Shirley Ng and Celine Oh | Photo credit: Bettr Barista
“Socially responsible business practices should be at the heart and at the start of any business building conversation”, says Bettr Barista founder Pamela Chng when asked about her reasons for setting up a social enterprise coffee academy. Chng has always wanted to build a sustainable business that has a social purpose at its core, and this ethos permeates every aspect of Bettr Barista’s operations.
The Bettr Barista Coffee Academy provides specialty coffee education and vocational training to the general public, and reinvests the profits earned to train marginalized women and at-risk youth as baristas. The 6-month long program combines professional barista education and on-the-job learning, with life skills and physical training, including self-defense and yoga, empowering disenfranchised communities with the skills, confidence and resilience to pursue a more fulfilling life.
The social enterprise works all year round with welfare, community and family service organizations to identify suitable candidates for the program, including victims of domestic violence and ex-offenders — participants are only able to apply through referral to ensure that the course targets those most in need.
While almost half of the trainees did not have a steady source of income prior to partaking in the Holistic Training Programme, 93% went into permanent employment following graduation. Bettr Barista’s 44 alumni, who on average support four dependents each, now earn a cumulative total of S$1.1 million in salaries.
As a secondary school dropout, Shirley Ng started work at 13, became a mother at 15, bore her second child at 18 and got married at 22. When she joined the program at the suggestion of her counselor, she didn’t like the taste of coffee and wasn’t interested in the prospects of becoming a barista as going to school meant time away from her (poorly paid) day job as the breadwinner for her family.
Six years on, she is the proud owner of a myriad of barista certifications, including nine awarded by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), and has passed the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications’ Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment, a massive thumbs-up for anyone interested in professional skills education.
She went on to become a trainer herself at the Academy and has even gotten a taste of coffee roasting, sales and management responsibilities as part of her work with Bettr Barista. She was part of the pioneering team who set up Bettr Barista’s first retail coffee carts, and is currently working on plans to purchase her own home.
Celine Oh is Bettr Barista’s youngest Holistic Training Programme student to date – she was on the verge of dropping out of school when she joined the Academy at 16. She is now one of Bettr Barista’s lead baristas, placed fifth at the Singapore Latte Art Championship in 2017, and is competing again in 2018.
In stark contrast to the early days of their training when they could hardly stand each other, Ng and Oh interact with the ease and humor of a bickering married couple – one of countless manifestations of the invaluable emotional bond formed among Bettr Barista alumni. They are the living examples and often the biggest champions of Bettr Barista’s mission of changing lives through coffee – graduates dedicate over 20 volunteer hours every year at #baristasgiveback community events.
Bettr Barista also runs pop-up brew bars at corporate events, and in July 2016, the certified B Corp launched its first retail coffee carts. Community coffee bars and coffee carts are staffed in part by Bettr Barista graduates, which allows them to tap into their entrepreneurial ambitions, while amplifying Bettr Barista’s social impact and extending its footprint to the everyday consumer. A portion of the revenue goes towards supporting the higher education of at-risk youth.
As part of the Holistic Training Programme, trainees are also given the opportunity to undertake paid internships with the social enterprise’s specialty café partners, and are often recommended for job opportunities upon graduation within the social enterprise’s industry network.
Revenue from Bettr Barista’s coffee certification classes, corporate workshops, mobile brew bars, in-house roastery and coffee retail businesses helps fund the Holistic Training Programme, which is valued at $3,500 per student. Each trainee must also contribute a symbolic amount from their internship earnings towards the total course fee for full ownership and accountability.
In 2017, Bettr Barista has won the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award, but Chng and her team are not resting idly on their laurels. Their latest objective is energy self-sufficiency and to be powered entirely by solar energy come 2020 – the social venture is currently 20% along the way to reaching this target.
They are also working towards integrating other vulnerable groups into their training program, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, and have plans to expand regionally, as early as 2019.
Coffee has ultimately become Chng’s medium to challenge the often negative perception of vocational training in Singapore, to offer everyone equal access to gainful employment, and to start an open dialogue about Singapore’s social fabric, including how we treat the disadvantaged and the disabled.
“We rarely talk about our underbelly”, she says, “even though every business has the responsibility to act socially, and everybody has the potential to become a better version of themselves.”