This actress’ superhero movie role inspired her next career move

Nanette Medved-Po in her 1991 film role as Filipino superhero Darna
Nanette Medved-Po

For generations, comic superheroine Darna has been inspiring girls and boys alike, representing a guardian of the needy and a force of good over evil.

For the actress who played her on the big screen, it was no different.

Nanette Medved-Po was already an established model with a burgeoning acting career when she was cast as the scantily-clad Philippine warrior icon in a 1991 movie adaptation of the eponymous magazine series.

But the role saw her shoot to new stardom and provided the foundation for her to launch a business to help others, as she told CNBC's "Managing Asia."

Finding hope in a bottle

Medved-Po now presides over Generation Hope, a social enterprise that builds classrooms across the Philippines with the proceeds of sales from its purified bottled water, "Hope in a Bottle."

So far, the company, which launched in 2012, has sold over 14 million bottles of water from 2,000 outlets in the Philippines, including Starbucks and 7-Eleven. That represents 57 new classrooms and 12,500 students helped.

Medved-Po recalled how the impetus to make a difference first came when she was at a Christmas parade to promote her film and she noticed people, young and old, had started to hold her on a pedestal. Like her character Darna — a village girl who one night receives superpowers from a shooting star and is driven to help people — Medved-Po felt she should do the same.

"I thought there must be a way you could leverage this very positive goodwill and do something good with it," Medved-Po told CNBC's Christine Tan in the Philippines.

With a finance and entrepreneurship degree under her belt from her native U.S., Medved-Po said she had seen the "incredible success" that the business community can enjoy, yet her experience growing up in Southeast Asia had exposed her to the real struggles of non-profits.

"I thought: 'What if we could create a hybrid where you have the discipline of the private sector to generate funds? And then, rather than dividend that out to shareholders, use that towards a social good, whether it's the environment or in education or in employees or whatever it is,'" said Medved-Po.

So, she decided to set up a business whereby product sales could be put toward charity work. In the end, she settled on bottled water and building classrooms because of demand and the "tangible" link consumers would be able to see between cause and effect.

It's estimated that the Philippines is currently short 84,000 classrooms for its young population. Meanwhile, bottled water is huge trade in a country in which a quarter of people lack access to safe or sanitized water.

Facing her critics

Despite her degree, Medved-Po said her lack of business experience made it difficult for some people to take her seriously initially.

"I think people immediately thought 'she's finally gone off her rocker, she's certifiably crazy,'" she joked.

But her celebrity status made people "curious" and got her through the door. Then, after hearing the business case, retailers were quickly sold.

"At the beginning, I thought of it more as people were trying to do me a favor," said Medved-Po.

"I now realize that this is very much a wonderful project that people like to be a part of and so I don't feel as bad anymore when I come in and say 'Hey look, I've got this project. Do you think you might want to come on board for business for good?'" she said.

The Hope in a Bottle model works by making around 9 percent, or 1 Philippine peso, profit on every bottle sold. That's the equivalent of about 2 cents. It does not take any additional profit from retailers.

Then, for every 500,000 bottles sold — the equivalent of around $9,400 profit — the company will build a classroom based on the needs of the government. Some classrooms cost more based on their location in the fragmented archipelago state. In those cases, Hope foots the bill.

Medved-Po — married to business tycoon Chris Po, whose family owns Filipino food company Century Pacific Group — does not take a salary.

Inspiring others

Through Hope in a Bottle, Medved-Po said she aims to build 33 more classrooms across the Philippines this year.

But, she said, she doesn't have plans to "conquer the water bottle industry." Instead, she hopes to show other companies that they, too, can drive change for good.

"I think our ultimate ambition is to provide proof of concept, hope that other businesses find some inspiration in what we've done and hopefully find their own social good to champion," said Medved-Po.

"If we happen to be able to build many classrooms in the process, then wonderful. But we'd really like to provide a new mindset to the business community that the market will reward companies who try to do the right thing."

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Nanette Medved-Po in her 1991 film role as Filipino superhero Darna
Nanette Medved-Po
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