Remembering Mr. John for His Gift of Education

If you ask any Filipino to name the country’s top business tycoons, John Gokongwei Jr. will undoubtedly make the list each time. We look up to Mr. John, as he was fondly called, for many reasons.

Remembering Mr. John for His Gift of Education

Most of us remember him as a hard-working businessman who wasn’t afraid to disrupt the flow of highly competitive industries. Although he may no longer be with us now, his legacy still continues to live on through his many contributions to food and beverage manufacturing, air transportation, telecommunications, malls and real estate development.

Whether you’re shopping for your favorite childhood snacks at Robinsons Malls or booking a budget-friendly flight on Cebu Pacific, you’re bound to encounter him somewhere. Mr. John was the quintessential entrepreneur—there’s no doubt about that.

But what is perhaps truly interesting about Mr. John is who he was beyond his businesses. Renowned reputation and his multi-billion conglomerate aside, Mr. John was a loving father of six, a certified bookworm, and most importantly, a man who wanted to uplift the lives of fellow Filipinos through education.

Passion for Learning

Mr. John was passionate about learning. Born to one of the wealthiest families in Cebu back in the 1920s, the young John graduated valedictorian in elementary school, and was a consistent top-notcher in high school at the prestigious University of San Carlos.

“… I went to San Carlos University, then and still one of the country’s top schools. I topped my classes and had many friends. I would bring them to watch movies for free at my father’s movie houses,” he once narrated during the 20th Ad Congress in 2007.

Unfortunately, his family fell into debt when his father passed away amidst the height of the Great Depression at the beginning of World War II . At only 13 years old, Mr. John decided to drop out of school and focus on providing for his family. He peddled various products in the streets of Cebu with his bicycle and eventually traded goods to Manila and Lucena.  

Instead of going to class, he would travel by sea to pursue business opportunities in Manila and busy himself with books during the long boat rides. It was a difficult but necessary decision—one that many Filipino youth today would know all too well.

Mr. John didn’t resume his studies until nearly five decades later. By then, he had already founded JG Summit, built his business empire, and made a name for himself in various industries. Despite his success, he still went back to school and proved that learning truly is a lifelong process. 

Apart from pursuing a master’s degree in business administration from De La Salle University, Mr. John also completed a 14-week Advanced Management Course at Harvard University.  “It took me four years since I was a working student. When I got my diploma, it was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he previously shared during his alma mater’s Grand Reunion for Alumni Champions in 2018.

From then on, he chose to make education his prime advocacy in life.

Staunch Education Advocate

Determined to put his advocacy into action, Mr. John started sharing his passion for education with his family. Now the founder of Summit Media, his third child Lisa recounts how her father stressed the significance of hard work and schooling to them.

“We all grew up listening to him at our lunch table or the dinner table, and so we really understood what he wanted. Number one, he wanted to leave a legacy of helping the country and it was important for the Philippines to have an industrial base. Education was a way of getting there,” she stated in a previous interview.

Similarly, Mr. John also passed on his entrepreneurial spirit and determination to his only son Lance. The President and CEO of JG Summit Holdings Inc. recalled, “He had no choice but to make the most of the hand he was dealt, because he learned early on what we, his children, would later learn ourselves: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. That work ethic, more than anything, was the foundation of his success, and it was this same work ethic he would try to pass on to myself and to my siblings.”

Upon turning 80 years old, Mr. John decided to take his advocacy further and donated half of his personal holdings in JG Summit to found the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF) together with the contributions of his brothers Johnson, Henry and James. As the only philanthropic arm of the Gokongwei Group, the foundation aims to provide Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education opportunities to those who need it the most.

A Foundation for Education

Now on its 30th year, GBF has supported 2,191 college, technical-vocational, and high school scholars, 1,202 have already graduated. To date, GBF is the largest private sector institution providing STEM education scholarships.

GBF has also established the GBF Technical Training Center to board high school graduates or out-of-school youth taking the foundation’s TESDA-registered program. Students are not only provided with a one-year training on mechatronics, but are also given the opportunity to be employed at Universal Robina Corporation’s plants.

It became one of the first institutions in the country to set up large-scale endowments for Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University. This has led to the establishment of the De La Salle University Gokongwei College of Engineering, and the John Gokongwei, Jr. Innovation Center, as well as the Ateneo de Manila John Gokongwei School of Management, and just recently, the Gokongwei Brothers School of Education and Learning Design.

Believing that STEM education is the way to uplift the country, GBF has also focused on helping address gaps in student performance by supporting the improvement of educators. Committing itself to advancing educators’ professional development by reaching 10,000 teachers, the Foundation aims to impact 1 million learners by 2025.

In 2021, GBF launched a scholarship program for aspiring and current teachers who would like to pursue their college or master’s degree. Dubbed as the TeachSTEM scholarship, the program now benefits around 258 scholars with an ambitious aspiration of supporting 1000 TeachSTEM scholars by 2025.  GBF has also been supporting the growth of various educators’ learning community such as the Ka-Science Ka-Math (KaSaMa) Teachers Community of the University of the Philippines National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Development (UP-NISMED) since 2020. This year, GBF also started its capacity building program for teachers called STEM Collab with a growing community of over 5,000 members. The Foundation is also piloting a class-builder app for teachers, as its flagship program for educators professional development.

Truly, GBF is pulling out all the stops to carry out Mr. John’s vision of making quality education accessible to all kinds of Filipinos. 

Ultimately, it is because of Mr. John’s commitment to this vision that the foundation and the business are inseparable. “One of the hallmarks of the group is a commitment to the Philippines and improving the country. The Gokongwei Brothers Foundation, which was founded by Mr. John and his siblings through a major bequest 30 years ago, is the formal manifestation of this commitment,”  Mr. Lance Gokongwei revealed when GBF celebrated its 30th anniversary last August. “…it is our means of really demonstrating our love for our country and our commitment to continue serving our people,” he added.

Through its Juan Community for Resilience program, GBF has also supported communities in areas where the conglomerate’s business units operate. The Foundation provided relief during the Taal Volcano Eruption and COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Typhoon Ondoy’s devastation in 2021 and has been donating school equipment and materials during the Department of Education’s annual Brigada Eskwela. In 2022, GBF provided assistance to 339 communities affected by calamities benefitting over 75,000 individuals.

While it has now been about three years since Mr. John’s passing, he remains to be a beacon of hope for industry leaders and young students alike. Beyond being a hard-working businessman, Mr. John was also a philanthropist who actualized his conviction that “education is the only way to save this country.”

Know more about Mr.John’s inspiring story. Read “Big John,” an illustrated children’s book written by Yvette Fernandez, available on Google Books: