Transforming Women’s Lives through Coffee Culture

Transforming Women’s Lives through Coffee Culture

Kristie Wang's picture

Pamela Chng co-founded a web consultancy firm, but mid-career, she decided to launch a social business to empower disadvantaged women. Bettr Barista Coffee Academy trains women to become coffee professionals, tapping into coffee culture and the growing specialty coffee industry to help its students gain job skills and overcome significant life challenges.

The organization’s 6-month programme offers more than just professional training, however. It also helps women develop emotional resilience, life skills, self-defense skills, and physical endurance. When the course ends, Bettr Barista assists students with finding employment. But perhaps more importantly, graduates emerge with a fundamental change in mindset and the confidence and skills to succeed.

Pamela sat down with Ashoka Changemakers to discuss how Bettr Barista helps its trainees become the best they can be. In this interview, she also shares advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs in Singapore and beyond.

The Bettr Barista team, with Pamela at center

What inspired you to create, not just a coffee academy, but a holistic solution to helping women? What was your “ah-ha” moment?

Coffee has always been a change vehicle for us. We wanted to adopt a holistic model for supporting people. At the core of it, we were constantly asking, “How can we help people maximize their potential?”

Even at my first startup, that was a question that I asked with regard to my staff. “How do we help people be the best that they can be?” Helping people in this way benefits everybody around them and the organization. Bettr Barista, as a social business, continues and expands on that question.

At the time that we launched Bettr Barista, coffee was the right medium, the right market, and the right industry to bring this idea to life. We wanted to help people reach their full potential by addressing all of their needs – rather than just a single skill. I don’t think there was an “a-ha moment” so to speak, but it was many tiny moments of questions and insights—asking “What about this? What if we tried that?”

Why does Bettr Barista specifically address emotional skills?

Many marginalized people face a cycle of challenges, and breaking this cycle often requires more than just job training.  Job skills are not the issue—staying in the job and thriving are. For anyone to remain employed and thrive, it takes emotional intelligence and the ability to be resilient.  It takes confidence and the ability to deal with conflict. All of these intangible things need to be addressed.

Professionals often have access to team building workshops, leadership courses, or other non-skill-based learning opportunities. Unfortunately, these types of resources aren’t available to those who need it most—those who have huge life challenges to deal with and who don’t have the tools or strategies to cope and rise above those challenges.

To me, emotional strength is really what changes things. It tips the scales between failing and succeeding. So Bettr Barista gives its students a structured way to learn how to gain that strength and stay with a job.

What about physical training?

A healthy body supports a healthy mind. If you’re not eating well and you’re not fit, then your emotions are going to be affected. Physical health is a very fundamental thing for a happy life.

There’s also the fact that we’re in the food and beverage service industry, which is a very physically demanding industry to be in. You’re on your feet and running around all the time, so if you’re physically fit, you’ll be better able to cope with the demands of the job. That removes another barrier to success—which is feeling tired and giving up as a result.

Our goal is not to address the symptoms, but to understand the cause of the issues, and address them from that perspective.

Do you have any advice for emerging social entrepreneurs who might want to start a social business, particularly in Singapore?

For anyone who wants to start a social business, it’s important to be very, very clear about what problem that you’re trying to address. Second, the business model needs to be very robust. Particularly in Singapore, the market is small and very economically driven. The whole idea of blending social and commercial goals is still fairly new as a viable concept. So if you want customers to support you and buy your product or service, you really have to be able to deliver and stand up to any other commercial business.

I would also say to aspiring social entrepreneurs that you don’t have to start a social business – you can join one. Social enterprises need talent. It’s important to go and understand what it’s like to work in the social sector first. Because it’s not easy – it’s twice as hard! Devote a couple of years to understanding what it’s like--for your own sanity. Also, apply your talent to a social business that you really believe in. That’s a win-win for everyone. We need as many people as possible with the same mindset, working towards the same goal, if we want to really affect change at any meaningful level.

What is Bettr Barista looking forward to in 2015?

We are expanding our course offerings to make them more accessible to the market. We’re also developing a coffee social franchise of sorts – I can’t share too many details right now, as we’re still finalizing lots of things. But it’s a supportive ecosystem that will help our graduates take on responsibility and partial ownership of a coffee franchise. We hope to be able to bring this outside of Singapore eventually—to other Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia, for example, where there are many women and young people we can help.  We’re working hard to find the right model for each country, because you have to contextualize your approach even if your model is scalable. That’s what’s going to keep us busy in 2015. I’ll share more details when I can!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on

Image copyrights: Bettr Barista