How to start my own social initiative? Here’s how Wei Jie from Foreword Coffee is doing it.
Why did you start Foreword Coffee?
WJ: Foreword Coffee started because we see the lack of visibility for persons with special needs in our society. The social mission came first, and it was the impetus to empower persons with autism. The initial idea was to sell ice cream because it is easy to make and serve, and it makes people happy!
However, during my student exchange programme in Amsterdam, I experienced the specialty coffee culture there and saw that there is a business in coffee, and the theatrics of how slow-pour coffee connected baristas with customers — something I wish to do for persons with autism. I started to appreciate the flavors in coffee — blueberries, chocolate, caramel, etc. — and a whole new world opened up!
How did you start Foreword Coffee?
WJ: I took the barista foundation course at Amsterdam and went cafe hopping to as many cafes as possible, and this continued for the other countries in Eastern Europe. I soaked up the coffee culture and started thinking about how I can execute my plans back in Singapore. When I got back home, I knew I had to take action.
I started visiting specialty coffee shops, talking to cafe owners, baristas, roasters and started a coffee interest group in the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT) of National University of Singapore (NUS). I picked up barista skills from a friend, and learned how to do pourover coffees through reading and watching videos.
I turned my college room into a mini cafe where I can serve coffee to friends, and learned as much as I can, so that I can share the coffee knowledge with my coffee interest group members. I dabbled with green, unroasted coffee and started roasting coffee using a home roaster and selling on Carousell. Soon I got bored with automatic roasting (just switching on and off the roasting machine) and I tried my hands on the commercial machines, thanks to the roasters who are willing to share their knowledge with me.
To validate the idea that coffee can connect people, as well as my coffee is good to drink, I started to do coffee pop-ups for events in NUS and also conducted a 5-part coffee workshop for students in APSN Tanglin School. Along the way, feedback was encouraging, and people liked the coffee roasted and made by me, and the students enjoyed coffee making a lot — a skill, an exposure that they would otherwise not have experienced.
How did you assemble your team?
WJ: I had a friend whom I bounced off ideas with, and took part in startup competitions. I saw his dedication and willingness to rough it out with me, although we faced many difficult exchanges due to differences in values, and eventually, the company was co-founded by the two of us.
Two of my CAPT friends helped me as part-timers at our first cafe in NUS — a small hole-in-the-wall cafe serving coffee to students and the professors. In addition, a volunteer for my coffee workshop, who was also my customer through Carousell, wanted to be my part-time barista because he believes in Foreword’s vision. That was my initial team of five: me, my co-founder, 2 CAPT friends, and the part-time barista.
10 months later, we faced a turning point where people had moved on and we were planning for the departure from our NUS outlet because it was not sustainable for us. My cofounder left, and my 2 CAPT friends left.
At this point, someone came up to me and asked if I was looking for a co-founder. Yes, I was, and he joined the team as my Finance Manager with no strings attached. It has been 1 year since then, and I look forward to having him join us as a partner. This person is Nadi.
How does Foreword Coffee meet your goals?
WJ: Our mission is to realize the potential of differently-abled persons. Today, we have people from different backgrounds and communities, such as the Deaf, persons with autism, cerebral palsy, and/or persons with mental health issues.
Besides our cafe at Civil Service College which provides employment for our staff, we work with Special Education (SPED) schools to provide student internships. We currently have interns from Cerebral Palsy Alliance School Singapore (CPASS) and Mountbatten Vocational School (MVS).
Beyond employment, we also conducted workshops for students in MINDS, APSN, CPASS, AWWA, and Rainbow Centre. We also provide mobile barista services so as to allow our baristas with special needs to have greater exposure to society, and for society to have more exposure to people with special needs.
What are the Challenges you faced?
WJ: Emotional management in the workplace. Everyone has their quirks and brings in their own perspectives and experiences into the company. Not everyone is self-aware of how they make others feel through their actions. I am needed most in mediating in situations when my staff feels emotional, afraid, nervous, lacking confidence, and so on.
Communication. Imagine bringing both the Deaf and hearing people together. The hearing needs to learn sign language to communicate with the Deaf or depend on writing for communication.
Imagine having a person with autism meeting the Deaf. They may not understand what it is to be deaf or hard of hearing and finding it weird to communicate with sign language.
Beyond communication, everyone in the team — and I stress, everyone — practises some kind of patience and understanding towards one another for us to enjoy the camaraderie that we have.
What keeps me going?
WJ: I have people to feed in the company. They enjoy what they do and they find meaning in work.
The society still does not understand people with special needs. The society does not see enough of people with special needs to even have the opportunity to interact with them. My job is not done. There’s so much potential for Foreword Coffee and there’s quite a bit of traction by now. I’m rolling and I can’t stop!
What are the milestones you personally celebrate!
WJ: Foreword Coffee’s birthday is 19 April! We celebrate that every year.
We celebrate our monthly achievements— simple things like all the events we attended, the improvement of every individual, and the people who feedbacked that they enjoyed our coffee.
I’m thankful for the encouragement given by people wherever I go and whenever I share my experiences. And when people enjoy our coffee not because of the people we hire, but because it is really good stuff!
What do you want to achieve?
WJ: I want the F&B industry to realise that people with special needs have the potential to be a loyal pool of employees. They deserve to be given the opportunities to also work alongside people without disabilities and special needs. They can bring great value into the company in ways you would never think they could.
I hope to achieve this, first by having more coffee kiosks around for more people get to interact with differently-abled persons, and to build a strong and sustainable business model.
Secondly, I want to attract the next batch of young social entrepreneurs to take on from what Foreword Coffee has built and replicate it — by leveraging on our experience, expertise, and tried-and-tested models.
We are also looking for cafes who are hiring people with special needs after our training, and we are happy to share our processes with them to create a greater impact.
Favorites List…(if any.)
Top 3 Apps: Spotify, Instagram, Mobike
Books: Onward (by Howard Schultz), Zero to One (Peter Thiel), Have a Little Faith (Mitch Albom)
“The secret is not to make your music louder, but to make the world quieter.”
If you had a magic lamp which will grant you a wish, what would you ask for?
WJ: Limitless emotional strength and the wisdom and humility to continue what I am doing.
How can the community/public support you?
WJ: Visit our coffee kiosks, buy our coffee, chat with our team of baristas and service crew :)
Advice for aspiring changemakers!
WJ: You don’t have to start a social enterprise to create an impact; you can always join one and amplify its impact. Starting a business is tough, and F&B is even more so. But if you believe in an idea, act on it and see where it takes you :)
Let us know who you want us to cover next! Got a recommendation? Hit us up, we’re always listening. We’d be happy to discuss about the initiatives you want to start too!
/Written by Amelia Lim, Chief Storyteller at UNFRAMED./