Jul 23, 2012
Photos of Illac Diaz with his parents and siblings

When my youngest son graduated from the Ateneo Grade School in March 2010, their commencement speaker was Illac Diaz, an Ateneo alumnus recognized for his outstanding achievements in social entrepreneurship here and abroad.

I remember Illac Diaz as one of the good-looking members of the Diaz clan when back in the ‘90s he got into modeling and acting. To those who don’t know, the Diaz clan includes our first Miss Universe Gloria Diaz, the late Rio Diaz, Robin da Rosa, and the younger ones Georgina Wilson, Isabelle Daza, among others.

But Illac has come a long way from his modeling days in the ‘90s. He was a TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) awardee in Social Entrepreneurship in 2005, Young Global Leader of the World in 2008, among CNN’s Hot List of People to Watch in 2009, and has spoken in various commencement exercises and other important gatherings locally and internationally.

Knowing that my subject was a busy man, my first question was, “How much time can you give me?” He quickly answered, “Thirty minutes.” But once I got him started, he went on and on. He talked about all the things that excite him, the things that he’s passionate about. And while he was talking, he kept on doodling on his notebook. He filled up at least four pages with notes and drawings while I only filled up mine with one and a half pages. But that’s because I had my tiny tape recorder doing the job for me. At the end of our conversation when I turned off my recorder, I found out that our “30 minute interview” stretched to one hour and 45 minutes!

Let me share with you the things I gathered from Illac.


Rose: Tell me about your childhood.

Illac: I’m the first of three children of Ramon Diaz and Silvana Ancellotti, an Italian. My father’s family hails from Ilocos Norte then they moved to Aringay and later on Manila where my Lolo Jaime started building his business. He started out with bicycle shops and then he became a dealer of rolled paper under his company JP Diaz & Sons. My lolo and my dad studied at the Ateneo and so did my brother Marco and I.

Rose: What was your favorite subject?

Illac: P.E. I’ve always loved running. When I was a kid I always had a lot of energy, bouncing around the house. I was hyperactive, something I kept to this day.

Rose: Had you been born later, you would have been labeled with ADHD.

Illac: You could say that. But I have this extraordinary focus when it comes to mechanical things. Although I was born into a well-off family, well not super well-to-do but just right, I grew up playing with kids who lived in shanties near our house which was in a mixed urban planning area. I would always be in the mechanical shops of our neighbors doing torno. I also built castles made of boxes with escape hatches. I remember having a lot of paint all over me. My favorite toy was Lego. My dad always gave me things that would allow me to build something. My mom also bought me probably the first Voltes V in the Philippines. She was flying around at that time and they just released the toy and she brought it home for me. My dad loves cars, old cars and I remember rebuilding this 1953 Volkswagen. I was always building something. This probably started my love affair with doing mechanical stuff and designing innovative things.

Rose:  What was your section in High School? Did you get to be under the legendary Mr. Pagsi?

Illac: I was in 4G. I had the best time in high school and graduate school. I acted a small part in Sibol then later on Blue Rep. It was a fun thing to do but my love was really running. I always found some kind of silence when I was running. I am most at home, most myself when I’m running. I did 100 meters, long jump, javelin and decathlon. I also love mountaineering.


Illac is comfortable being around the rich and the poor and this helps him understand social entrepreneurship on a deeper level. He narrated: I enjoyed playing with the kids around the house and there was a blurring of lines between social classes. I enjoyed being with them as much as I did with my friends from school. Maybe because I was exposed to this set up early on. While my mom’s art gallery exposed me to no less than 3,000 pieces of art crowding around me at any point in time, she also brought me to her feeding programs in halfway houses. I was the rice boy!


Among his scribbles I noticed that he wrote down the numbers 1 to 4 and I realized these numbers correspond to his dreams. Here they are.

Dream No. 1: When I was young my dream was to travel to 60 countries!

Would you believe that at his age now he has already travelled to 56 countries? Here’s his interesting story:

My mom raised me as a traveller. I was only a few months old when she brought me to Italy. I grew up on National Geographic. Our library was decked with lots of this magazine. I grew up hungry to see the world. I felt I had the right to know my heritage and I don’t mean just my Filipino heritage but my heritage as a citizen of the world. What are the great things to see? What are the great thoughts to think? What are the great things to achieve? What does it take to see and experience life 100%?

