The woman with an iron will and a heart of gold

Community News & Features Aug 23, 2019 at 3:07 pm

MaidtoMade_bookcover16 Lessons from Rebecca Bustamante:

By Michelle Chermaine Ramos
The Philippine Reporter

Former maid, now self-made CEO, philanthropist, author, producer, TV host, motivational speaker and Asia business leader Rebecca Bustamante-Mills’ literal rags-to-riches journey is no Cinderella story. She is altogether the servant girl, saviour and now fairy godmother in this gritty tale of faith, hope and charity. The seventh of eleven children, food was so scarce as her family lived in extreme poverty that her mother was forced to send Rebecca to live and work as a maid in different homes just to ensure that she would be fed and so that she could help earn money for her family.

She is now the president and founder of her multinational recruitment firm, Chalre Associates, with her husband Richard Mills. They were recently in Toronto to host the first Asia CEO Forum in Canada on Monday August 5, 2019 at the Delta Hotel where respected economist Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas shared business updates and investment opportunities in Asia and the Philippines. The couple founded the Asia CEO Forum and the Asia CEO Awards which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Dubbed as the “Oscars of Business” in Asia, it brings together the brightest minds in the international business community in Asia as Rebecca and Richard Mills are staunch promoters of investing in the Philippines, with their long-term goal of making it a first-world country by 2030.

Despite reaching incredible heights from extreme poverty in childhood, Rebecca still humbly insists that she has no special talent or smarts that led to her becoming one of the top business dynamos in Asia. However, as we examine her life, it is clear that her inherent superpowers are her iron will, laser focus, crystal clear vision and heart of gold which drove her through everything against all odds. She shares her insight and words of wisdom in this interview.

Rebecca Bustamante-Mills with Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

Rebecca Bustamante-Mills with Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

1. Sales skills can be learned early and are transferable in life

Rebecca credits her success in sales as an adult to what she learned from working as a street vendor at the age of seven selling bread, ice candy or fruits and using what little money she earned to buy rice for breakfast. Her family was so poor that her younger brothers and sisters did not have milk to drink. In desperation, they drank rice water mixed with sugar. She learned the value of selling since the more she sold, the more she earned, versus her fixed wages cleaning houses. “At that young age I realized that if you sell and work more, you will make more money. So, I really wanted to learn to have my own business someday.”

2. Faith is stronger than fear

After high school, Rebecca moved away to work in a factory. A year later, when her mother passed away from lung cancer when Rebecca was 18, she became her family’s sole breadwinner since her father and older siblings did not have stable jobs. She then worked at a local bank as a janitress so she could take care of her younger siblings. To add to the tragedy, she discovered that they were also about to lose their home. Instead of allowing herself to be paralyzed by fear, she grabbed the opportunity to work as a maid in Singapore.

3. Recognize trials as stepping-stones

“Working is just a stepping-stone to achieve what you want in life. Poverty is not a hindrance to be successful,” Rebecca says of her decision to work in Singapore, setting herself a deadline of four years to move to Canada. “When I went to Singapore, I had goals – to pay the debt, help my brothers and sisters and pursue my education. And of course, the number one priority is to help my employer.” Trials often come as blessings in disguise to prepare us for greater things ahead. “You don’t know the reason before or during the challenges, but you will only know after,” she explains.

Chalre Associates founders Rebecca Bustamante-Mills and husband Richard Mills chat with prospective investors after the presentation

Chalre Associates founders Rebecca Bustamante-Mills and husband Richard Mills chat with prospective investors after the presentation

4. Build relationships

Many Filipino domestic helpers were overworked or treated unkindly by employers in Singapore. Rebecca had a different attitude going into the job and focused on how she could make her employer’s lives easier. She took care of their children and the household chores even showing how much she cared by taking the kids out when their parents were exhausted. This endeared her to the family that when she eventually applied for a job in Canada, they gave her a bad reference letter because they did not want to lose her. They eventually retracted it admitting that they had grown attached to her. She is still close friends with them and visits them whenever she is in Singapore. Carrying the same attitude as a nanny working for a wealthy family in Toronto, she added value to her job by offering to take on cleaning duties so the couple no longer had to outsource that service. The children are now grown-up, and they remain close friends with her family. Sincerely care about people and see where you can add value, she says.

5. Guard your time

In Singapore, it was common for domestic helpers to have only one day off in a month. “24/7 I worked looking after the children, tutoring them, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, ironing, groceries- name it. But then, that’s okay, because I still had one day a month off when I pursued my education,” Rebecca optimistically explained. She diligently managed her time studying every night while the children slept. She used her only day off each month to meet her professor who would correct a month’s worth of homework and assign her another month’s worth to complete for their next meeting. “I worked Monday to Friday from 5am to 11 o’clock at night. Then from 11pm to 1am was when I was doing my homework, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “You maximize your time and value your time because we have 24 hours a day. What matters is where you use your time.”

Many said it was impossible for her to complete her studies in accounting considering her packed schedule, but she did it. Again, when working as a full-time domestic helper in Canada, she pursued further studies while building her recruitment agency. While other domestic workers spent the weekends going out to discos looking for rich husbands, she prioritized her goals.

6. Read because knowledge is wealth if put into action

In Singapore, Rebecca took advantage of the time she had to take her employers’ kids to the library by reading self-help books. The first one she says that changed her life was Stop Worrying and Start Living. She bought it for about ten dollars which was very expensive for her back then. The second was Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. She explains that these books changed her outlook since she used to be very shy, self-doubting and constantly worried. She says those books gave her a paradigm shift enabling her to blossom into a more open and confident person.

