Exclusive Interview with Co-Founder of Foreword Coffee: Lim Wei Jie

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Co-founders, Mr. Lim Wei Jie and Mr. Anderson Ang, when the café first opened, photo courtesy of Lim Wei Jie

1) Share with us your time in NUS, what activities did you partake in?

My four years in NUS can be divided as such: foundational (Year 1 and 2), ideation (Year 3), and execution (Year 4). Because of my residency in the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT), I was involved in several projects that allowed me to interact with people from different background such as migrant workers and to experience youth-mentoring. In addition, I was enrolled in the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme (CTPCLP; now known as the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre – CTPCLC) and was spearheading projects with my peers, to advocate and raise awareness about different marginalized groups in our society, such as persons with mental illness and sex workers. Those two years taught me the importance of community engagement (building relationships in a meaningful manner) and community development (garnering collective support to generate solutions to common problems).

In my third year, I enrolled into the NUS Overseas College (NOC) Singapore, where I took the semester (and my summer holiday) to do an internship with a local social enterprise, Skillseed (www.skillseed.sg). The internship allowed me to get to know other young social entrepreneurs in our society which led me to think how can I maximize the impact I wish to have for the community I wish to empower. My second semester was spent in Europe on a student exchange programme in Amsterdam. There, I learnt how to appreciate coffee by chance because of their coffee culture (and I don’t mean the “coffeeshops” there) and because of the cold weather I drank hot coffee and managed to pick up the flavours which the coffee roasters claimed: blueberries, chocolate, tangerine, etc. It was an invigorating experience for me that I café-hopped as much as I can (resulting in this review) and I did my barista foundation certification in Amsterdam as well.

When I returned to NUS and CAPT in my fourth and final year, I started a Coffee Interest Group with another final-year student, who is a barista. Together, we conducted weekly sharing sessions about how to taste coffee, how to brew coffee, and – everyone’s favourite – how to pour latte art. Running this interest group pushed me to speak to baristas and café owners around Singapore, to pick up new coffee knowledge and expose my members to the coffee culture in Singapore.

2) What is one takeaway from NUS?

Learn beyond your textbooks, go beyond NUS, and travel beyond your comfort zone. I’m fortunate to be able to do all three, through my involvement in CAPT, CTPCLP, NOC, and my student exchange. For people who have gone through similar experiences as me, they will realize that the most impactful moments and memorable learnings are those experienced beyond the classroom.

3) What is the motivation behind Foreword Coffee? Why the name Foreword Coffee? Who are the core people running it?

foreword coffee logo

Our logo cheekily hints at two meanings of “Foreword”. Firstly, we take the meaning from the “Foreword” of a book, where people write forewords to recommend why you should read the book. We want people to look beyond the cover of the “book” and get to know our baristas (with special needs) through meaningful engagements. Secondly, we want to keep moving “forward” and adapt ourselves to changes in our society and keep up with the industry’s needs. Therefore, “Foreword” is a daily reminder of these motivations.

The motivation behind Foreword Coffee is to empower persons with special needs (e.g. Autism and Intellectual Disabilities) through service and skills training for the coffee industry. We believe in the potential of differently-abled persons to pick up skills, given sufficient training catered to the way they learn. My experience in Europe and then back in Singapore allowed me to compare the coffee cultures in both places; we are lagging behind, but headed towards the same direction. I saw that Western coffee will be in greater demand in the upcoming years and saw the potential of leveraging on a growing business to help bring forth our social mission of sustainably. In addition, we emphasise on directly importing Asian coffees and roasting them in-house, as producers may earn more by cutting out the middlemen, and we have greater control over the flavour profile by roasting our own coffees.

Currently, Foreword Coffee is managed by my co-founder (Anderson), myself and one full-time barista who is Deaf. We are looking to expand the team so do chat us up if you are interested!

4) Share with us your Foreword Coffee Journey, the ups and downs and valuable lessons learnt?

Before the incorporation of Foreword Coffee, Anderson and I took part in several social start-up competitions, but we never emerged as one of the top teams to win the prize money. We gained valuable advice from experts but not all were encouraging us to embark on this path. In spite of the negatives, we eventually incorporated the company by going ahead with what we have in mind.

We took part in the Singapore Coffee Festival, which helped to put our faces to our name in the coffee industry. Thereafter, we opened our café at CAPT where people can find us to drink our coffee with Asian origins.

We applied for and was awarded with the SG Enable Training Grant, but we faced challenges to gather sign-ups to start a class. Perhaps we were new and people did not really know us, or that we needed to first establish confidence in the public eye.

We learnt that, when working with persons with special needs, it is important to take a person-centred approach and work closely with the parents, caregivers, and job coaches to gain a better understanding of them. However, we do not wish to take away the agency of the person with special needs and we respect the rights for the persons to air his/her own opinions and thoughts. It is an art to navigate around the relationships.

Also, we needed to be mindful that as a social enterprise, we may not have enough resources to help everyone from a disadvantaged background. I had to make the difficult decision of rejecting an applicant from disadvantaged background because the applicant did not fit into our target group (e.g. persons with autism, intellectual disability, or Deaf persons). By doing so at this early stage of the start-up dilutes our social mission and there is an opportunity cost of not being able to hire someone of our target group when the opportunity arises. It is difficult.

5) What are your plans for foreword coffee for the next five to 10 years?

In 2018, we are looking to open at least 1 external coffee kiosk for which we can bring our social mission into the community and to train and hire more differently-abled baristas and service crews. Our end game for the company is to have a few coffee kiosks located around Singapore and a flagship café which we can create a café experience where our baristas are happy to work in and our customers are happy to dine in.

6) What advice would you give to young undergraduates pursuing social entrepreneurship?

It is imperative to first know yourself. It is tough to embark on entrepreneurship and tougher to do social entrepreneurship. The responsibility is not just towards your employees (who could also be your target beneficiaries), but to the caregivers and families of those you hire. The act of balancing the social mission and the business viability has to be deliberate.

Self-management cannot be emphasized enough; if you are not able to manage yourself, how can you manage the company? Externally, it seems like having a great product is sufficient to start a company to sell the product and make money out of it. But internally, we need to deal with team dynamics, developing the potential of our employees, and to deal with the mundane stuffs such keeping track of expenses, writing proposals and employee contracts, and so on.

Social entrepreneurship is a discovery journey for the self and your team; create value and value will come to you, as long as you don’t give up.

About Foreword Coffee

Foreword Coffee curates specialty coffee in Asia, promoting sustainable coffee consumption from cherry to cup. We import green coffee directly from the producers and roast them locally in small batches, serving customers only the freshest coffee roasted within the week.

We are also a social enterprise member of raiSE (Singapore Centre for Social Enterprises), with the mission to empower differently-abled persons through skills and service training, providing opportunities for employment in the F&B industry.

Fore more information, visit www.forewordcoffee.co and like their Facebook page.