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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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FEBRUARY 25, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 7

Redefining Geek Chic
It's hip to be square? Not for Filipino Cecilia Pagkalinawan, a member of New York's very downtown digerati who is succeeding with style
By YASMIN GHAHREMANI


Xing Danwen for Asiaweek

Sitting in front of a computer in her Manhattan office, the founder of the up-and-coming e-commerce consultancy, Boutique Y3K (www.boutiquey3k. com), adjusts her Armani glasses and taps out an e-mail to a client in New York's fashion district. She is dressed in Daryl K pinstriped pants, red stiletto boots from Nine West, a pink blouse from Bergdorf Goodman and a blue denim jacket. Cecilia Pagkalinawan makes it her business to say things with style - in this case, a mixture of East Village trendiness and Prada professionalism. And on her, it works. Once described by Vogue magazine as looking like "an executive Bond girl," the fast-talking Filipino-American is the epitome of an East-coast fashionista. The look, combined with her cyber-savvy, makes her a poster girl for Silicon Alley - New York's answer to the California computer enclave. And darling, Manhattan-ites don't do flannel shirts.

Pagkalinawan is part of a growing clique of young, hip netrepreneurs-cum-socialites. This week she's having drinks with Hong Kong's Augustinus K. Liem, executive director of Asia Pacific Investment Banking for Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette and his wife, Joanne Ooi of Styletrek.com. Next week, it's a concert by Gen-X rocker Beck at Radio City Music Hall. Over the weekend she's going snowboarding in Vermont, then in two weeks she'll dine with Hillary Clinton at the home of one of the First Lady's biggest political supporters. "I don't think it's too glamorous, it's just my busy life," says Pagkalinawan. Riiight.

A born Net CEO, the 31-year-old businesswoman speaks eloquently, in the rapid-fire bullet-point style of a PowerPoint presentation, which is perhaps to business discourse what blank verse was to Shakespeare. "She's probably a prototypical entrepreneur," says Steve Beitler, a managing director of Trident Capital who is a major BY3K investor. He figures Pagkalinawan combines the front-office skills of a good salesperson with a thorough understanding of business and technology fundamentals.

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Those talents have helped make BY3K one of the most promising start-ups in New York. While the company is still small - there are only 15 full-time employees at the moment - it has just secured $15 million in new funding and was deemed one of the top ten companies to watch last year by a local trade publication. Pagkalinawan is also to be named New York City Woman Business Owner of the Year in March by the National Association of Women Business Owners.

With an exclusive focus on the fashion and beauty industries, BY3K has a two-pronged strategy. First, it helps build, maintain and expand the e-commerce efforts of fashion clients like shoe retailer Nine West. Second, it creates and manages web stores for content and portal sites, filled with merchandise tailored to their brands. For instance BY3K set up a virtual store for the popular teen e-zine Bolt.com, which sells clothing and accessories aimed at high-schoolers. Readers can post reviews of the products online and even sell their own T-shirt designs to each other. In the future, Pagkalinawan envisions combining the two sides of the business so that the content and portal clients stock their web stores with merchandise from the fashion customers. The system would give the manufacturers new distribution outlets, and the content sites top-quality wares to sell. She also plans to take BY3K public, and expand into Europe and Asia.

Those are big dreams for the girl who arrived in America from Manila when she was eight. Her youngest brother Jovito was born with a hole in his heart, and her parents moved to the U.S. so he could get better care. With five children, their middle-class income didn't go far. And in the early days, fitting in was a challenge. "I got teased for a while because I looked different, I had an accent," she recalls. "The worst thing was people assuming I was stupid because I had an accent or I didn't speak English appropriately."

Pagkalinawan was determined to be accepted though. She polished her English, joined sports teams, became a cheerleader. She was the picture of the assimilated immigrant. And fashion was part of that. "I was always aware that what one wore projected one's attitude," she says. Money was tight, so she scoured second-hand stores or made her own clothes. Her first creation was a black overcoat, made from fleece because she couldn't afford wool. "I felt very cool wearing it. Very East Village. And I used to wear it to Danceteria, a club where Madonna was discovered."

After finishing communications studies at Hofstra University, she went on to take a variety of media and marketing jobs. But her Internet interest sprung from, oddly enough, a shoplifting charge. It all started with a pair of socks. In 1993, the young Pagkalinawan was shopping with her sister at a store in New York's Chinatown. Her arms were so full of clothes and packages that she dropped a small pair of socks into one of the bags. She eventually paid for more than $200 worth of clothing, but forgot all about the socks. When she tried to leave the shop, she and her sister were hauled off to a detention cell. The storeowners didn't know whom they were dealing with though.

"I hired a criminal lawyer to defend me, and the charges were dropped, because they were stupid," Pagkalinawan says defiantly. "We decided to file a civil case. So we sued the store and I was able to get a $7,000 settlement after the lawyer took his fees." Her portion was enough to buy a Macintosh Powerbook, which just happened to come loaded with America Online software. A poke around on it landed the victorious plaintiff in a world where she could instantly access news from the Philippines and communicate with friends in Europe and Asia virtually for free. Visions of cyber-dollars soon danced in her head.

Taken with the potential of the Internet, she made her way to K2 Design, one of the first agencies to focus exclusively on interactive advertising and marketing. Later she went to work as a project director at e-commerce agency Abilon Corp., the U.S. division of Canada's Abilon International. In 1997 she was named president of the company. When Abilon lost its funding in early 1998, she saw the chance to turn a bad situation into an opportunity. Once again, she made the law work for her. According to the terms of her contract, she was due $60,000 in severance pay. An astute dealmaker, she bargained to forego the money in exchange for the shop, which she bought for $1. The focus of her new business was to be a subject dear to her heart - fashion. Thus was born BY3K.

Pagkalinawan is nothing if not a survivor. She has transformed herself from an immigrant of modest means into one of the hottest personalities on the New York Internet scene.

But while she may be an American success story in the making, she still speaks Filipino, eats turo-turo food twice a week, and spends a lot of time with her family. "My Asian background gave me a strong work ethic and values that continue to serve me well," she says. She knows, however, that growing up in the U.S. has provided her with opportunities she might not have had in the Philippines. "There are still certain cultural hindrances and social hindrances in Asia in terms of how far women can go." And when she takes her business to Asia, it will probably be to Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo, not Manila.

It is perhaps this blend of Eastern and Western sensibility, along with the glam-g:url image that makes Pagkalinawan so engaging. "She's a great girl," says Courtney Brown, a close friend who runs an online marketing consulting firm. "She's ambitious, smart, a lot of fun." People want to like her, adds Trident's Beitler.

The point is not lost on the media. "She gets probably too much press," says Jason McCabe Calacanis, a friend and the editor of new media magazine, Silicon Alley Reporter. "That's probably more distracting than it needs to be." The subject of numerous articles, Pagkalinawan is about to appear in a print ad for Procter and Gamble featuring women achievers. She has also been approached about writing a book or making regular television appearances - a prospect she finds tempting but unrealistic, given her many obligations. "I didn't start my company to be a TV star," she says. In addition to frequent speaking engagements, she works with business groups and with a local organization that helps schools install and maintain computer and networking equipment.

But behind all the hype surrounding BY3K and its owner are the usual tales of small-business hardship: the long hours, lost sleep and financial struggles. Pagkalinawan had to plead with creditors in BY3K's early days to grant her extensions on car and office rent payments. She borrowed money from family too. "Fortunately, I'm all even with my mother," she says. But it will get harder before it gets easier. For every Net wonder that's sailed from start-up to stock-market wonder, there is a heap of other once-promising companies that have been done in by a few critical misjudgments or by the caprices of the marketplace. Pagkalinawan will have to be on her designer-shod toes at every turn. And you can bet, she'll look good each step of the way.

Reporting by James C. Luh/New York

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