And because of this love to travel I had to be creative. I had to earn money. I got into modeling, selling t-shirts, I also worked at Smart Communications. In those days, modeling could earn you P250,000 a month which was good money at that time. What I would do was to break my earnings into savings chunks then figure out how I can allocate them to fund my big and sometimes crazy adventures. If I had the money, I would go to occasions where they would be raffling off airline tickets as prizes. I remember bringing cash in my pocket. If I think the flight would cost US$2,000 I would bring US$1,000 then approach the winner and say, “You either have to bring your spouse or someone else for that trip and spend more, or you may not have the time to travel. Here’s a thousand dollars and you won’t have to deal with any of those.” And 99% of the time, I would get the deal.

The good thing about travelling the world when you’re young and still tight on budget is you become creative. If you wait too long, you may have the money but might not have the time and flexibility. In Australia where I stayed for more than a month, I even slept in tent parks. I earned extra cash by picking vegetables for a fee. I rode buses, hitch hiked, I asked people to allow me to camp on their lawns so I could extend my stay. I did whatever it took to educate myself and see the world.

Rose: What’s your favorite place among the 56 countries you’ve been to?

Illac: Cappadocia in the middle of Turkey inhabited by Hittites. They used to build their houses in rocks. They chiseled off limestone. They also had underground houses and when the enemies invaded them, they just rolled the rock to block them off. I also like Everest. I did the Everest trail for 30 days. I’ve also gone to Sudan, Lake Nasser to Ethiopia across the desert. Brazil was also excellent. The white water rafting in Nepal was incredible.

Dream No. 2: To study in the best schools in the world.

Illac studied at the Ateneo from grade school to college where he finished Management Economics in 1995. He took up his Masters in Entrepreneurship at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in 2001. He also took up Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2006. Just recently, he finished his Masters in Political Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard.

Dream No. 3: To meet great people.

I love reading about great people like Winston Churchill and John Kennedy. Growing up I read a lot of National Geographic and I’ve always wanted to meet Jane Goodall. (Goodall is a primatologist, anthropologist who is known for her 45-year study of the familial and social interactions of wild chimpanzees). I also wanted to meet Bill Clinton. Can you imagine my excitement when I was having this conversation with Goodall in Brazil? It was my childhood dream to ask her how she spent so much time with the primates and I was actually doing it! Then just this year, I met Bill Clinton when he put up a scholarship in Harvard. I guess I just have these fierce dreams and I’m just going to work on them to fulfill them.

Dream No. 4: To do things that would change the world.

Early on I realized that I could not live the so called normal life – finish school, get a job, settle down, accumulate stuff that I could not really hand down to my children. I know I could hand down material things but I guess I wanted to hand down something more meaningful. Part of my 4th dream is this: Anywhere a Filipino goes, people would crowd around him to listen to what he has to say. You know the typical Filipino is shy and doesn’t want to call attention to himself. The image is always the poor one, the one asking for foreign aid. We use this “poverty porn” to always feel kawawa. But the truth is the Philippines is a rich country masking itself as poor. Fortunately, these days things are changing a bit. Now we have Leah Salonga, Manny Pacquiao, people who are not shy of their abilities and are able to make an impact in the world and I want to be a part of that story.


Rose: Do you have plans of settling down?

Illac: Yes, in the next couple of years. You know here’s what I think about settling down. Here you are, a person given the freedom of thought. You’re free to think what you want to think, do what you want to do. But here’s society, especially the Philippine society, encouraging you to be stable right away. It wants you to fall in love, have children, get a house, go into debt. And it’s because settling down ensures continuance of life. But you see, after so many years in school, it’s time to try out something new. That’s the time when you’re free to make mistakes, to get hurt, to go to other places, to fail. It’s the time to try out everything – from modeling to theater, to movies, to business, to employment. It’s the time to enjoy life to the fullest! So it was a bit shocking to see some of my classmates settle down right away. But there are people who really want and decide to settle down early and I’m not saying one is better than the other. But if you’re not careful and you don’t consciously make the decision and just allow things to happen, you can fall into the biological or economic system of settling down too early. You will miss the chance to “rock life!”

