She started a coffee business to help the vulnerable and make the world a better place

SPH Brightcove Video
Pamela Chng left a career in online media to create a coffee business that gives back to the community. Today, Bettr Barista not only sells coffee, but also provides training opportunities for the marginalised.
Founder of Bettr Barista Pamela Chng aims to change the lives of marginalised women and youth through coffee education. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

In T.S. Eliot's famous poem The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufock, there is a line which goes: "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons."

It is the lament of a lonely and disenchanted middle-aged man about his dull and predictable life.

Ms Pamela Chng's relationship with coffee, however, is far less morose and a lot more uplifting.

"I never imagined I could start a new career at 35 and eventually become a coffee educator, roaster, world judge and sitting on the global speciality coffee board," says the former Web consultant.

"From a simple beverage that just brought me pleasure, it's become a vehicle for so many aspects of my life to play out."

Ms Chng is the founder of Bettr Barista, a coffee business which champions socially responsible practices.

Besides running a chain of retail outlets and an academy providing speciality coffee education, Singapore's first B-corporation - an outfit which uses business as a force for good - has a social programme to help marginalised women and youth at risk, equipping them not just with employable coffee skills, but also mental and emotional resilience.

The set-up also offers consultancy services, coffee-themed team-building programmes for corporations, and sells machines and other coffee paraphernalia. It has a roasting facility too, wholesaling coffee beans sourced from community-focused, sustainable coffee farms around the world.

Indeed, coffee has been a game changer for Ms Chng. Her parents ran a construction and manufacturing business and she started life as an obedient and rule-abiding Singaporean.

"I was fearful of what people said, went down the good Singaporean path and didn't get into any trouble," says the former Singapore Chinese Girls' School student, who later studied sociology and literature at the University of Melbourne.

The 44-year-old cut her teeth professionally doing ad sales and business development for AsiaOne upon graduation in 1999.

Four years later - during which she saw the bubble burst - she started Web consultancy Digital Boomerang. For the next eight years, she did Web work and content for government agencies.

The pace was gruelling. Because developments in the tech world happen at such a rapid pace, eight years in the business was akin to 20 years in a normal working environment, she says.

Although she learnt a lot, burnout set in. "I was probably depressed too," she says candidly.

"I told myself there had to be more to life. I could have carried on and be comfortable, but money was not a motivator. I worked hard, but I told myself I needed a reason for doing so," she says, adding that the financial crisis of 2008 also prompted deep reflection.

So, she took a year off to sort out her thoughts. "I just wanted to learn again. I went to film school and coffee school and around the world - Australia, Italy and the United States," she says.

During this time, she read Muhammad Yunus' Building Social Business: The New Kind Of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing Needs. "It really spoke to me," she says. "How can a business be constructed and grown sustainably so that it has a positive impact in everything it does?"

That was when she started to think about using her passion - coffee - as a vehicle to change lives and make the world a better place.

And so, Bettr Barista was born in 2011.

"I realised there was market viability, huge potential for growth and it was also an industry with many opportunities to create social and environmental impact. There was demand for more talent and higher standards in the industry, which called for education," she says.

"There was demand for higher quality speciality coffee, which called for better quality coffee experiences. There was demand for baristas in the market, which led to opportunities for marginalised groups to acquire skills and sustainable jobs. It was the right industry at the right time."

She also wanted to do something about systemic issues in the coffee value chain.

"I believe coffee needs to be more equal and inclusive across the entire chain if we want to be able to create more sustainable and equitable conditions for all segments of the coffee industry."

Ms Chng is the founder of Bettr Barista, a coffee business which champions socially responsible practices. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Bettr Barista has scooped up a bag of awards over the years.

It was a recipient of DBS Foundation's social enterprise grant in 2015, the President's Challenge Social Enterprise of the Year winner in 2017 and a Best For The World (Community) organisation from 2016 to last year.

It has eight retail outlets and its coffee academy has trained more than 5,500 people from 30 countries, including Zimbabwe and Romania.

Ms Chng has notched up several personal achievements too.

A judge in several international coffee competitions including the World Barista Championship, she is also the first Singaporean on the Board of Directors of the global Specialty Coffee Association.

She is chuffed that coffee has allowed her to do her bit for the social and environmental spheres.

"It's been a social lubricant to have conversations about important and difficult topics - whether it is inequality, sustainability, mental health or other metrics of success in business and life."

You have gone through quite a few crises - the crash, Sars, the Lehman Brothers collapse and, now, Covid-19. What have they taught you about business, life and humanity?

Crises destabilise and upset existing structures of functioning. They surface the broken-ness and pressure points in a system and destroy many elements in existence.

They are also turning points, representing opportunities for change and creating new systems of being that can be better than before.

In times of crises, the most important thing for a business is the agility to adapt and survive. You need a strong team to do whatever is required to make things happen. It is in a crisis where you discover the strength of your culture and reaffirm your reason for being.

Each crisis presents an opportunity to deeply reflect on why it happened in the first place, what went wrong, what we need to do to fix things and create a better system moving forward.

As we have to suffer through the pain, how do we learn to accept things outside of our control, focus on changing things we do have control over and do that sanely and healthily?

We are a resilient and adaptable species and have survived countless crises since the beginning of time. But if we don't start taking some real action about how we are exploiting our social and environmental systems in the pursuit of narrow metrics of success, we are heading towards self-destruction faster than our ancestors could have predicted.

Having taken a year off to travel and figure things out, what advice would you give to people who feel lost and unfulfilled professionally?

That first, it's okay, and not to beat yourself up about it. When you feel lost and unfulfilled, it's usually because your head, heart and hands are not in alignment. You can learn to align this, if you have the will and courage to be brutally honest with yourself and learn to accept the constraints of your life.

Recognise your unique gifts, skills and talents so you can align those with your values and use them to contribute to something larger than yourself. It doesn't have to be huge acts - even the smallest daily act, in the service of others, can be transformative.

Learn to learn again. Focus on your emotional health and acquire the skills to cope with negative emotional energy. And take care of your physical health. A healthy body is a healthy mind. By the end of my year off, I was in the best physical shape of my life and was full of optimism, energy, creativity and ideas.

Why do marginalised women and youth at risk hold such special places in your heart?

Women hold up more than half the world and are still massively marginalised and discriminated against in so many areas of society.

Many studies have shown that improving women's lives lead to better outcomes for their families, their communities, society and economies globally.

Women also have tremendous emotional power and we often use this in negative ways that hurt rather than help us. I know this because I was like this.

Youth at risk represent our future and are malleable enough to change. Many young people are in circumstances not of their own making and are stuck in vicious circles of marginalisation, inequality, poverty and violence.

We can't change and help everybody, but every time I am struggling to make sense of why we continue to do this very challenging work, I get clearly reminded by the progress I see in just one student.

Do you believe there is a reason for everything?

Absolutely. I always tell people I couldn't have done this any earlier in my life.

The sum of all my experiences allows me to do what I do today. Every mistake, failure and disappointment was to teach me things I didn't already know, change my mind about something I thought I had decided on and show me how something could be done differently for a better outcome.

So, it's always about looking for the lesson and connecting signals to patterns. If negative patterns keep emerging, then it's a clear signal we haven't learnt our lesson.

I have found that as long as the intent is pure and ethically right, the universe somehow opens the path for you when you are ready to walk it.

What does purpose mean to you?

Bringing the best, most authentic version of yourself to your life at every moment, presenting your unique gifts to the world so they can positively impact the people around you and, ultimately, the ecosystems you operate in.

I am so grateful to be working with a committed and purpose-driven team, living my life's purpose every day through the Bettr world.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.