"Authenicity with me on a daily basis, and every day it is what matters most," says Carmen Jimenez Ong, mom, wife, entrepreneur, painter, and recently, high-end real estate developer. This key value helped her through her mother’s illness, a difficult and “raw” moment in her life. “My mom was about to undergo an operation in 2002 to remove an invader inside her, and we were in her bedroom. She had the Bible with her, and we prayed. She said, ‘Lord, this is not my life. Take it if you want it. I will do your will for me. But I pray for more years with my family.’ My heart sank. I never realized my superhero was only human. My mom explained that this is not our life, and we should be ready to go home to our maker at any time.”
It’s this understanding of the fleeting and fragile moments in this life that allows Carmen to approach her own existence with an existential and genuine eye. And she, in turn, brings this genuine openness and authentic femininity to her work in a highly male-dominated field. “I am surrounded by testosterone, being in construction and development, so when I can choose, I try to have some female energy around me. My work is overwhelming and demanding, time bound, and quite difficult because I refuse to sacrifice quality. But we want to do things right and to international standards.”
Her foray into construction has taken a similar arc, with chance, serendipity, and opportunity playing a large part in her new field, as well as a family legacy of excellence that was impressed upon her by her parents.
Menarco Development Corporation is a new player in the country’s real estate sector, but it already has lofty ambitions. For its first office building, Menarco Tower, it has set aside 2 billion pesos for development. It is the first building in the Philippines to register for the health-oriented WELL Certification, and it has been precertified Gold by the environment-oriented LEED program of the U.S. Green Building Council. At the recent South East Asia Property Awards in Singapore, Menarco won the award for Best Green Development. “It is the healthiest place to work in the Philippines. I am so proud of it, and I hope that we are able to redefine the Philippine work space—a place with natural light shining on your desk, where you breathe clean, filtered air, where you can exercise and walk up and down the stairs while seeing the sky and listening to music, where there are virtually no pests or bugs that could invade your space, where the bathrooms are fresh and clean, like your own home, where the art features museum-quality work by select contemporary Philippine artists,” says Carmen of the project, three years in the making.
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As managing director of Menarco, Carmen’s day is spent with lots of human interaction, which she prefers to gadgets or social media. “My husband started my accounts, so I think if not for him, I would not be on social media. But I really prefer human interaction and finding out about things through conversation than by reading about them online,” Carmen says.
Growing up as the youngest in a close-knit family, Carmen was always appreciative of the love and support from her parents Menardo and Carolina, and the examples they modeled. “My family was led by a self-made man and a supportive mom. My father expected excellence from all of us, and my mom encouraged us every step of the way. Yin and yang. They modeled what a good marriage was all about and what it meant to raise children, serve the country, make life better for others, while also earning an honest living. My father was strict. He expected obedience. He was the king of the house. It had to be this way, because he was running the only independent TV network in the country at a time when being in broadcasting could cost you your life. My mom knew how to humor him, and she was strong in her own way. She was our moral compass. She has a deep connection with God, just like her mother and her maternal grandmother, and my mom prayed for him and all of us all the time.”
“My family was led by a self-made man and a supportive mom. My father expected excellence from all of us, and my mom encouraged us every step of the way."
Carmen admits she was sort of a surprise addition to her family, who were seemingly content with the three children they already had. “I was the youngest in a family of four children. My parents didn’t intend to have me. They built three rooms in their new house, and then out I came right after it was done. I was meant to be!” Her mother, unaware she was pregnant with Carmen at the time, simply thought she was gaining weight and went on a diet to lose some weight. Little did she know this was Carmen-in-the-waiting. “She exercised, dieted, and then decided to consult her OB aunt, who told her she was pregnant! I like to think I was hanging for dear life. Everything happens for a reason, and now that I am older, again, I realize that I was born as a reward for their goodness. Seriously. I have taken care of their medical needs for the past 15 years, and I have been to most of their checkups and, definitely for any procedure, I am there talking to the doctors. While they are good at business and other things, the world of medicine is foreign to them. It used to be foreign to me, but as Blink author Malcolm Gladwell says, after 10,000 hours, you can get really good at anything. So I suppose I have learned a bit more than the average person about the medical trade and the human body.”
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Her foray into construction has taken a similar arc, with chance, serendipity, and opportunity playing a large part in her new field, as well as a family legacy of excellence that was impressed upon her by her parents. “I cannot say that I always wanted to be in the field of construction. I wanted to be a mother and a homemaker, a teacher, and an artist. But in my family, this was not enough. On my mom’s side, they had the first female lawyer and certified public accountant. My dad was considered a media mogul. I couldn’t just move to the beach and paint barefoot in the sand, could I?”
This entrepreneurial drive was evident in her many ventures while growing up, and well into her college years. “Ever since I entered Ateneo, I earned my own money. It started with tie dye. Growing up by the beach in the West Coast, I learned how to make tie-dye shirts. And when I was in college, we supplied Sari Sari and Company B. My parents did not mind that our garden and garage turned into a mini-factory.” Her philanthropic background is also a sizable part of her business model. “Proceeds were shared with the children of prisoners, and that grew into the Heaven Sent Bazaar, then to running the family foundation, then to B+B Pilates Studio, and now, Menarco Tower. The common thread among all of these is that whatever I did, I wanted to be a light to others and to help them. I earned, but I never made money my god. I kept my love for humanity at the center of my decisions. It’s something that doesn’t escape me. Because no matter what I do—whether it’s baking homemade apple pie or constructing a 32-story office tower—I do it with all my heart and soul.” Her personal standards and work ethic have earned her the trust of her entire family. “I think my family, my parents know that, and that is why they give me so much to do.”
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"By middle school, it became addictive to do well and to receive honors and awards. I think that is why now that I am working, I want to do the same."
She credits her mother with the formation of this core and for who she is today. As a child Carmen was a bundle of charm and effervescence. A cheerful and bubbly personality, she got along with most everyone. Her friends describe her as being like the bubble on the bottom of a 7-Up bottle that never pops. She was also inquisitive, talkative, artistic, and responsible.” Today, Carmen maintains a more reserved demeanor, “but when warmed up, it’s like we’ve known each other forever!”
Her penchant for working hard was evident even in her school years. “In school, I played hard and worked hard. I liked sports, art, and I enjoyed math and spelling. Teachers asked me to join Quiz Bees and I won medals. By middle school, it became addictive to do well and to receive honors and awards. I think that is why now that I am working, I want to do the same. Even if it is my first major development and construction project, Menarco Tower is already winning awards.”
As a certified Pilates instructor, fitness of mind and body is also something she abides by. “I work out for a few hours every day. I remember saying yes to Cynthia Norton to join the dual meet between Manila Polo Club and Alabang Country Club, and my teammates and I had to practice many hours after school. I had never done splits or one-handed push-ups before, but we had to. We won, and it showed me that with enough effort and prayer, we could really do anything.”
Today she finds her joy and light in the small, meaningful things, and this is what sustains her through every undertaking. “My children’s antics make me laugh. Ellen DeGeneres makes me laugh. My brother Joel makes me laugh. I used to laugh so much and so often, but I think working in construction, surrounded by so much testosterone, I have been more serious than I would like to be.”
Our identity as a nation is continuously evolving, and it needs continuing discussion. Esquire Philippines presents a collection of essays offering different perspectives on the necessarily nuanced and complex question of Being Filipino.