Rose: But is there someone right now?

Illac: Yes, I’m dating someone, a Filipino American. She knows more languages than I do (She knows five while Illac knows four.) She’s also from Harvard, graduating next year. She has travelled a lot. In the first month that we were together we hit three continents. She’s also very active in the campaign against tobacco.

Rose: Do you look forward to having children?

Illac: Absolutely! I want to have three boys but if girls that’s okay too. We’re three in the family – me, Marco and my sister Romina. I have also been saving up for a house.

Rose: Made of mud and solar lights?

Illac: To tell you the truth I actually can. Technically, you can build a house anywhere in the world just by using waste materials. Like in Greenbelt, can you imagine how much waste is produced there? I can build a house from the waste and not be constrained too much by the escalating prices of cement and steel.


Illac is definitely fulfilling his dreams. He only has 4 countries to go to complete his target of 60. He has studied in the best schools in the world. He has met a lot of great people. He is currently changing the world with his social entrepreneur endeavors. He is making houses and schools out of mud and plastic bottles. He is lighting thousands of dark homes with solar plastic bottles.

Our 30 minute interview stretched to almost two hours because he was talking about things that he’s excited and passionate about. He talked about hydroponics, water heater from soda cans, about innovating NGOs so that they too would compete for ideas and turn away from the traditional corporate-NGO partnership focused on tax shield charities instead of building social businesses that can eventually stand on their own.

The world is aware and conscious of carbon footprint and he wants us to be equally aware about plastic footprint and to do something about it. That’s why he wants his MyShelter Foundation to be the largest in the world when it comes to upcycling plastic bottles. Their current project is 1 Liter of Light (Isang Litrong Liwanag) which aims to bring the eco-friendly solar bottle bulb to the underprivileged communities. It was designed by students from MIT using technology and materials appropriate to developing countries – used plastic bottle, water and bleach. Check out the video of Mang Demi showing how he made thousands of solar bulbs. (

This project aims to light a million homes in 2012. Illac has appeared in a lot of shows and has spoken in Tedx on this project ( He will also speak before the United Nations Plenary on August 3, 2012 to discuss changing the world a bottle at a time. So I guess his dream no. 4 of a Filipino being listened to by the world is already happening.

Rose: How do you entice people, especially the youth, to join social entrepreneurship? If you’re talking to a fresh graduate, how do you make that sexy?

Illac: Now is the time to join us and do something worthwhile. You’re young, not yet tied down to a lot of financial obligations. You know, doing something for our country should not just be an option but an obligation. Use your youth, your fresh ideas and optimism for a couple of years doing something for the community and who knows you’ll be able to come up with a sound business that can sustain you while you’re helping out.

And this is how we will make it sexy. This year in December we will have a huge activity that would ask all Filipinos around the world to come together to do something big. You know the Earth Hour when we are asked to turn off our lights for one hour? Well, this time what we’ll do is we will ask the Filipinos (every Filipino with at least 1% Pinoy blood or affiliation) from all over the world to come together and provide light for 5 years! How’s that? We will do it with the solar bottle installed in different parts of the world. We’re working with Google Earth and BBDO and other great guys to come up with this event. We want to be the first viral NGO in the world. Filipinos are among the most connected in the world and we can share videos about how we light the world. I will coordinate with schools and the DepEd to ask the students to watch and participate in this. I want barkadas to come together and commit to light the world. The more videos donated, the more people will join. I want this revolution to be totally out of the box.

Illac, whose name means God of light in Aztec, talked about this big dream of lighting up the world one bottle at a time with such gusto, you want to call Mang Demi right away to teach you how to do it.

At the end of our conversation, he was humble enough to say that a single act of heroism is not enough to change the world. He said, “Maybe one person can make a dent, he can excite an army of people and then together they can change the world.”


I’ve always believed in the capabilities of Filipino people and as I walked out of the room I was more optimistic. If we could really get our act together, we have nowhere to go but greatness! It’s time to aspire for more than just survival. It’s time to aspire to change the world (to a better place). And we can do this if we form the habit of always uniting behind acts of heroism or even just the most ordinary good deeds of our fellow Filipinos. (To join or know more about 1 Liter of Life log on to