Doing Good By Doing Bettr

Singapore

Social enterprise Bettr Barista Coffee Academy not only trains disadvantaged youth and women to brew coffee, but coaches them in personal resilience too. The result? A shot at better lives.

If you want to start a business, you need to be passionate about your subject matter and industry. If not, you’re not going to make it. 

Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. For Pamela Chng, the old saying takes on a fresh flavour. Teach disadvantaged youth and women to brew good coffee and empower them to lead better lives.

The 38-year-old is the founder of Bettr Barista Coffee Academy, a social enterprise that trains youth at risk and underprivileged women for the specialty coffee industry in Singapore.

Pamela used to co-own a web consultancy. For eight years she worked hard at building the business and was successful. Yet, she felt something amiss. It was as if something else was calling out to her.

She knew she wasn’t motivated by money – she had realised this much earlier in her life. What did she want out of the years ahead? She took a step back, reconnected with herself and listened closely to her inner voice.

She concluded that if she was to continue working hard at a business, it had to mean more – to herself and to society. Her idea was to start a business that would help people maximise their potential and become better versions of themselves.

Most people have opportunities for training and personal development at work, she says, but marginalised groups in society don’t. Neither do they have the chance to learn how to manage their emotions and build up their resilience.

If they’re given the opportunities to learn, they may be able to cope better with challenges, make something of their lives, and not spiral down the cycle of poverty. 

A Holistic Brew

Coffee is comforting and stimulating; it makes things right at that moment. It’s a social lubricant, bonds people. Good things happen over coffee. 

Eventually, Pamela found the perfect blend in her passion for coffee and thirst for purpose and social good. She had her first great coffee experience at an Italian café in Melbourne, Australia, more than 20 years ago. The cappuccino was well made and tasted great.

“Not only that,” she recounts, “the baristas serving it were happy and professional. They were in shirts and vests. They elevated the entire experience.” She has been enamoured of coffee and the experience that comes with it ever since.

When Bettr Barista was concocted in November 2011, Singapore’s specialty coffee scene was growing, and Pamela saw a demand for skilled baristas.

Bettr Barista trainees undergo a holistic programme. They begin with four weeks of specialty coffee and barista skills training by Pamela and other trainers. Pamela is a certified lead instructor of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and an authorised trainer of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.

A lot of craft and skill go into coffee-making. You can even taste the care that goes into a good cup. The more you understand the art and science behind it, the better cup of coffee you will brew. 

The trainees then apply their coffee-brewing skills in 10-week long paid internships at partner cafes. The programme also puts them through physical training such as yoga and outrigger canoeing to build up their fitness, as well as emotional training, which equips them to deal with challenges such as conflicts and difficult customers.

Besides getting the trainees job-ready, Pamela and her team trudge alongside them on their emotional journeys too. The trainees, school dropouts in their late teens to early 20s and women in their mid-20s to 50s from low-income backgrounds, face many personal challenges. These range from the lack of self-discipline to low self-esteem to financial difficulties. “On some days, we have to be their parents; on others, we are counsellors and discipline masters,” says Pamela.

It’s hence crucial for her team to calibrate their emotional energy output so that they don’t burn out. “But as long as we can see that individuals are still motivated and want to help themselves, we won’t give up,” she adds.

We need different strokes for different folks. We need to be able to listen and understand their issues – and help them not give up. 

Paying It Forward

Imagine if everybody we have helped goes out and helps somebody else. That will be really powerful, and that’s what we want. 

In 2013 Bettr Barista was named the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Start-up of the Year. “The award legitimised what we were doing,” says Pamela. One reason for the win, she says, could be that Bettr Barista focuses on its business as much as its social cause. To be self-sustaining financially, it holds coffee appreciation and professional certification classes, sells coffee beans and accessories, and takes its mobile brew bar to corporate events, including DBS’ Asian Insights Conference and Marina Regatta.

Bettr Barista also works in partnership with DBS towards its goal of financial sustainability. As a customer of the bank’s Social Enterprise Package, it enjoys preferential transaction rates and doesn’t need to have a minimum monthly balance.

To date, the academy has trained 30 baristas, of whom 23 have graduated and 17 are still employed in the industry. Some graduates have also earned international barista certifications.

Bettr Barista is in the process of being accredited as an Approved Training Organisation (ATO) of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, which will allow it to train more talents through Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) courses. WSQ courses are offered at subsidised rates, so employers will find it more attractive to send their staff for training.

Proud of her graduates, Pamela rattles off stories of their growth and transformation. One graduate in her early 20s, mum to two young kids, is now back at Bettr Barista learning to be a trainer. A 50-year-old, once suffering from depression, is now all smiles and coping well as a barista and single mother to two teenagers.

Our work is not about numbers, but the depth of its impact and how amplifiable that impact is. How does helping one person affect her family and community?” says Pamela. “If we continue to transform lives in fundamental, not superficial, ways, and do it consistently, that is success to us. 

If we continue to transform lives in fundamental, not superficial, ways, and do it consistently, that is success to us. 

 

 If you want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia, check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.

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