By Vani Vergara
Vani is a PR girl who left her full-time corporate job to trade her heels for fins as an ocean advocate. She currently juggles being the head of Reef Check Philippines, a scuba instructor, and a PR hustler for brands such as Sunnies Studios.
The first time I saw a dolphin, I was 10 years old and my family was on summer vacation in Florida. I became madly obsessed with dolphins and the ocean. Do you remember your childhood dream? I know most of us grow out of it, but mine was to be a Marine Biologist.
I was conflicted by the passion and curiosity I felt towards the sea. It didn’t help me with academics but that didn’t stop me. My obsession followed me through my years in school and even up to my career.
My very first job was in MAC Cosmetics Philippines. Yes, I know, it is the farthest thing from being a Marine Biologist, but as it always does, life happens. I started as the intern for Public Relations (PR) and Marketing for the brand then worked my way up to be the Head of the Public Relations (PR) and Artist Relations department.
I was very lucky, I had amazing mentors and it seemed like the opportunities kept lining up. I was able to pull off many firsts for the country which included convincing the Miss Universe International Organization to use Filipino makeup artists for the first time – as they usually fly in a team to the location. We also convinced MAC Cosmetics’ global office to allow us to hold the Pro Tour event in a beach for the first time and we flew in Gregory Arlt, the makeup artist of Angelina Jolie and Katy Perry. At one point in my career, I was even able to meet Ariana Grande in Japan as she launched her lipstick with MAC Cosmetics. I mean who wouldn’t say that this isn’t every girl’s dream job?
Five years later, I turned 25 and I was an executive for the number 1 makeup brand in the country. Normally you would feel like you were on top of the world, or at least on the right track, but I felt the opposite. I was getting frustrated with myself. I was already part of a company that was considered as the market leader in innovation and artistry, but it wasn’t enough.
The ocean continued to call me. I started to learn how to cancel out the noise and distraction from working in the beauty industry, and I found that my love for my job did not come from all the amazing events or the unlimited lipsticks but it came from the relationships I had forged with all the people in the industry. As I built relationships, I was more confident to share my passion for ocean conservation and I was surprised how supportive everyone was. I was embarrassed at first – who would have thought that a PR girl would gladly trade her heels for fins on the weekends? I didn’t think anyone would understand but I was wrong.
I finished my scuba instructor course right before I turned 26. It was 4 years in the making because I would only be able to train on the weekends or when I would take leaves. It was no easy feat, I would be finishing long hours from an event, then I would wake up early to travel to the dive site, but it was worth it.
I started to participate in volunteer and conservation work and that’s when I saw what has really been happening in the ocean. While I was working on my corporate career, I learned that the ocean was dying quicker than I imagined. Marine animals were disappearing and some coral reefs would not even survive the next 4 years. I thought that I could pursue my dream of ocean conservation after my career but I was wrong. Time was, and still is, running out, and the next few years would be the most crucial of all.
As most people at this age do, I experienced a quarter-life crisis. My love for the ocean caused confusion between what I was doing for my career and what I wanted to do to follow my dreams. I was faced with a crossroad of pursuing my career or following my passion. I was in a very good place in my life but I knew that I was destined for something bigger. After months of sleepless nights, I decided to wrap up my last 6 months with MAC Cosmetics and take a leap of faith. The uncertainty was scary but with the support of my family, friends, and colleagues, I finally had the courage to answer the call of the ocean.
The day after I sent my resignation letter to MAC, I visited my professor, Dr. Al Licuanan, who accepted me in his marine biology curriculum even if I was a business major back in university. It was a bittersweet feeling because I was ready to say goodbye to my PR career forever and finally do what I love. We spoke about the current situation of the ocean and how in the past 30 years, we have already lost half of all the reefs in the world. Can you imagine, 30 years is practically my whole life? We were basically losing the underwater rainforest and no one noticed!
I was racking my brain on what to do. I learned that we will lose 90 percent of the coral reefs by 2050, and without the coral reefs everything I love in the ocean will cease to exist. It was actually funny how things fell into place, I met an award-winning photographer, Scott Gutsy Tuason, who is well known internationally for his underwater photographs. He asked me to work with him and his brand, Squires Bingham Sports. This allowed me to go on location and it was a dream come true to see all these exotic places and work with the best team. I saw how his images opened people’s eyes and inspired people to love the ocean.
Then it hit me: what the ocean needed wasn’t for me to necessarily be a marine biologist but rather it needed a PR and awareness campaign. My mind went back to my friends at MAC Cosmetics and how they were so supportive about my advocacy, it went back to all the PR strategies I created and how I can use this to create a movement. My mind finally traveled through time to the 10-year-old girl – she was finally chasing her dreams.
It’s been almost a year since I left my corporate career. It has not been the easiest journey that I’ve faced but I am happier than ever. I currently head Reef Check in the Philippines and I’m still able to continue my career in Marketing and PR. The best thing about this is that I am able to use this avenue to inspire amazing brands such as Sunnies Studios to join me in fighting for our planet.
With every hour I spend underwater, the more hope I have for the future. With each dive I do outside our country, the prouder I am of the underwater treasures of the Philippines. Little known fact: our country has one of the richest and most diverse coral reefs on the planet, which is why it makes more sense for us Filipinos to be the pioneer of change.
I realized that you may get criticized for chasing after your passion as it may sound crazy to some. But as Steve Jobs had put it, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” It’s all up to you to prove people wrong and break barriers.
The reason why I have been able to do what I love and live the life I’ve wanted to live is that I just said yes to whatever opportunity that came my way and I worked hard to do everything to the best of my ability. I may have had to sacrifice a lot of things, missed a few milestones or social gatherings but hey, “to succeed, you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality,” which is a mantra I quote from Anita Roddick.
Sometimes, I say that I daydream for a living since all I think about all day, when I’m stuck in traffic or before I sleep, is when I will be underwater again and what I want to do to for my cause. We are currently in a unique point in time where drastic changes can happen. We are not going to lose the coral reefs and wildlife in 100 years; we are losing them right now. The fate of the ocean and all the cute little creatures we love depend on what we do today. We are in this crazy race against time, and I am happy to learn that even if this is literally our last chance, we are not yet too late.
Photographed by Karlo Torio
Creative Direction by Madel Asuncion
Art Direction by Mikka Caronan
Styled by Samantha Tidalgo
Makeup by Erica Manosa
Hair by RJ Reyes
Video by Heintje Mendoza
Shot On Location at Inflatable Island