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21st century Ilustrado



Rodrigo Kalaw Cuenca has always looked up to the Ilustrados of the 19th century. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RAMON RODRIGO KALAW CUENCA

A man of the old world is probably how you would describe Ramon Rodrigo Kalaw Cuenca. For one, he believes young Filipinos today should learn the Spanish Language.

Since his childhood, he has always looked up to the Ilustrados of the 19th century — among them, Jose Rizal, Antonio and Juan Luna, Graciano Lopez Jaena and Marcelo H. Del Pilar.

“I have many heroes in different fields, but in terms of overall life accomplishment, I look up to the Ilustrados,” says Ramon, who we named to the list of Promising Young Men and Women of the Decade.  “They excelled in so many different fields, which is what I try to do as well.”

The first time I met this University of Chicago graduate of International Studies (GPA 3.6, Dean’s List 2003-2006) was when he was a tot. It was in his parents’ house one Christmas season dinner when his maternal grandmother, the feisty freedom fighter Eva Estrada Kalaw, beaming with pride and affection, introduced him and his brother to us, guests. “This is Diego and this is Rodrigo,” she said.


The former outstanding legislator, then in her mid-70s, talked about their respective accomplishments, and if I recall right, Rodrigo, at the time, according to his grandmother, “had just finished writing a book, a tiny one, of course, but which had a beginning, middle and end.” No one seemed surprised. After all, this was the great grandson of the illustrious journalist and man of letters, Teodoro Kalaw Sr.

I would read of the boy again when he had a recent sold-out exhibition of his artworks, prints and watercolors, and when I saw him on Facebook, I befriended him, and we have since been in touch as I followed his career that, I believe, reflects his versatility and varying passions.

When I met him in his office in Alabang, and we made the proper introductions, I was surprised to learn that the Rodrigo that I knew as a kid was now popularly known as Ramon. But then, his complete baptismal first name is Ramon Rodrigo Kalaw Cuenca. As in many cases, the first of two first names is how your classmates call you even if at home, you were affectionately called your second name.

Fast forward to his early professional life, Rodrigo first worked with ING Asia Private Bank and then the Bank of Singapore.

While such achievements look very strange to me, since I know little if any at all about finances and investments I myself am impressed that he has become a content entrepreneur working on launching his own entertainment and education intellectual property.


Rodrigo explains, “The initial medium I am using to create my IP is webcomics. And I am spending a significant amount of time on the ‘Business Samurai’ manga.”

Here follows my interview with Rodrigo:

Daily Tribune (DT): Tell me about the Business Samurai.

Ramon Rodrigo Kalaw Cuenca (RRKC): I’m using entertainment to subtly promote what I call “money literacy” which covers not only personal finance but also other issues like global business and the economy. I use the word “subtly” because I’ve learned that financial education is a turn-off for many people, but they like my art. So I’m working on creating scripted content that is visually dynamic, but driven by three-dimensional characters and an engaging plot. The story is about a failing Japanese conglomerate that hires a diverse team of young, attractive executives who will formulate and execute its business strategy as it enters new markets and industries. The status as of press time is that the manga had recently been revamped and relaunched. We are in the middle of the first proper story arc, which is about the coffee or café business.

DT: Who do you consider as your mentor in your profession and in life?

RRKC: I don’t have one specific mentor for my profession nor my life. Instead, I study people who have succeeded in fields that are relevant to me. One major through line I see through all of them is that the only thing you have complete control over are your own actions. Work on being the best version possible of who you really are, and the right people will gravitate toward you.

DT: What has been your greatest accomplishment in life and in your profession?

RRKC: There are three fields where I feel I have meaningfully succeeded.

As a professional, I succeeded in becoming an equities research analyst at Bank of Singapore in 2010. This was a very difficult job to get. I achieved it through networking and seizing opportunities. I thank all my former colleagues at BoS for their help and support.

In Martial Arts, I won a gold medal in a Filipino martial arts tournament in 2014. I was able to conquer my fears and anxiety and perform. I am thankful to my guro (sensei/coach) Jojo LaTorre for instilling in me the proper mindset to win.

When it comes to the artistic field, I launched my own manga-style pop art exhibit in 2017 which resulted in financial success. The strategy was to be as unique and different as possible from other artists. Who else paints manga-style yuppies? I owe my parents for all their help in the exhibit, and also the titos and titas of Manila for their support.

DT: What kept you busy in the first year of the lockdown?

RRKC: I spent a lot of time developing my story writing skills and developing the plot and characters of Business Samurai. Writing an original, engaging story with likeable but flawed characters has turned out to be a highly challenging intellectual exercise.

DT: What did you learn about yourself in 2020?

RRKC: I learned that even though on the surface I accepted the risk I was taking with Business Samurai, I was subconsciously afraid and was seeking ways to sabotage myself and back out. I think there will always be that fear whenever you do something entrepreneurial, but I am at least aware now of how my emotions can warp my own sense of reality.

DT: What do you intend to accomplish in 2021?

RRKC: Grow Business Samurai’s following a little more and get outside investment and help to get it onto a global streaming platform.

DT: What do you consider the greatest challenge that you face in your career?

RRKC: My goal in no uncertain terms is to be commercially and critically successful with Business Samurai and any related IP. The larger your dreams, the larger the challenges. Since I am swinging for the fences, this is greatest challenge of my career.

DT: Where do you see yourself in your career/profession 10 years from now?

RRKC: Business Samurai being a major success in streaming and it having successful brand extensions as well, while giving me the financial and cultural capital to live how I want and where I want anywhere in the world, and also being able to influence positive changes in the Philippines and the world in general.

DT: What do you do outside of your passion?


THE Cuenca family (from left): Diego, Chingbee (nee Kalaw), Bobby and Rodrigo.

RRKC: Outside of Business Samurai, I am involved in several other fields. I currently have a fine art, portraiture practice. I still practice Filipino martial arts (FMA), and would like to market my club to gain more practitioners and dispel misconceptions of what FMA is. I am also into learning languages. Another major ambition of mine is to return Filipino-Spanish as an official language in the Philippines. I am teaching myself Filipino Spanish via my regular Spanish education, listening to YouTube clips of Quezon and Quirino and others, and reading the writings of our intellectuals, including my own ancestors Teodoro M. Kalaw and Pura Villanueva Kalaw.

DT: Who is the living person who has had the greatest influence on your life?

RRKC: My parents Bobby and Chingbee have undoubtedly had largest influence in my life. And even though my mother Chingbee is no longer with us, she still lives on in everything I accomplish.
Business Samurai manga on WEBTOON:

Business Samurai Facebook page: