicted from the land where their factory is. So, I visited the site and was able to discuss the situation with the landowner. Eventually, he agreed that if there’s someone who can lead and continue the production, he’ll let the tenants stay.

At the time, because I attended a public high school (Makati Science Highschool) and a state university (University of the Philippines) I didn’t need to shell out money for my education. So I loaned my earnings from my hosting and modelling gigs to the project to invest in new machines and the social enterprise was named Project Lily — the same name as my first livelihood project because we used the existing social media platforms for my previous endeavour and just rebranded.

At first, I didn’t really have the intention to become very involved in the operations, since I was also a college student, but it just happened organically. I found myself helping more and more with product optimisation, selling and so on, until one day I realised that I’m already the one spearheading. But for me, I feel like I don’t really deserve the spotlight because I’m just guiding the project. All the work, it’s them. I’m just using my background in communication and science to bridge gaps.

Now, we’re registered with the Department of Trade & Industry, our charcoals are being used in restaurants such as Korean BBQ joints. However, at this time, we’re currently pausing on operations because of the COVID-19 situation. We do have plans to restart again soon because there is a great demand for our non-wood, less to no smoke sustainable charcoal. We’re gonna be back!

What prompted you to pursue other endeavours such as a career in showbusiness?

I had an internship with ABS-CBN (a media group in the Philippines), and one day I was tasked to bring packages to the Star Magic office (ABS-CBN's talent agency), that’s how I got scouted and invited for further screening. At the time, I didn’t really believe my getting scouted would lead to anything. As an intern, I wanted good feedback for school so I just went with it.

But then, five months after, I was given a contract as a trainee and even then I really didn’t believe that I’ll ever become a fully-fledged artiste. Nevertheless, I took advantage of the training and workshops they provided and honed my communication skills. Eventually, I landed a hosting job at Myx, got to do a sustainable tourism show with Enchong Dee for a streaming service which has yet to air, and now shooting for an ongoing local television series.

The whole thing was just really a leap of faith, to be honest. I signed the contract because I know that it would open new doors for me and it did.

What are the perks and perils of winning a beauty pageant at a young age? Some people say beauty pageants can be toxic and uphold narrow beauty standards, what is your take on this criticism?

In beauty pageants, there is an intersection between empowerment and commodification. We have to face it, beauty queens are sometimes commodified and it’s important to acknowledge that.

The perks, for me, of course, is in the empowerment part. I was already doing something and the pageant became a platform for it to be highlighted. It gave new opportunities to the livelihood and through that, I was able to elevate what is already there. It also gave me the opportunity to become a voice for many foundations. Personally, I was also able to meet ladies from other countries through the pageant. That was amazing to make friends from other cultures.

And then, there's the commodification part. For me, commodification is wrong if you’re doing it for wrong reasons. If it’s for the right reasons, it can be empowerment. For example, if I'm invited to an event to give a speech or as a symbol of women empowerment, that’s okay for me, cause it’s about me as a woman with integrity. But if it isn’t in that context, and you’re just invited to an event just to be there and look pretty then what is that, right? Those instances, for me, are the wrong kind of commodification.

How do you manage your time?

My time management skills are still a work in progress but what really helped me as of late is taking the time to have a morning routine. It's a way for me to reclaim my mornings for myself and to start the day right. So for example, now I wake up and start my day with yoga and meditation.

My composure really improved especially when the pandemic hit us. During the early days when quarantine protocols were in place, I feel powerless to do anything about the situation so by having this morning routine of mindfulness and physical preparedness it helped me have a sense of structure. Ultimately, it helped me manage my time.

What are your five Clozette essentials?

I'm really going back to the basics right now. I think it's a side effect of the crisis and I'm watching my spending closely. First, sunblock from Skin Station. Second is water; I like using a bamboo tumbler. Next, sanitiser. And, sorry if this is boring, but really in these times, tissues are a must for me. Lastly, cheek tint — I like using the one from Etude House and Happy Skin.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Some parts are translated from Tagalog to English.

(Cover photo from: @ayafernandez)

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