FOR many years, she headed one of the top car companies in the Philippines. She was even the face of the country’s automotive industry for at least seven years as president of the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines Inc. (Campi).
But at one point in her professional life, Elizabeth Lee wanted to find better ways to serve the country while still excelling in the vehicle industry. She also would leave the Universal Motors Corporation (UMC), a company carrying the Nissan brand, after putting into place a social program that was a success in alleviating poverty.
“During my stint with Nissan [UMC], my mom and I came up with an innovative and pioneering program, a first in the auto industry to directly tie vehicle sales to poverty alleviation,” she said.
The program, called “Ur Van, Ur Business,” promoted the Nissan Urvan as the ideal business vehicle for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Lee said it proved to be a success that even the big boss of Nissan Motors Ltd. in Japan, Carlos Ghosn, took notice of it because a vehicle that was more than a decade and a half old sold beyond expectations under the program.
What made the Ur Van, Ur Business unique, however, was part of the proceeds from the sale of each Nissan Urvan was donated to a Christian organization that helped the poor establish their businesses and elevate themselves from poverty.
“And for each vehicle sold, we donated a percentage to a Christian foundation’s micro-finance arm to provide seed money to help underprivileged micro-entrepreneurs, the poor, to start their own businesses,” Lee said.
“With God’s grace, expected success came at an unexpected degree: Sales of the Urvan more than doubled for the company consistently for five years after the program’s inception,” she added.
From approximately 70 units per month when the program started, sales of the Urvan zoomed to about 300 per month.
More than 7,400 families were assisted under the program that saw janitors, street dwellers, low-wage earners and underprivileged micro-entrepreneurs, among others, grow their businesses and improve their social standing.
When she left UMC after leading it for 12 years, Lee was eyed to head the Bureau of Customs. Her mother, however, advised her not to take the position although Lee was known for advocacy to stop large-scale smuggling and to support local manufacturing.
Her leaving the top posts at UMC and Campi was actually big news in the middle of 2011 and was something that was not expected.
In a letter sent to journalists, Lee said, “I see my stint at Campi and UMC as an excellent chapter in [my]corporate life. But like a good play that deserves an encore, a new chapter will open up for me in a different setting, maybe with a different set of players and probably with even greater challenges.”
“My retirement from UMC and resignation from CAMPI were part of my discernment process to give me the much-needed space and time to consider other opportunities and conquer new fields,” she added.
Nobody knew, however, as to what Lee would do next or what would be her next venture.
CHANGING HER WITHIN
But even after leaving UMC and Campi, Lee still felt there was a need to continue the programs Ur Van, Ur Business supported because it had a profound impact on the lives of small people. That mission would be fulfilled with the founding of Emotors Inc. that ventured into the local manufacture of electric vehicles.
“When I left UMC/Nissan, I wanted to continue helping underprivileged entrepreneurs and support our scholars. Seeing how what we did changed lives, changed my perspective. It also changed me,” Lee said.
“In this light, our new company was born: EMotors Inc. – a social enterprise whose main goal is to uplift people’s lives, help make things better for others, using the products we carry, our circle of influence and the business we’re in,” she added.
EMotors made Lee take a very different path because at UMC, she was in charge of also marketing the large SUVs and pick-ups of the Nissan brand at a time when demand for such vehicles were already picking up.
“The path I chose is a stark contrast from what I used to do. I went from selling cars with emission to zero-emission; from selling cars that are worth upwards of P6 million to electric tricycles that cost as low as P220,000,” she said.
By founding EMotors, Lee also went from being a top executive of a car company to an entrepreneur.
“They are two very different worlds. Being an entrepreneur makes my previous corporate position seem easier, perhaps because the structure in the organization is already ‘built-in’ and there’s an ‘organization’ to speak of. Building a start-up, you literally have to build from the start, up! Being an entrepreneur teaches you and ‘forces’ you to learn a lot of different skills- some of which I previously took for granted since the many departments within a big organization [like UMC]normally handles them,” she said.
Apparently, Lee’s being an entrepreneur gave her the opportunity to be creative and take on more advocacies, and to continue helping the country.
“One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is the chance to create and make a difference in an advocacy or issue you believe in. In my case, it involves climate change mitigation, poverty alleviation, livelihood creation and employment generation,” she said.
When asked if she has any regrets leaving the corporate world and starting a venture where success is not automatically guaranteed, Lee said she is happy where she is now even if it meant leaving a high-paying job for one that she claims doesn’t pay her.
“Regrets? None! Actually, I am still in the corporate world in a sense but I’m now an entrepreneur – still in the transport industry,” she added.
“It’s not the pay, nor the prestige, nor the size that matters. I am happy to put my energies in what matters to me and to others and that I tried to make a difference in what I believe needs to get done,” Lee said.
She has been known for her elegance and class, and three years since founding EMotors, she still exudes the same. What is also obvious is she has found her true calling that success in the corporate world cannot give.
“As the saying goes, life is a journey. I am grateful to be in this innovative space. It gives us the freedom to create, innovate. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool,” Lee said.
“Fans, fame and fortune will never fill the voids of your life. Significance will,” she added.