It’s that kind of tale that can make it to a movie script someday. Brainy, ambitious, small-town girl, who grew on hand-me-downs, excels in college, becomes a mother at 19, lands a job in Dubai; faces visa violations and mounting debts – only to fight the odds, to race to the top as an award-winning CEO. This in short, is the stirring story of Dr Karen Remo, the 38-year-old Filipina CEO of New Perspective Media (NPM), Dubai, winner of Entrepreneur of the Year, 2020, and the Female Leader of the Year in the Middle East, 2019.
"I was always a dreamer. I feel my imagination has brought me where I am today. Even during tough times, in my mind, I was flying high," Karen says when we meet in her upscale office in Barsha Heights, Dubai.
She is seated in a white leather swivel chair, her petite frame draped in a black, off-shoulder Dior outfit, accentuating the stark colour contrast. Shelves behind her are stacked with her many trophies and awards – a silent witness to the fulfilment of dreams she saw as a young girl growing up in Batangas province in the Philippines; most of all they are a reminder of the stereotypes about Filipinos she broke in the Middle East.
"When I came to Abu Dhabi in 2002, Filipinos were the underdogs. I was offered a job as an executive secretary and told that this is the highest post I can rise to as a Filipina in the UAE," she relates. "I set out to break those limitations."
Today, as part of New Perspective Media Group, Karen is a seasoned marketing and communications professional, an advisor to government bodies, corporates and international non-profit organisations. Under her leadership, the group has expanded to four offices in the Middle East and Asia Pacific. She is also the publisher of The Filipino Times, the largest news portal and free newspaper for Filipinos in the emirates.
While on stage in November 2019 to receive the Middle East Economic Digest Female Leader of the Year Award, alongside Colm McLoughlin, CEO of Dubai Duty Free, the young entrepreneur got a first-hand taste of the deep impact she was making in her community. "I became the first Filipino national to win this award in the UAE. When I stepped down from the dais, I was overwhelmed seeing so many of the Filipino waitstaff weeping with joy and saying ‘Thank you po’," shares Karen. Their collective pride in her success is the best pay off, Karen says, she has received.
With wealth management webinars, property exhibitions and an upcoming book on financial literacy, Karen is astutely empowering Filipinos.
Fuelled by hard work and dream
Dig deeper and traces of this resolve to prove one’s mettle, go back to Karen’s growing up years. The eldest of five siblings, born in a lower middle-class family of small entrepreneurs, she learnt early on that hard work and imagination can steer her to swim against the tide. "My parents ran several small businesses to make ends meet. Being the eldest, I was a hands-on worker, right from age seven," recollects Karen.
From reusing old bottles to sell plants to kneading dough for pandesal in their home bakery to deskinning chicken in their slaughterhouse, Karen’s life revolved around the daily grind of her parents’ business ventures. Sleeping on hard mattresses, with no money to buy new shoes, unable to afford the white uniform at school (her own tattered grey ones were passed down from older aunts and uncles), she found hope in her dreams. "Whatever was missing in my life, it existed in my imagination. In my make-believe world, I was wearing a sparkling white uniform, eating ice cream and living a great life," she laughs, reminiscing.
Being a bright student at school in Batangas, Karen decided to move to Manila to study mass communication, graduating top of the class. "I was 19. It was a momentous year – I had excelled in college, making the people of my province, very proud. But soon I found out I was pregnant. Marriage and the birth of my daughter followed – all in the same year," she explains.
Fast forward a couple of months – as a young mother struggling through an unhappy marriage, Karen landed in the UAE in 2002. Looking for a job in the media industry, she instead found work as a secretary in an oil and gas firm in Abu Dhabi. "Being very curious and adventurous, with an unending thirst for learning, I worked beyond my role. There were also visa issues as the company had overshot the employment quota and I had to even go to the Federal Court to clear my name."
But none of this dented Karen’s spirits. Yet another job came her way, this time as a writer in an oil and gas magazine, where, in a year, she was promoted to the post of the editor.
Fighting the odds
Though at first her career graph soared, it wasn’t plain sailing. In 2008, her position was made redundant, putting a brake to her flight. "It was a do-or-die situation. I had no job, huge debts to pay off, and a daughter, for whom I wanted a better life," tells Karen. She had long toyed with the idea of starting a media consultancy and this turmoil was the fuel she needed to take the plunge full-time as an entrepreneur leading to the launch of NPM in 2010. There has been no turning back for her since then.
With a team of 40 and a resilient business that has held ground in the pandemic, Karen says, her employees are her biggest asset. ‘As an entrepreneur, finding the right talent and building them goes a long way. The bigger the company, the smaller the founder becomes.’ She cites the instance of her personal assistant, who joined them a few years ago, was promoted to the role of a sales executive and has now moved up the ladder as corporate relationship manager.
Having withstood the storms to taste success what have been the learnings from her journey?
"One has to keep innovating and look for the good in whatever comes along the way, with a heart full of gratitude," she replies.
Besides nurturing people, the much-admired boss lady leads her pack by example. A single mum and a self-confessed workaholic, her day begins at 5am with a run outdoor or with an online CrossFit session. A simple breakfast of yoghurt and nuts followed by a long day at work, ends with early dinner and a dose of Netflix comedies and documentaries.
Not surprisingly, these days the girl from Batangas, who dreamt of wearing new shoes, adorns her dainty feet in the latest designer wear (Louis Vuitton heels today) and boasts a wardrobe brimming with similar coveted brands; and an enviable collection of luxury watches.
"Even when I didn’t have the money I would scout second-hand shops and be the best dressed at work. I was always dressing up to be who I wanted to be. I never stopped dreaming," she says.