Tony Olaes to Receive Asian Heritage Award in Entrepreneurship
By Leonard Novarro
Tony Olaes, a highly successful clothing designer, who has helped build thousands of homes in impoverished areas of the Philippines, was born in the United States, the son of Filipino immigrants.
But Olaes never thought of himself as Filipino until a turning point in his life several years ago when he visited his parents’ native country.
Olaes could be the poster boy for the American Dream. At 27, he started his own apparel design business out of his garage and grew it to be one of the leading manufacturers of pop culture T-shirts and other apparel.
Commonly known as “ODM,” Olaes Enterprises, Inc. is nationally recognized for its designs and as a manufacturer of imprinted apparel that communicates today’s pop American culture. The company supplies product to national retailers such as Walmart, Target and Kmart and to name a few. Currently, Olaes chairs the Board of Directors for ODM and continues to be its primary visionary for future growth.
While his parents urged him to visit the Philippines, except for a few trips as a teenager, he had no desire to do so, and when they decided to build a home in the Philippines several years ago, “I was livid,” he recalled. “The Philippines was a place that was unsafe because of the news reports of kidnappings, poverty and corruption. I felt that I worked so hard to ‘make it,’ and for them to just irresponsibly go into harm’s way, it just didn’t make sense.”
However, all that changed when, upon his wife’s urging, he visited the country one more time – with eyes open. “My uncle took me to a village of poor people who were former squatters,” he said. No longer living in squalid surroundings, they had worked together to build their own homes with the help of corporations, the government and outside donors to become self-sufficient. “Even when I knew they couldn’t afford it, they offered me food as if I was visiting my own aunt and uncle in the States,” said Olaes, the father of three and a Poway resident. “There was a consistency of generosity and love that I felt. I had misjudged who they were because of the environment I grew up in…I went to the Philippines an American, but I came back as a Filipino.”
Combining his business acumen with his socio-cultural awareness, Olaes embarked upon a homebuilding campaign that continues to this day by joining the nation-building movement called Gawad Kalinga, which, loosely interpreted, stands for “to award care.” As CEO and Chairman of the Board of Gawad Kalinga USA, he has been instrumental in providing homes for thousands of the poor in villages throughout the Philippines by contributing personal finances and his experience as a real estate professional.
Olaes’ talent in graphics and entrepreneurial skills was evident at an early age. He began winning awards for art when he was only 16 years old and was given scholarships to various design schools. At age 24 he started working in the garment industry and three years later had his own business, working out of his garage.
“His mission in business is not only for profit but for humanitarian and charitable work and love for one's own people, culture and heritage. Tony is the epitome of good business and compassionate entrepreneurship,” says his nomination from the San Diego Filipino community.
Gawad Kalinga’s 13-year-old program, which also tackles many social issues such as crime and education, has been extended to home-building campaigns in other countries in Asia. Olaes’ work with GK, as it is called, has not only transformed much of the Philippines; it has also changed his view of himself. “I carry the citizenship of the United States of America and am very proud of it, but at the same time I know who I am as a Filipino,” said Olaes.