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Robina Gokongwei-Pe: From clerk to CEO-president

Robina Gokongwei-Pe is president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc. (RRHI), a company built by her father, the late tycoon John Gokongwei Jr. But she did not merely inherit the business. She had to learn the ropes of managing the company by starting at the bottom.

In her eulogy for Mr. Gokongwei, Ms. Robina recalled that when she was little, her father warned her, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Their parents did not spoil them with luxuries, and made sure they knew the value of hard work.

In fact, when Ms. Robina started working for the family-owned Robinsons Department Store, she was assigned at the bodega as a receiving clerk. She had to time in and time out, like all the other employees. She valued that experience and acknowledged that it helped her in managing the business.

RRHI is one of the largest multi-format retailers in the country.

Aside from being at the helm of RRHI, Ms. Robina is also a director of JG Summit Holdings Inc., Robinsons Land Corporation, Cebu Air Inc., and Robinsons Bank Corporation. She is a trustee and the secretary of the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation, Inc. and a trustee of the Immaculate Concepcion Academy Scholarship Fund.

She is also a member of the Xavier School Board of Trustees. She is the first female board member in the Catholic and Jesuit educational institution.

Building a culture of gender diversity

Ms. Robina believes that companies now are more gender-inclusive. More women are pursuing careers and becoming entrepreneurs, and there is less prejudice in hiring women. In fact, RRHI is an industry leader in this area.

In 2021, RRHI was one of four Philippine companies that made it to the top 10 women-led global firms with the highest percentages of women in the board of directors. This was based on the 2021 report, “Women CEOs: Opening Doors to Boards and C-Suites,” by the US-based Corporate Women Directors International (CWDI).

Moreover, RRHI, along with its sister company Robinsons Land Corporation, landed on Bloomberg’s 2022 Gender-Equality Index. The two Gokongwei Group companies are among only four Philippine firms that were included in the list.

Currently, RRHI’s employee base is 70 percent women, with female employees fulfilling leadership roles across all levels of management, including the roles of president and CEO, chief financial officer, corporate secretary, and head of investor relations.

RRHI had a culture of gender diversity even in its early days. In fact, when Ms. Robina was still store manager, she had an all-female supervisory team.

She said that Robinsons Retail recognizes and celebrates the vast contributions made by women within the company, as women comprise the majority of its employee and management base. She acknowledged that their inclusion in Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index is a tool to further look into the organization and how they create spaces that are genuinely inclusive for all genders.

Passion for sports

Despite her many entrepreneurial roles, and having to fulfill her duty as wife and mother of two, Ms. Robina finds time for her passion. She has been an avid supporter of the University of the Philippines men’s basketball team (UP-MBT) even when they had zero wins. But she is not merely a sponsor. In the past years, she would watch as many games as possible and would motivate the team the best way she can.

Her love for UP stems from the three years that she spent at the UP Diliman campus from 1978 to 1981 as an economics student. She eventually obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from New York University in 1984.

As a UP student, she joined the Philippine Collegian as a sportswriter. She also joined the UP varsity swimming team, but when she ended as 'bangko' even after practicing two hours a day, she got frustrated. When she went home crying, her father said that what she experienced was only the start, and that it will make her become a stronger person. He also told her that she should even be happy that she qualified for the team.

Ms. Robina enjoys sports and she loves UP, thus, supporting the UP MBT came naturally. Since 2010, she has been supporting the team even through the losses. That’s why she was very happy when the team reached the finals in 2018, and made it to the Final Four in 2019, making it two years in a row.

Her passion for sports can be likened to her dedication as a businesswoman — start at the bottom, take on the challenges, and never give up.

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