While working as a lawyer, Madeline Chan realized many of her coworkers were avid coffee drinkers.
Chan worked with refugees in Thailand before the COVID-19 pandemic forced her home to Singapore.
Eager to continue helping the refugees remotely, Chan quit her job to start her own coffee shop.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Madeline Chan, 29, owner of Mad Roaster in Singapore. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
As ironic as it may sound, I wasn’t a coffee drinker until I opened my first coffee stall in 2020.
In fact, I never imagined being my own boss. Even as a lawyer, being a law firm partner was never a goal of mine because of the stress and huge responsibilities the partner job entails.
After graduating from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a Bachelor of Laws in 2015, I trained for the bar and got a job at a pretty good litigation firm in Singapore.
For four years, I worked as a litigator managing commercial disputes of multinational corporations.
But as someone who started a journey in law with the desire to help people, I felt I could do more by helping those who couldn’t afford to have anyone in their corner. Big corporations already have teams of lawyers under their payroll.
So I sought out a different route and found my place as a refugee status determination lawyer in Bangkok, Thailand, where I helped the displaced apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Work was fulfilling, as I saw success stories when appeals I’d worked on got accepted, or when I got someone to a safe country.
Yet, it still wasn’t enough for me.
I quickly realized how getting a refugee status wasn’t the happy ending I thought it was. The people I helped still had nothing — they can’t get a job or even pay rent, and are resigned to being reliant on aid forever.
They needed a means of livelihood, which I saw as a more sustainable way to help them.
This was an area where simply donating money wouldn’t suffice, as charity donations often go into aid, and I had seen how aid was given out. I had seen refugees line up for hours to prove how needy or desperate they are, and still have to risk being turned away. Being reliant on aid was a painful and uncertain way to live.
And so I began looking into ways to create livelihood opportunities for refugees.
I had a friend who turned refugees’ handiwork into everyday items like laptop bags to be sold at flea markets, but this method had great limitations.
There are only so many laptop bags we can buy, and there will come a day when sales will be insufficient to meet the regularly recurring needs of refugees. I wanted a better solution.
Having worked in the corporate world, I recall coffee being the commodity that many office workers would buy regularly without thinking twice.
Using coffee as a medium to create livelihoods for refugees seemed like the best choice. But there was still a problem I had to face.
I knew nothing of coffee, let alone making it.
So I decided to pick it up and master the craft while in Bangkok. Because I couldn’t speak Thai, I had to knock on the door of almost every café in the vicinity until a shop finally took me in.
For three months, I learned the ropes of running a café and coffee-brewing techniques by working for free at the café until 10 at night, after I ended my work as a lawyer at five.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Safety restrictions meant I had to go back to Singapore in 2020.
I still wanted to keep working with the refugees but being in another country, it was impossible for me to continue doing it in my capacity as a lawyer.
This presented the perfect opportunity for me to get started on my coffee shop business, Mad Roaster — “Mad” being my nickname growing up.
With the money I had saved back when I was still working in litigation, I invested around $20,000 to $30,000 into Mad Roaster.
With the exchange rate and high spending power in Singapore, money from selling small cups of coffee every day means a lot for the refugees in Thailand.
Incorporating that with the idea of creating livelihoods for the refugees, I decided to commission them to color stickers that would go on each coffee cup.
The 11 refugees Mad Roaster currently works with are each commissioned to color 300 sticker labels, each at a fixed price of 10 Thai Bhat. The stickers are printed in Bangkok and then mailed to Singapore after they’re colored in.
In a month, each refugee would get a stipend of 3000 Thai Bhat, roughly $88, which is enough to cover the average rent in outer Bangkok. In months when sales are better, we can commission more stickers from them.
Because of this initiative of ours, the packaging cost is as much as the ingredient cost for some of our drinks, which is uncommon for most businesses.
Brewing coffee isn’t the only skill I have mastered.
Back in my college days, I was already into amateur baking, but I had never baked bread before.
But in Singapore hawker centers — open-air complexes with many food stalls — coffee and bread are often served as a set.
So I started learning how to make brioche with zero experience or training.
Fortunately, our hawker stall started to get some regular customers. We went from sitting around reading newspapers while watching people walk past our shop, to sometimes even having a queue outside our stall.
Following the success of our first shop, we opened another café about four miles away, where our bread production currently takes place.
As the boss of a small business with just a handful of full-time staff, I had to quickly become a jack of all trades.
On a typical working day when I would be rushing to and from the two outlets to drop off coffee beans and bake bread, somehow something would always crop up — from coffee machine breakdowns to a missing staff member — and I’d have to drop everything to deal with the problem.
Since the beginning of my business, I have replaced burnt wires, changed power sockets, done the accounts for logistics, and embarked on social media marketing. It often feels like an endless list of tasks.
In a way, working as my own boss of two coffee shops has made me appreciate my former job as a lawyer a bit more.
When I was an associate, my mind would be off the moment a case concluded. But now, owning a business means that my mind is always running — I am constantly thinking of work-related issues that pop up during the day.
But I will never regret my decision to start all of this.
For the 11 refugees, and possibly more in the future, they have an unprecedented level of certainty and dignity in how they keep a roof over their head. Mad Roaster is the reason.
We plan to expand in the future, though we don’t have any concrete plans for now. When operations are more stable, I plan to go back to practicing law, while managing Mad Roaster on the side.
Read the original article on Insider