We’ve all read stories about fellow Singaporeans who have taken the road less travelled. Some of them quit school to pursue their passions; some leave jobs to start businesses inspired by loved ones. And there’s a reason why we continue to remain fascinated by such individuals: it’s hard to simply up and leave, especially when it seems (to other people) as though you have everything going for you.
Faced with such a dilemma, many of us are likely to pick the easier option. We stay — in jobs that don’t satisfy us, and in courses of study that don’t enrich our lives — content to simply read about others who have done what we don’t dare to.
But Pamela Chng, founder of Bettr Barista Coffee Academy, was not one of those people. Starting out as one of the co-founders of web consultancy firm Digital Boomerang, she found herself burnt out after 8 years, and derived little emotional satisfaction from her work. She decided then to move on to another of her passions — coffee.
Singapore’s First & Only Certified B Corporation
It’s lucky for us that she did, because what Pamela achieved with her business was not just provide consumers with better coffee. Bettr Barista Coffee Academy operates on the motto of “Making the world a Bettr place, one barista at a time.” True to its word, the business runs an ongoing six-month programme for disadvantaged women and youth, helping them by offering not just professional skills, but coffee education, life and emotional management skills, as well as physical training. They also offer a range of other courses that are suitable for amateurs, professionals and everyone in between.
Last month, Bettr Barista Coffee Academy announced that they had become the first — and only — Singaporean business to become a Certified B Corporation. This means that they have been recognised as being a company that has “[met] rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency,” according to the B Corporation website.
With so many businesses jumping on the ‘social enterprise’ bandwagon these days, I couldn’t help but wonder if the rise of socially conscious corporations is becoming some sort of marketing gimmick. So I spoke with Pamela to ask her thoughts on this issue, as well as what starting Bettr Barista has done for her.
To Pamela, the emergence of socially conscious enterprises marks the beginning of something better — or Bettr, as the Bettr Barista team might say: “I think it points to more and more people wanting to build businesses that have a social purpose beyond pure economic profit — and that’s a good thing! It means that our community of socially-minded businesses is growing, and we have opportunities to work with more like-minded collaborators in different industries…It [also] provides some tangible, measurable proof that we are a social business that is authentic and putting ourselves out there against the best in the world.”
“We love the whole idea and philosophy of a B Corp, and set out to build our business along those same lines right from the start — before we even knew B Corp existed. So this has been more than 3 years in the making for us,” she elaborated.
As a pioneer in B Corp certification in Singapore, Pamela was also glad to give aspiring businesses some advice to help them along in their quest to gain recognition from the B Corp community:
“Never lose sight of the reason for your existence, and continuously hold yourself to higher standards.”
The Mid-Career Switch
Web consulting and coffee brewing, as most of us would agree, are about as different as any two career paths could be. But for Pamela, starting Bettr Barista was an idea that “made a lot of sense”. She explained, “It was pretty clear to me that I’m not hugely motivated by money; I knew I needed to be doing something else with a different purpose.
“So I left and took a year off to reconnect with myself. I’ve always loved coffee and enjoy geeking out over it, and the idea of building a business around coffee that was BOTH commercially viable and socially purposeful made a lot of sense… On an individual, personal level, coffee is so multi-faceted and interesting. It challenges you to learn constantly and taste new flavours never tasted before; it allows us to experience something ubiquitous and familiar in a different way each time.”
And it wasn’t just passion that kept her going: the specialty coffee industry then, according to Pamela, “was growing and there was a real need for international-standard training and education.”
Yet, making a mid-career switch is undeniably a big move — one that is enough to induce fear in the bravest of us. Still, Pamela was quick to point out: “The switch was not difficult because my purpose was clear. Thinking about the business, all the things we wanted to do and the tremendous potential was exciting — and a little daunting, I will admit.”
Like any business or startup, Pamela faced numerous challenges when she first started Bettr Barista. These were compounded by the social programme that the business ran: “There are all sorts of bumps in the road that we encounter — as one might expect when working across a spectrum of unique personalities and life situations. Growth, funding, resources, social challenges with the marginalised groups we work with…these are all part of a day’s work for us.”
A Day In The Life Of A Bettr Barista
With a team consisting of members from such diverse backgrounds, I’d imagine that life as the founder of Bettr Barista must be a pretty hectic one. Pamela agrees: “A typical day is BUSY! No two days are alike. Our office Google calendars sometimes look like something out of an air traffic controller’s nightmare but we love everything we do.
“In any given week, our entire team is fully occupied with running professional classes, setting up our mobile brew bar and serving at various offsite client events, working with our students and industry partners, roasting and fulfilling orders, developing and refining our curricula, fixing coffee machines…you get the idea.”
Despite her packed schedule, though, it’s evident that Pamela takes a pretty hands-on approach when it comes to working with her team. She explains, “I have fond memories of every single Holistic Training student who was walked through our doors — there are so many unique stories…What stands out is watching the new stories of their lives unfold in front of us every single day; watching them blossom and become more confident and charging ahead with their lives with a greater sense of purpose.”
And what she’s done for her students definitely hasn’t gone unnoticed. On Bettr Barista’s third anniversary last year, her students had her walk through a photo journey that they’d made — an experience that, according to Pamela, “was very emotional and uplifting…seeing all our stories told through photographs over the years. That was certainly memorable.”
Pamela was also quick to point out how setting up Bettr Barista has changed not only the lives of those who’ve walked through the doors of the Academy, but her own as well: “As an individual, I now have much greater empathy and always look for lessons in everything. I’m becoming a lot more rational and calm about bumps in the road and challenges because I accept that some things are just going to happen anyway, and my focus then shifts to finding solutions and making progress. I’m also less critical of myself these days. I cut myself some slack and just keep moving ahead because life is short.”
To A Bettr Future Ahead
Seeing as Bettr Barista has helped more than 33 students, and over 100 dependents in the three years since its inception, it’s clear that the team behind the Academy will not be slowing down any time soon. In fact, Pamela reveals, “There’s a lot more I’d like to do for sure! Amongst our plans (which I can’t fully disclose the details of just yet) are ideas for a social franchise and possibly moving into the region.”
I’ll admit: I’m not a lover of coffee, but if Pamela (and all the Bettr Baristas out there) can make it such that the beverage benefits more than just their drinkers, then count me in.