“Bettr Barista” Changing Lives One Cup Of Coffee At A Time

By Abdul Hafiz
The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network.


At a recent global gathering of social entrepreneurs in London, the talk was of passion, perseverance, stubbornness to not accept the status quo and the “200 per cent dedication” needed to create change in a profit-driven world.

But when it was Pamela Chng’s turn to address the hundreds of do-gooders at the Makers of More Summit in a converted warehouse at a disused gasworks in Hackney, she spoke of fear.

The founder of home-grown social business Bettr Barista Coffee Academy said: “I’ve lived a better part of my life paralysed by fear. I’ve had the fortune of going to good schools, getting good jobs, starting a business when I was fairly young.

“But a lot of this was driven by the fear of not being good enough, of not becoming what I was supposed to be in other people’s eyes.”

She sees similar fears in the marginalised women and at-risk youth her firm has been helping since 2011 through the Bettr Holistic programme, which not only includes barista training and internships, but also emotional resilience training, self-defence classes, outrigger canoeing and rock-climbing to build self-esteem and confidence.

She spoke of Jo, a jobless 50-year-old in a failing marriage, battling depression and facing the reality of being a single mother with two school-going girls.

“The first day she stepped into the room — she could not look me in the eye, her voice was barely audible, she could not say anything,” said Chng, explaining how Jo was scared because she was the oldest in the class and feared being a bad mother because she could not cope with work, study and family.

“Today, she is our oldest professional barista, plays a key role in our Holistic programme, and helps manage customer experience at the academy. She is doing well with her two children on her own and, more importantly, she is laughing again.”

Chng’s own journey to find herself began after she left Hwa Chong Junior College with her A levels. Her parents, in the industrial equipment supplies business for 30 years, had typical expectations — go to a good local university, do really well and get a marketable degree.

But she felt straitjacketed by the Singapore system and its focus on academic results. She headed to Melbourne instead, where some relatives lived, to do a double major in sociology and English.

“At that time, people went overseas to do business, science, law. Arts? That was what you did if you could not ‘make it’,” the 38-year-old told The Sunday Times.

After graduating, she returned to Singapore and joined online news portal AsiaOne in 1998 during the boom. Then the bubble burst and she left in 2002. It was so traumatising that some of her former colleagues vowed never to work in a Web company or start-up again.

She did the opposite.
With a partner, she started Web consultancy Digital Boomerang. And it succeeded, winning several government contracts, and was involved in a major revamp of business portal EnterpriseOne.

But after eight years, she was burnt out, and questioning her life. “I realised I was terribly unmotivated by money.”

She sold her share, and took a year off to rediscover herself and returned to Melbourne to attend summer film school and barista school.

It gave her time to think again and the idea of starting a social enterprise took hold.

“It made a lot of sense. Every ounce of work is going towards something bigger than your own minute world. I needed a vehicle to execute that — so I chose coffee, which I have always loved.”

The speciality coffee industry was taking off but simply starting a cafe was not what was going to make the sort of difference she was envisioning.

“As I learnt more about the industry, I realised that a cup of coffee did not taste as good as it could because people didn’t know how to make it right. There was little access to proper training, because there were few places to go to and no set standards.

“If we could solve this issue, the chances of lifting the entire industry become that much higher. And we know Singapore is all about education, training and people. So it clicked.”

She went to the United States to study how the coffee business worked, and to Italy to learn about coffee machines.

Then she set up her academy — the only one in Southeast Asia that offers professional training for baristas, leading to accreditation from two of the largest coffee associations in America and Europe.

It will also soon offer programmes under the Government’s Singapore Workforce Skills Qualification to make coffee education more accessible to the masses.

In the beginning, it was hard work convincing the coffee industry here that world-class coffee education was essential to the industry. But the biggest problem was explaining the business and social model — people asked what psychologists, rock-climbing and yoga had to do with coffee.

