Food For Thought: An Interview with Lee O’Brian
By: Joselito Sering
Be kind, be brave, be ready
“When you become this self-sustaining eco-friendly system contained within a protective environment, you begin to respond to all of life’s threats in the Philippines.” –Lee O’Brian
This exclusive interview features dynamic media personality Lee O’Brian, who has been making waves with his roles in the #Philippines television and film industries, and also with the American Chamber of Commerce Business Podcast on Spotify and YouTube. Because of his captivating hosting style and insightful commentary, Lee has established himself as a prominent voice in the worlds of business and entrepreneurship.
In our interview, we talk about Lee’s journey in starting the podcast, his passion for promoting businesses, and his commitment to promoting green technologies like vertical farming. As we sit in a swanky Starbucks in #Greenbelt, Lee shares his vision for the future of business and the critical role that green innovation will play in shaping the world we live in.
Joe: It wasn’t too long ago that we met. We were introduced by an eclectic mutual friend of ours. How long had you known our mutual friend before we were introduced?
Lee: I met our [mutual friend] around February or March 2022.
Joe: How did you guys meet up?
Lee: He just started showing up to the #AmCham Kapihan coffee meetups on Fridays. Throughout the pandemic, we did Zoom meetups for Kapihan. Kapihan is a very dynamic meetup where we speak on various issues that are moving different industries, and it’s an opportunity to meet some very interesting people. Eventually, we moved on to hybrid meetups and then eventually migrated to “in person” meetings. In the case of he and I, I think it was online. I can’t remember the exact day or moment we met, but over the course of the last year, what he and I connected on was our membership in the World Trade Center networking group as well as the American Chamber. The Metro Manila Chapter of the World Trade Center grants you access to all the big conferences. So last year, he and I went to IFEx, which is the International Food Expo. We were out networking with lots of people and enjoying ourselves at the different food stalls and the beer garden. So we had a good time there.
Joe: Would you say these conferences are tilted toward social programs?
Lee: Actually, they are very tilted towards industry, and capitalistic and economic development. The food industry conference IFEX, for example, brought together all kinds of food industry players: local food producers, exporters, and service providers from all across the food industry. So, sweets, staple foods, vegetables, alcohol producers—you name it—were there at the fair.
Joe: What was your interest?
Lee: I used to work in food manufacturing here in the Philippines for two years, from the end of 2019, up until last year, in December, 2021. So for two years I had food manufacturing with my ex partner. That’s actually how I joined the World Trade Center. It was right before the pandemic. We had a big bazaar at the World Trade Center. During that event, I met all the World Trade Center people and decided to join the World Trade Center. Once the pandemic hit, all the events stopped, but I stayed in touch with the various chambers and the World Trade Center as well. We pivoted by doing a bunch of online events. To be honest, I love conferences because you can go, you can meet tons of really cool and interesting people, no matter the industry. And not going to lie, when it comes to the IFEX Food conference, my weak spot is testing the food samples.
Joe: You mentioned capitalist, but would you say you are more of an industrialist? Or are you looking to invest?
Lee: I’m actually scouting for potential business opportunities and people to feature for media content. There is a need to create content to promote Philippine businesses and show to the world Philippine businesses. There were a lot of people there that could be featured and promoted both locally and abroad. And I am not referring necessarily to the big name brands. There were well known classic Filipino brands there, such as the hopia makers Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli, who are a Chinoy family from here in the Philippines who are very well known here in country. There were some promising newer companies in the product lines of ice cream, turmeric powder mixed drink, honey producers, jam producers and the list goes on. If you research, you will see there are so many little niches. I’m keen on talking about what I was exposed to when I did food manufacturing.
Joe: And was this part of the research for your blog? or can you tell me a little more about the blog/podcast you had?
Lee: I’m fixing to launch it soon, so this was all pre-work. This was a chance to meet people that I could eventually feature. So I ended up making 30, 40 contacts there that I could easily feature on the video and podcast.
Joe: Were you involved in the American Chamber of Commerce for the purpose of what you were already doing, or were you involved in the Chamber of Commerce prior to all of that?
Lee: I joined back in September of 2020 during the pandemic, because i was aiming to position our food brand for export. So when it came to the local chapter and being that I am American myself, it’s a great option as a networking group that I can join. Now, with the dissolution of my food manufacturing company, the chamber has evolved over the last couple of years to become like a networking and social scene for me, which even includes producing the Chamber’s own podcast and hosting some of their live events.
Joe: Congratulations on the #podcast.
Lee: Thanks, man.
