The coffee culture here in Singapore is strong and the plethora of cafes available on our tiny red dot leaves us spoiled for choice. However, Foreword Coffee is not any ordinary hipster cafe. It is also a social enterprise that aims to empower persons with special needs by providing employment and skills training in the F&B industry!
And, this specialty coffee company was born in 2017 from a chance student exchange opportunity in Amsterdam where founder Lim Wei Jie was first exposed to their strong coffee culture. He fell in love with coffee, started a coffee interest group in school and the rest is history.
Now 27 and wiser, this enterprising NUS graduate shares with me candidly about his noble mission and his ambitious startup journey - over a cup of freshly-brewed coffee of course!
How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
2 to 3 maybe =)
What ignited this entrepreneurial journey? I have friends who have siblings with special needs and I get along with them very well. At the same time, I have other friends who have done internships at special education schools and they tell me that work opportunities for the students are lacking after they graduate.
"That got me thinking how can I create a sustainable impact for the special needs community and it became a motivation for me to find a business solution."
I considered an ice-cream shop and I even experimented making my own haha. But after I got in touch with coffee, I realised that I could create a deeper impact. From the top of the value chain by importing directly from farmers, down to the people I hire at the retail end.
What were the teething challenges you faced? At the start when our first kiosk was at NUS, it was difficult. There wasn’t much business because we were located in a quiet space of the student hostels. People would not walk over to find us and the public would not come all the way to NUS to buy coffee. But, that was where I built my confidence in making coffee. It was a also chance for me to test my patience and to see if I want to carry on this business model for long.
How did you sustain the business? Did you invest your savings or look for funding? Before the coffee kiosk, I tapped on some funding from NUS to raise awareness about our coffee interest group through a zero-waste student campaign project. After one year, together with a co-founder Nadi Chan, we started the kiosk. With some savings from myself and Nadi, and support from the school, we felt that we had the privilege to create something to benefit others.
There are also SME grants and social enterprise funding that we are eligible for, as well as support from raiSE (Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise).
How has Foreword Coffee grown since? Actually we were approached by other organisations when we were still in NUS to put in proposals to set up our cafe at their places. That was three years ago and one of them was Temasek Shophouse.
From July 2018, we opened our first outlet at Civil Service College at Buona Vista. In October 2018, the one at Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI) opened. And in May 2019, the Temasek Shophouse one opened.
Everything happened within a year!
From a small team of 5 which consisted of myself and my friends, we have grown to 20 staff currently.
What is your proudest moment so far?
It is when I see the people that we work with improve and progress to be more confident, to be able to manage themselves better. Persons with special needs may not make the cut for open employment in a fast-paced environment. That is where we come in by giving them training and support. We want to give them a voice and to allow them to interact with the public.
It is tiring for me and for the team but when I see them grow, it is a reminder to myself why am I even doing this in the first place.
Expectations vs Reality. What is being an entrepreneur of a social enterprise really like?
It has been quite smooth-sailing so far but just that I expected myself to focus more on improving the coffee products, the work flow and the development of my people. But then admin work comes in. When you start a business, no one talks about complying with MOM and accounting regulations. It is very important but that takes up 50 - 70% of my time!
Do Social Enterprises get more benefits?
No there isn’t! It is really our own intention to do more social good but yet we have to compete at the same level with other businesses.
What is the most difficult part of your entrepreneurial journey?
Our people again haha. People take mc, things got broken at the cafe, there are emotional breakdowns - sometimes, everything happens at the same time and I feel terrible.
“When I had my first hire, that was when I realised hey it is not about me anymore. I have to make this business work for my people too.”
I need to manage my staff’s development and their well-being while managing their vulnerable situations and my our own emotions. With three outlets now, I cannot micromanage and be everywhere 24-hours. So, I need to train and empower the middle managers, who are special needs themselves, to take charge.
How do you deal with setbacks? As long as I can manage myself well in terms of having good sleep, eating well and exercising, I can manage the company better. It really works!
And my degree in Psychology helps too. How to be aware of your own emotions so that we do not reach the point where we get out of control. This self-awareness part is very important and I am trying to teach this to everyone in the company.
Tips for budding entrepreneurs? Manage yourself well first before you try to manage a business or other people. Also, it is good to find a mentor to learn from because there are many aspects that we do not think such as hiring issues and admin. This is where a mentor can help you. Go to LinkedIn and reach out to someone!
Under Wei Jie’s helm, Foreword Coffee has expanded tremendously within a short time frame. And his plans do not end here.
Wei Jie wants to increase the number of outlets and reach out to more people in the community so that the society can understand and accept those with special needs in their daily lives. He also hopes that through his initiatives, more employers can be more inclusive and open up to employ them.
Visit Foreword Coffee and have a cup of socially-sustainable coffee today!
Stay tuned for more inspirational stories on local entrepreneurs and businesses!
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