Growing up a child of immigrants in Middle America, I didn’t think I’d ever be a fashion writer. Yes, it was a dream of mine, but it felt far from attainable. No one looked like me, in magazines or on TV. For years — in fact, well into early adulthood — I just assumed my dreams were meant for someone else. Then social media came along and changed everything. Suddenly I was able to connect with people who had similar upbringings and cultural experiences. I began to follow people in the fashion industry and network, which opened doors to opportunities I had previously deemed out of my reach. Now that I’m in a position to do so, I want to be that representation for other immigrants and children of immigrants, a reminder that we exist and we are worthy of the same visibility and access afforded to others.
October is Filipino American History Month, and to pay tribute to the diaspora, we’ll be wrapping up the month with a series of profiles on Filipinas in fashion. These women aren’t just a part of the industry — they’re actively working to make it a more inclusive and progressive space.
One such pioneer is Maria Febre, the director for global equality and belonging at Gap Inc., who’s responsible for advancing the brand’s diversity and inclusion efforts. That position comes with some major responsibilities like leading the in-house design and global deployment of unconscious bias training for all Gap Inc. employees, as well as serving on the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. Born in Davao City, Philippines, Febre immigrated to the United States when she was one year old. Ahead, she tells Refinery29 how her Filipina heritage shaped her career path and sparked her passion for helping others.
How did your culture influence your professional journey?
I was raised by traditional Filipino parents trying to assimilate themselves and their children to Western culture without losing our heritage in the process. Filipinos are known for their hospitality and willingness to help others. In the Philippines, my father always shared how welcoming everyone was and that they loved camaraderie. For example, going to other people’s homes without advanced notice was embraced with warmth and excitement. Drop-ins like this allowed for people to take a break, catch up with friends, and — of course — enjoy a meal, which is another big part of the Filipino lifestyle. When I think about my culture, it has been ingrained with how I have always operated in the workplace. It was always about helping others.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in retail? What have been some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned so far?
To be honest, I didn’t pursue a career in retail initially. But once I got to Gap Inc., I was hooked. I’ve been here for 20 years. This is where I grew up and learned so much about retail and myself. I started as an administrative assistant and could have done that job my whole life. Again, it was primarily focused on helping others, so this made sense. One day, the leader I was supporting for just four months encouraged me to apply for a project manager position. This was a pretty big leap. But he shared how he was willing to lose me as his admin so I could contribute to the business in a bigger way.
This was a pivotal time in my career. It was the beginning of my leadership journey. This moment taught me: 1) Sometimes, others see things in you that you may not see in yourself; 2) In your career, you need to take risks; and 3) As I started on my own path as a leader, it was now my duty to pay it forward to others.
What does a day in the life of a diversity officer look like?
Given today’s political, social, and business climate, now more than ever people want to be heard, seen, and provided an opportunity to succeed as the most authentic version of themselves. Every day is different, whether it’s creating moments to have tough conversations, infusing this work in our business processes, trainings, and policies, or bringing our heritage months to life to educate others. This role touches everything. I like to say I wear my cape each day to push this work forward. As a Filipina raised by parents that preferred not to stand out, this role has taught me to use my voice and platform in an authentic way to drive change for others.
Have you worked with many other Filipinas in your career?
I’ve been privileged to meet many inspiring Filipinas throughout my career. There’s often an immediate connection because of the culture we share. As a Filipina leader, it’s important for me to be a role model for our young Filipinas — to show them anything is possible. Our identity is our strength. It shapes our unique perspective, so they need to leverage it.
At Gap Inc., many Filipinas and other Asian women participate in our Asian network group, ASIA (Asians Supporting Inclusion and Awareness), which focuses on building community, raising cultural awareness, and influencing the business through diversity. It’s a great resource for all employees to learn about Asian heritage. This year, for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I had the great honour and pleasure to interview Geena Rocero, a Filipina transgender supermodel.
What’s the significance of your Filipina heritage? How do you stay connected to the culture and motherland?
When I think of my Filipina heritage, I think of my mom — a woman who followed her husband’s lead, moving her family away from friends, family, and their community for a better life for her children. She put her children first above all. She worked hard for her career in banking and was always a great role model of strength. I am a strong Filipina because of her. My mom is also one of the ways I stay connected to the community. She shares all the latest news happening in the Philippines. On occasion, I watch The Filipino Channel with her. Although I can understand Tagalog, sadly I cannot speak it fluently. This was attributed to assimilation. My parents insisted we respond in English in the household. Maybe taking Tagalog classes is my next educational path.
I prefer the term work-life integration. My work and life are connected and intertwined with how I go about my day. I am grateful Gap Inc. offers a culture that supports that. This shows up in multiple ways in my life — from taking conference calls while I drive my daughter to soccer practice, to coming in later on drop-off days and firing up my laptop in the evening, to working remote so I can pick up kids in between meetings. At the end of the day, it’s about delivering great work while being a great mom. [My job] gives me the autonomy to do both.
What advice do you have for Filipinas looking to break into the upper echelon of leadership, whether in fashion, retail, or elsewhere?
Stay grounded. Be true to yourself. Your individuality is your greatest strength. When you can stay as close to who you are and not anyone else, you will show up at your best, whether you are a contributor or a leader. Stand proud of your culture. It’s so easy to lose this through assimilation and trying to fit in with a group, team, or organization. You are you because of your background, upbringing, and culture. Use your voice to fight against bias. Influence change that creates opportunity for other Filipinas and for all people.