President at Upgrade Energy Philippines – a company that offers renewable energy and energy efficiency technology solutions to various industries, Yu-Owen seems to have all. She broke the proverbial ceiling and earned the top post or what some might say “a man’s job.” In fact, just recently, she became the first honoree of USAid Asia’s Southeast Asian Women Energy Champions series which celebrates women leaders in the sector who have overcome barriers, defied stereotypes, and succeeded in their professions. She is blessed with a happily married life and lives very comfortably from the hard work she consistently delivered throughout her successful career. No one would ever think she came from a very humble beginning, but she did.
“In my 20s, there was this question, ‘What will make you happy?’ My answer was plain and simple – it was basic needs,” Yu-Owen started her life story in this exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine.
Ruth Yu-Owen’s background is in energy but she found her passion in elevating and helping other Filipinas through Connected Women.
COVER AND BANNER PHOTO BY J. GERARD SEGUIA
“My aunt had to send me to school because my parents couldn’t afford it. I know what it’s like…” she trailed off. “That’s why when I over-tip the waiters, I know it means food on the table. Alam ko yung wala kaming makain.”
These days, the question Yu-Owen usually gets is, “How can you make so much difference on a daily basis?”
“My answer is just as plain and simple. It completes me – altruism. And it’s not about doing something so you can feel good about yourself,” Yu-Owen explained.
Many times in her life, she came across many situations that led her to be of help to many communities. As part of Mindanao Humanitarian Volunteers of the Philippines, she has organized many medical dental and feeding missions, raised money to fund the scholars of her alma mater, the Ateneo de Zamboanga University, and led the donation of hundreds of footballs for the Philippine Marine Corps’ Football for Peace, among others.
A proud Zamboangeña who speaks fluent Tausug, she has supported women weavers for a while, explaining why she was wearing a Yakan ensemble for the interview.
With good friend Gina Romero, her co-founder in
“Besides preserving our heritage, I like to support indigenous communities because I know women will always find ways to make it work for their family,” she said.
These days, the hip word to call Yu-Owen is an “enabler.” In an August 2021 interview on the South China Morning Post she was recognized for playing a key part in Olympic gold medalist and fellow Zamboangeña Hidilyn Diaz’s success. Diaz said Yu-Owen was always there to give her moral support, which helped her to emerge stronger from the lowest points in her life.
“She is like a mother to me, she really helped me when everyone was against me, and I am thankful to have her in my life. She inspires a lot of people and is always giving back to the community,” Diaz said in her interview with the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper.
According to Diaz, Yu-Owen would often welcome her to her home in Manila.
“She is like a daughter to me,” Yu-Owen told the South China Morning Post in return.” Her mother is in Zamboanga and when she is in Manila she would visit me regularly. She genuinely cares about others. She’s a good person with a good heart and is consistently like that. Hidi doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she is very strong, not just physically but emotionally.”
Going through how varied Yu-Owen’s advocacies are, she clarified that she does not want to be seen as a philanthropist.
“Sometimes, when you do something good, you’ll be labeled, and I don’t like to be labeled. I’m not a philanthropist but a person who helps whenever I can. I do it because it’s the right thing to do,” she related.
Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz on her wedding to Julius Naranjo made sure to invite her good friend, town
mate and mother figure, Yu-Owen as well as her family, husband Bob and son Thomas.
“I always tell people the secret to happiness is to channel your energy towards helping people. The question is no longer, ‘What’s in it for me?’ I think the most fulfilling part is to see things happening, going in the right direction and people’s lives changed for the better. For me, that’s the purpose-driven life,” she added.
Stars aligned when Yu-Owen met Gina Romero, her co-founder for Connected Women, a social impact tech startup that gives women and mothers the opportunity to learn from women executives and entrepreneurs and receive their support and guidance.
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“Upgrade Energy is my day job, but this is my passion, Connected Women. Gina is like the geek with this vision to help women, and it’s personal for her. It’s also personal for me because I just want to help. She and her husband are on the innovation side, while I do the commercial by bringing partners in.”
Previously based in Singapore, Romero – who had a seat at the Singapore Women’s Business Council – met Yu-Owen in 2016 to interview her for her magazine about women in energy. Their conversation went far and wide, with Romero, at some point, recalling to Yu-Owen that her mom was a domestic helper in the ’70s from Pampanga who went to work in the UK where she met her father.
Romero also shared how hearing her mom’s Filipino friends talk about sending money back to the Philippines took her aback as she felt for mothers and children being apart. She eventually realized many years later that the same situation of absentee Filipino mothers who work abroad has only grown in numbers.
“When Gina interviewed me, she said, ‘We came back to the Philippines because I really feel there’s something I can do to help women.’ Back in Singapore, she has a Filipina helper who goes home every two years. She was like, ‘Who’s looking after your children?’ For us, why are we shipping our mothers out? They become nannies to the children of other people.’