Joe: I did enjoy the topics that you guys were covering. I think it was in regards to the decompression of the traffic here in the city. Yes. It was like the main part of it. That was something that really interested me as well.
Lee: Yeah, I mean, the cool thing with the podcast, which we’re blessed in, is, first of all, the guys I’m hosting with are AmCham members. So I share the episode hosting duties with company heads and country managers. So many are already movers and shakers in their own right. And then we have access to so many great guests. That was the case in the initial episodes. We had an undersecretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways, who brought more than 30 years experience in the national government (and a soon to be completed THIRD doctorate!) The podcast allows us direct access to high-level and accomplished people, such as the Under Secretary, and then that person comfortably comes in to sit and talk with us. The podcast provides great access and allows us to go deep into the government, corporations, and other industry movers.
Joe: How did the idea for doing your podcast with the American Chamber come about? Are you still doing anything in regards to the food industry?
Lee: When I originally joined, it was to promote my food brand. So for like a year I was in the chamber online events talking all about my food brand and my food manufacturing. And then, at the end of 2021, when the door closed on my food company, a new experience evolved for me with the chamber. In all of our meetups, we were always talking about the industry ups and downs, and what we were seeing coming out of the pandemic. In my new independent place, it dawned on me that AmCham didn’t really have much content production going on. And an easy solution to that would be podcasting. I had seen some business entities in the country and Independent hosts producing business minded podcasts. And the idea of a podcast for the chamber seemed like a perfect fit. When you talk about Chambers of Commerce, these are people who have direct inside the big time corporations and the big time business entities and the government. So they have a really unique perspective to talk about things. They’re also the people making the big moves in the industries and so it’s really nice to talk to them because they speak from direct experience. When it comes to my own podcast, I want to focus more on smaller SMB’s that don’t get that exposure, because I was exposed to a lot of them while managing my food company.
Joe: Are you talking about small to medium sized businesses? Are you talking about startups?
Lee: Yes, both of those. The bigger dogs in the industries already have their marketing going on and get some nice exposure. Whereas these smaller groups, you know, especially ones that are gaining popularity, they need to be heard about. And as a residual benefit, we can inspire other Filipinos to go start businesses.
Joe: These types of businesses, even the micro level businesses that you’re talking about, are they in agriculture? or production? or are you moving into promoting new technologies?
Lee: All of the above. I know some agriculture groups, producers, and technology sector players. And additionally, I’m interested in promoting the organizations that are trying to help them. For example, during the pandemic, one of the big problems was sourcing agriculture from farmers because the supply chains were all cut off, right? With no delivery methods, the farmers had surpluses. So one of the cool things people did was, if they had access to farms, they went and collected a bunch of produce and then brought it down to the Metro Manila area. So one of the products I was sourcing for our production were farm direct strawberries. These are phenomenal. They’re so good!! With these, we were making strawberry jam.
Joe: And these are organic?
Lee: Yeah, some #organic, and some #GMO. Back to my-point, I connected with a group of ladies, and their group was called Sadiwa. Their mission was to buy strawberries directly from the farmers at higher prices than bulk prices, so the farmers were actually making great incomes. It was better than what they were normally earning. Then they resold the strawberries to end users such as myself at competitive prices. So it was a philanthropic movement that benefited everyone. That is what i will also feature in my podcast.
Joe: This is all very interesting to see.
Lee: And that’s also how I met, Ralph from Urban Greens PH, who is launching hydroponics and vertical farming. I started ordering fresh basil, mint, and lettuce that he was growing in his indoor farming plants
Joe: And so can you tell me a little bit more about why hydroponic vertical farming?
Lee: Hydroponic Vertical farming is a game changer. You can solidify and consolidate all agricultural production indoors with protection and care. And, you know, the Philippines is a vulnerable country, especially when the typhoons pass over the country. Whatever’s in its path is getting rocked. With this style of farming, that environmental threat gets partially neutralized. And it’s a great way to utilize existing infrastructure that may not be in use. The execution chain goes like this: 1) Convert an unused warehouse that’s in perfect shape, right? 2) Install vertical farming inside. 3) Create a now-protected, perfectly working system of agricultural production. 4) The system evolves to the point where it reuses water, reuses power, and reuses light. And then, if you want to start incorporating those non-electric water pumps, you will soon eliminate the need to use electricity or water supplies. When you become this self-sustaining eco-friendly system contained within a protective environment, you begin to respond to all of life’s threats in the Philippines. The biggest threats are food insecurity, natural disasters, and high electricity charges. This option is both eco-friendly and sustainable.