How Coffee Changes Lives

Art & Design

February 28, 2017 | BY Grace Ma

Bettr Barista’s founder Pamela Chng shares how brewing a cup of java has brought a positive impact to the lives of the underprivileged.

At Bettr Barista, coffee is seen as a lifesaver in more ways than one. Pamela Chng started the social enterprise in 2011 not only because she saw potential in the speciality coffee industry but also as a means to help the financially and socially disadvantaged. 1 DSC_8967 JT.jpg

 In April 2015, Bettr Barista—its misspelt name a nod to imperfect lives that can be made better—validated its profits-for-social-change mission by becoming the first Certified B Corporation (B Corp) in Singapore. It joined the ranks of over 2,000 companies around the world that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, legal accountability and public transparency set down by B Lab, a US-based non-profit organisation that facilitates a global movement of people using business as a force for good. Last year, Bettr Barista became an honouree on B Lab’s Best for the World (Community) 2016 list of the top 10 percent of all B Corps.

While evaluating the impact of one’s company practices is easily done on B Lab’s online platform, getting certified requires the submission of formal documentation to meet the minimum threshold of 80 out of the 200 points available in the B Impact Assessment, after which B Lab staff may do further background checks and site reviews.

(Related: Coffee: A Lifeline for Farmers Around the World)

Jacqui Hocking, who leads strategic communications consultancy Vision Strategy Storytelling and was also the co-founder of Singapore’s third B Corp-certified company Gone Adventurin’, says that the B Impact Assessment helps a company to take a critical look at whether its practices are really doing good in the areas of customer, environment, community, governance and worker welfare. The passionate B Corp advocate is now building a Southeast Asia community movement with the aim of getting more companies to come on board.

“Pamela used the B Impact Assessment as the benchmark for three years before becoming a Certified B Corp. It shows her commitment to make her business a force for social good. Frankly, it is also a good business strategy as you are maximising value for shareholders, society and the environment,” says Hocking.

At the heart of Bettr Barista’s business model is the six-month Bettr Holistic Training Programme, which it runs at its coffee academy, and in the last five years has seen 65 trainees ranging from teenage school dropouts to women in their 50s from low-income backgrounds. Participants pay a subsidised course fee of $300 (a full course fee is $3,500) to receive international standard coffee training, as well as physical and emotional training in courses such as self-defence, rock climbing and life management.

(Related: How Rachel Harrison Is Helping Those With Special Needs)

Pamela says that coping emotionally is the most crucial skill for these trainees. “Many of them deal with tremendous upheavals in their lives. In many initiatives that work with the marginalised, the percentage of those who stay and thrive in their jobs are very low. A large part of our work focuses on helping them to cope emotionally so that they can be more resilient.”

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She is proud that 90 percent of the programme graduates have gone on to be employed by Bettr Barista and its partner cafes, while others have gone back to school. One of them is single mother Josephine Teo, who now works at Bettr Barista and is an alumni mentor and trainer for the holistic training programme. She says, “After 10 years of not being in the workforce, I was daunted by the prospect of returning to work while grappling with my own self-esteem. I am now more confident about myself and the work I do. I guide the trainees the same way I was nurtured, especially young or single mothers whom I can empathise with.” 

Bettr Barista also conducts confidence-building programmes for schools and offers three professional scholarships totalling $10,000 to first-year students of ITE College West who are keen on a career in the speciality coffee industry.

Its social initiatives are supported by business revenue from its coffee education classes, mobile espresso brew bars at corporate events, supplying in-house roasted coffee and machinery to cafes and consumers, as well as coffee carts. It is the only company in Southeast Asia that provides international certifications from both the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. 

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Last year, Bettr Barista set up a coffee bar at DBS Bank’s *Scape branch with support from the bank, and collaborated with NTUC Income’s community development and involvement arm OrangeAid to launch the Bettr Coffee Cart initiative in December. All revenue went towards supporting Bettr Barista’s programmes, while one per cent of total cart sales was channelled to NTUC Income’s OrangeAid Future Development Programme to help students with financial needs. 

(Related: What your coffee order says about you)

Pamela says, “We want to encourage conscious consumption and in the long-term, to make the coffee carts a social franchise that can be expanded to the rest of Asia. Our ultimate mission is to give underprivileged individuals a better future where they can also pay it forward. 

“If we recognise the privileges we have in our lives, and try to do more with what we are given, we can fulfil different needs and social purposes. That is the great power we have as individuals and businesses.”  

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Photography: Lionel Lai/AcePix; Art Direction: Jana Tan, Hair and Make-up: Benedict Choo Location: Bettr Barista Coffee Academy

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