The ingredients to a good cup of coffee

Founder of social enterprise Bettr Barista, Pamela Chng shares what she thinks goes into making a good cup of coffee.


Just how much goodness can one find in a cup of coffee? For barista trainer Pamela Chng, she wants it life-changing. Chequebook philanthropy just wasn’t enough for this ex-Internet industry player, and leveraging on her strong business acumen, she now focuses on creating social change, one cup at a time.

An avid coffee-lover, Pamela saw the growing specialty coffee industry and its need for well-trained baristas as a great opportunity to bring a social element to the blend; to find a way to serve an exceptional cup of quality coffee while empowering lives. And in November 2011, she launched Bettr Barista Coffee Academy. The brewing of a social story “A better cup of coffee” is how it all began. To satisfy her wanderlust and her fondness for all things coffee, she travelled the world for her caffeine fix, and it was from this quest for a good ‘cup of joe’ that her social vision evolved. Bettr Barista is a social enterprise focused on empowering disadvantaged women and youths-at-risk, extending from low-income families and broken homes to school dropouts and single/teenage mothers. It aims to wholly equip those who seek betterment of their lives.

Candidates are sourced out through social service organisations like Family Service Centres and the Ministry of Social and Family Development, where individuals are identified and interviewed to ascertain their motivation and commitment to changing their lives. The social enterprise charges a fee of $300 per student to further reinforce and ensure the students’ commitment. “We believe that if we can change the life of one woman, she will have the ability to change the lives of her family and community. With youths-at-risk, they are at an age where we have an opportunity to still change mindsets and behaviours. What they need is proper guidance and skills to deal with their situations,” said Pamela. And Bettr Barista’s own academy aims to provide that.

A holistic medley

Job training, Pamela recognises, is always too focused on skills training and she believes a core issue remains unaddressed. “To get the best out of each person, we need to arm them to manage not only their mental state, but more importantly their emotional and physical states,” she said. Emotional competence and resilience is what she sees as more effective in allowing beneficiaries to keep as well as thrive at their jobs. Training efforts at Bettr Barista thus embraces a uniquely holistic approach.

Their Bettr Holistic programme encompasses a rigorous four-week barista training by professional trainers and a paid internship with industry partners like Jimmy Monkey and Smitten. Throughout the programme, trainees will also undergo an emotional management programme with Bettr Barista’s clinical psychologist trainer, and a physical fitness component, covering self-defence (KAPAP), yoga and canoeing, working to cultivate discipline and endurance.

The tripartite blend aims to maximise potentials of each trainee as they address all parts of “being a human”.  The programme hopes to carry students on to permanent employment within the Bettr Group, with industry partners or even the opportunity to manage their own start-ups.

One of the first graduates, 18-year-old Diyanah Sharif, is an example of a success story. Formerly a school-dropout, she now serves as a senior barista at the *SCAPE café outlet, while pursuing her ‘N’ levels. Another is Chetra Binti Doraisamy, 45, who worked as a cleaner most of her life and has struggled with low self-esteem after undergoing an arduous divorce. She has since got back on her feet earning herself a 30-percent pay increment serving as the main barista at the coffee bar of Saybons@ Aljunied — a coffee partner currently in collaboration with Bettr Barista.

So far, 80 percent of Bettr Barista’s 16 fully-trained students have found jobs upon graduation, but more importantly, like Diyanah and Chetra, more than 80 percent have reported an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem, and now more than ever, are able to handle their daily challenges, proving the programme has merits. Growth of the individual is something more crucial and lasting than a mere skills uplift.

Bettr Barista’s social cause is not confined locally. It acquires beans either bought directly from farm, or are, organic or Rainforest Alliance-certified — a certification that guarantees wildlife conservation, ecosystem preservation and the assured protection of livelihoods of coffee farmers.

“We are constantly seeking great-tasting coffees and making the effort to buy traceable and sustainably-produced beans. We pay the farmers matching and sometimes above market prices to help ensure the farmers are paid fairly and can continue to invest in maintaining and increasing quality of their coffee, as well as investing in the coffee farming community,” explained Pamela.  And this is her recipe for better coffee.

Profit, people & planet

This haven of quality coffee and professionally-trained baristas is underscored by a tripartite doctrine of profit, people and planet. “We constantly try to pay equal attention to the social and commercial aspects,” said Pamela. Apart from balancing their commercial line with their social initiatives, the enterprise meticulously recycles as much as they can, even composting used coffee grounds. Their sale and use of eco-friendly espresso machines from Astoria is their final expression of global-mindfulness. But when it comes to ‘people’, Bettr Barista plans to do much more. “We are continuing efforts to create more awareness of our programme and also revamping the programme to address some of the obstacles to beneficiaries joining,” shared Pamela. One such obstacle is the inability to fork out the school’s fees.

The enterprise also hopes carry their initiative abroad. Social empowerment, fair trade, and eco-friendly amounts to “ better made and therefore better tasting coffee,” said the social-minded founder. “Every single day we are here is considered a success and worth celebrating. Every person we educate and help along their coffee and life journey makes the hard work worth it.”