“She also told me, ‘We came back here to get women in technology, train them so they can work remotely.’ So that’s when I picked up the ball and asked, ‘How can I help?’ When you start asking how you can help, that’s when things happen not for you but for others,” Yu-Owen averred.
With Connected Women’s goal to provide women with jobs while working from home, imagine the difference they have made since the pandemic started. At the height of the outbreak, Connected Women got to train 600 women through Elevate AIDA (Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics). In this accelerated learning program, women are taught to be data annotators, which is considered essential in any program that uses artificial intelligence (AI).
“We work with tech companies that want to help the mothers. They outsource some of the technical requirements to Connected Women because many companies are transitioning to AI. But as we know, AI or machines don’t have their own intelligence–they still need humans.
“Enter AIDA. What does it do? For a machine to learn one object, it needs millions and millions of data. For example, when we’re browsing, there is a chance that we’ll be sent to a reCAPTCHA where it will tell users, ‘We want to make sure you’re not a robot; please click the traffic lights.’ What you’re doing there is data annotating. AIDA is as simple as checking this, checking that. You need a human in the loop. It is very simple, so you can bring it to the grassroots, especially the underserved communities.
“We bring opportunity home for women because technology is getting more sophisticated, connectivity is getting better and more improved,” she continued.
Among the partners and clients of Connected Women are PLDT, Smart, Aboitiz, UN Women, Meta, UnionBank and Facebook, among others. The social startup is also proud to be recognized for creating meaningful progress towards achieving sustainable development goals by winning awards such as 2021 Finalist – ITU Digital World 2021 SME Awards (Geneva), 2020 Finalist – Covid-19 Action, UN Women, WEPs Awards (Philippines), 2019 Champion for e-Employment – WSIS (Geneva), 2019 Finalist – RSA Future Work Awards (UK), and 2018 Finalist – MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (ASIA).
“It is interesting because people are talking about the fourth industrial revolution as if it will still take long to come, but it’s happening now. And for Connected Women to be inclusive, [the candidate] doesn’t have to be in tech or study computers.”
Giving a clearer picture of what she meant, Yu-Owen shared, “When we started, we were like, ‘Marunong ka mag-Facebook? OK pasok AIDA ka na.’ Because like schooling, hindi naman tayo pumasok sa school na marunong na magbasa. So sila ganun din, entry point,” she specified.
“Noong una, sabi namin yung mga nanay na nasa sari-sari store at mga kasambahay ang i-AIDA. But now, there’s a mix. The data annotation work could be simple or a little complicated, or maybe a computer vision. But they get it. And when we train them, we also pay them around P250 pesos a day for 15 days.
“That’s why we have partners so that while we upskill them, they can also earn simultaneously.”
Besides private sectors, Connected Women also partnered with the government through the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).
“We partnered with Tesda to train 1,000 women, so they also have Tesda Certificates. Connected Women also believes in collaboration, so we collaborate with DICT. They have this goal to have 25 digital cities by 2025. We provide its gender component, so we trained AIDA in Zamboanga, Legazpi and Roxas last year. We will go to six more cities this year,” enthused Yu-Owen.
Unbelievably, she added, “In Zamboanga, I think we trained two women inside the correctional. So anywhere you are, there’s hope.
Yu-Owen cannot be happier that what were once black-and-white partnerships are now actual collaborations.
“The DICT provides the equipment, we train, and they earn. They are able to help their families. This [model] is one way of helping the government deliver jobs and opportunities to the home. It becomes this collaboration,” she added.
Since the pandemic, Connected Women has trained 600
women through Elevate AIDA (Artificial Intelligence
and Data Analytics) program.
Yu-Owen also related that besides giving out jobs, Connected Women is also about having a tribe.
“Connected Women has about 80,000 women in our community. This a tribe – women that share, connect and learn. It doesn’t matter if you’re educated or not educated because it’s a tribe where women support one another and collaborate. It could be a tribe of businesswomen, professionals, OFWs, or housewives.
“Before the pandemic, the ladies in Connected Women met up every six weeks, happening simultaneously all over the country including Singapore, Pakistan, Taiwan and the Middle East. It’s a very informal setup. It’s really a community.
“The tribe also grew because of our partnership with Facebook. When women think of Connected Women, they think of Facebook. We’re now in six years in partnership with them. Every year there’s digital upskilling, digital marketing, digital training, and health components,” the dedicated founder averred.
From merely being driven by the thought of helping women in the Philippines, Connected Women continues to grow by providing livelihood to women in technology.
“Connected Women will only get bigger. In that way, I think it will be a catalyst for change for women in the Philippines and, hopefully globally.
“But the job here is quite big. Five million Filipino women are out of the workforce, and over a million are OFWs. We want to solve that problem here first. Helping women is our business,” she ended.