Richard Mills starting off the introductions with the attendees.

Richard Mills starting off the introductions with the attendees.

7. Don’t get too comfortable. Think long-term.

Being in Singapore was a short-term survival job but Canada offered something Singapore could not – the chance to be a citizen. Realizing that she could establish her roots and help relocate her siblings for a better future, she got a job as a domestic helper while attending night classes at Ryerson University for accounting and marketing and selling pots and pans in her free time, lugging heaving suitcases on buses and icy sidewalks during brutal Canadian winters.

8. Ignore the naysayers and keep your eyes on the prize

Rebecca encountered no shortage of bullies – as a child when she went to school in worn-out clothes, naysayers who said it was impossible for her to juggle her duties as a maid while studying, and people who made fun of her as she struggled lugging around the cookware she was selling on public transit. “People put me down, called me names and said I was stupid, but I didn’t focus on that. Instead, I focused on my goals,” she said.

9. Love, family and integrity above all else

As she struggled abroad, many advised her to stop financially supporting her siblings back home and just focus on herself. Despite her hardship, Rebecca relentlessly kept the promise she made to her mother before she died that she would take care of her younger siblings. “As long as you know that you’re doing the right thing, continue,” she said. “My brothers and sisters inspired me and gave me that passion and vision. If we focus on helping our family, that’s the good path. It’s better for you to do the right thing now, so afterwards you can say, ‘thank God I did what was right’ than to regret and say you wish you did.”

10. In any business climate, the opportunity lies in providing solutions to problems.

While most shy away from starting new businesses in the middle of a recession, that is exactly what Rebecca did as soon as she got her open permit in Canada around 2002. “I knew that time it was recession but I didn’t focus on that because so many people still make money during a recession while others are losing a lot. I focused on how I could help people who aren’t making money. Focus on what you can do for others in order to achieve what you want in life.”

11. Be strategic when it comes to choosing the right partner

Know exactly what traits you want and will not tolerate in a partner. Thinking like the professional recruiter she was, Rebecca made a list of qualifications her future husband had to meet and did not budge from that until she met Richard through a friend who insisted that she meet him after gauging that he was “very qualified” as per Rebecca’s standards. Rebecca was already a strong successful businesswoman by the time she was ready to find a life partner. She put emphasis on finding someone educated, responsible and with a good family background since that would influence how they would raise their children. Having a good relationship is a two-way street and Rebecca advises women to think of what they have to offer their partner as an equal. “What can you do that makes you unique to your partner? You shouldn’t be a burden to a guy.
Anywhere your partner goes, there are so many beautiful and talented women but what makes you different that even though he sees all of them he still wants to come back to you? You are the one who can answer that.” Despite different backgrounds and personalities, she and Richard have the same goals, values and vision in life.

What makes their marriage even more extraordinary is the fact that they are also strong partners in business. “We developed skills that complement each other,” says Richard. “Many young guys focus on physical aspects and yes, I agree that’s important especially when you’re young. But focus also on the long-term aspects like whether she can work, her spending habits, her career focus, industriousness…these kinds of things will sustain a relationship. Rebecca is extremely affectionate, which of course is important when you’re young but also when you’re older. With her, it is a real partnership in every way and she’s always been like that since day one.”

12. Work for something greater than yourself

After being one of the top performers in insurance, a cosmetics company offered Rebecca an opportunity to work as their senior sales director when they opened their operations in the Philippines. Because of this, the couple relocated to raise their two sons, Chris and Alex, in Filipino culture. There, she and Richard saw the need to provide a means to connect multinational companies who come to the Philippines with qualified people to run their organizations. They founded Chalre Associates and expanded their operations in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries across Asia. Eventually, this inspired them to build the Asia CEO Forum and the Asia CEO Awards in their plan to make the Philippines a first world nation by 2030 by attracting investors.

13. Be practical

As a self-made millionaire, Rebecca knows the value of hard-earned money and is not blinded by luxury goods and lives frugally. She is not into expensive clothes or jewelry and still maintains the habit of saving 20 percent of her income which she started when she was a maid.

14. Lead by example

“Show them the way, don’t tell them,” says Rebecca regarding the essence of true leadership. “If you have to clean a washroom, even if you are the boss, show them, don’t tell them. When they watch you doing those little things it means a lot to them and makes them feel you’re partners.” She is open with her team and treats them as equals. “Share your vision with them because as a leader, your people will come to you because they’re working with you not just for money, but for a shared vision,” she explains.

15. Passion plus action equals success

When asked what advice she would give the world, she says, “Know who you are. What’s your passion? What’s your vision? Know what’s your purpose in this world. Once you find that purpose, do the work. When you put that passion with action, it equals the result. Sometimes we complain too much and don’t know what we want, so find it out.”

16. Stay humble and give back

Rebecca still regularly visits her roots in Dasol, Pangasinan, where her childhood friends and early employers are. She generously shares her time and blessings by giving motivational talks and donating computers to schools and helping in other ways she can. Her sons, Chris and Alex who are studying in Canadian universities also led a book collection drive for the benefit of students in the Philippines.

To inspire and empower others to reach their goals by sharing her secrets to success, Rebecca is offering her book titled Maid to Made, free for everyone to download at