A trained barista and coffee roaster herself, she and two partners — who are “media-shy” — have put around S$500,000 (US$383, 473) into their business over the last three years.

Balancing the firm’s commercial and social sides has been a constant battle. “We needed to make money to survive but we also wanted to help these women and these kids,” she said.

When the firm started, it operated out of an 800 sq ft office space.

“That meant that if we were running a class for our social programme, we could not do anything else. If we were running a revenue-paying class, we could not do anything else. It got quite stressful managing this tension.”

In May, Bettr Barista moved to a place twice as large in Mactaggart Road in MacPherson. “We bit the bullet. Now, we have three training spaces. We can have paying clients, a yoga session, and also run another smaller class.We’re still not profitable, but we’re working hard to stay on track.”

The next mission is to become self-sustaining — to generate enough profits to keep the business going and fund its social core.

That there is more awareness of the growing social business sector here is great, she said, “but I worry there is a bit more abuse now. Companies just tag on the social enterprise label”.

“It would help to have some regulation because it (such practice) makes life difficult for those of us in the social sector who are genuinely using the enterprise model to make social change and help people. The consumer is sometimes confused and they question the authenticity of some claims.”

She advises young people to think twice before starting a social business straight out of school, and maybe join one first to gain some experience.

Their hearts may be in the right place, she said, but “hang on… do you have the right understanding of the social issue you are trying to solve? Do you understand how business is done? Do you have access to money? If you don’t, better stop”, she added.

“Because it takes twice as long for a social business to become profitable if the aim is to help people and create change. You cannot depend on charity and must have a strong business model to take you to sustainability.”

But besides making enough money to pay rent and salaries, Chng admitted that the job also exacts an emotional cost not just on her, but also her entire team.

Nearly all the young people they deal with are dropouts. Some have special needs, others come from broken families. Often, the women have been emotionally abused at home, lack work skills and are struggling to make ends meet.

“I listen to some of our students’ stories and I wonder how this can still happen in this day and age. It takes a lot of emotional energy to process and to help our students through their issues.”

There are challenging cases.

“We had a young man, his entire family was in prison. And he was on probation. When he came in here, we worked really, really hard with him for two years. Then he slipped and eventually left. He got a girl pregnant but they are married now, and he is about to become a father. He’s picked himself up and is back at work as a barista.

“We are hopeful that the work we’ve done with him has given him a stronger foundation to cope with his current situation. Hopefully, he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of his parents with his own child.”

But there are many whose lives have taken a turn for the better. Ms Chng points to a wall in her academy with pictures of them.

There is Jo, and Chetra, a cleaner who took a bus for the first time when she went to register at the academy. She was 45 then, and now works in a cafe.

Then there is Shirley, a mother of two. She had her first child at 15, and the second at 16. She is now learning to become a trainer.

They are among the 33 who have come through Bettr Barista’s doors. The numbers may not seem like a lot, but the help they get also impacts their dependants, who total more than 100, said Chng.

“Every one of them has literally transformed. There are still many challenges they’re dealing with. Their external situations haven’t necessarily gotten better, but with the work we’ve done with them, they are making progress on being able to cope with their lives.

“It takes a certain inner strength to be able to do this.

“And their courage makes us courageous. If they can do it, what do we have to complain about? We have food on our table, we have a roof over our heads, we have our health, we’ve got our family.

“Singapore is not perfect, we have our problems but we have a lot to be grateful for. And instead of complaining all the time, and putting the blame or the responsibility of change into somebody else’s hands, Singaporeans have great power to change things for the better.”

Her work has already earned recognition, both here and abroad.

Bettr Barista was the start-up of the year at last year’s President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award. Chng has been held up as a role model by Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, alongside the likes of India’s Kailash Satyarthi, the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Her firm was also Singapore’s first recipient of the Arthur Guinness Fund — the social arm of the brewery — in 2012.

And it all started after she found the confidence to be herself. “Change yourself,” she said, “and the world will change around you.”

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