by Adrianna Quek on

Grumpy without her coffee fix, Bettr Barista’s alumni trainer Shirley Ng proclaims she can’t live without her brew.

This is a big change from four and a half years ago, when the 23-year-old had her first cup of joe at Bettr Barista Coffee Academy. Shirley recalled with a grin, “My first cup had four packets of sugar.”

Beyond a newfound love for caffeine, Shirley has transformed in more ways than one since joining the Bettr Barista crew. Then working at a fast food restaurant chain for seven years since dropping out of secondary school, the single mother of two was referred to the Academy’s Holistic Training Programme by her social worker. The programme was a six-month course that taught vulnerable youth and women professional and emotional management skills while paving the way for careers in specialty coffee.

Unaware of Bettr Barista’s cause but incentivised by the prospect of better pay, Shirley made it through two rounds of interviews and successfully entered the Programme. However, disinterested in coffee, the then-19-year-old soon started dreading it.

“I dragged [attending the course] with a lot of excuses; I have no one to care for my children, no childcare. If I go to school, I won’t be able to work. Who will support my family?”

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Image Source: The Pride

With social services assisting in getting her kids into a childcare centre and helping in funding the course, Shirley’s excuses worked to no avail. “My body was there but my soul wasn’t. Every single day, I asked myself what I was doing there,” she admitted, describing her early days of being “trapped” at the Academy.

One week in however, she found herself converted. The first social enterprise selected to receive funding from the Arthur Guinness Fund, Bettr Barista was to be interviewed by local news channel Channel NewsAsia. The Academy’s founder Pamela Chng approached Shirley to tell her story on television and the latter agreed. Unbeknownst to Bettr Barista’s cause all this while, a clueless Shirley was finally curious enough to find out what exactly she had gotten herself into.

Just a day before the CNA interview, she googled what Bettr Barista was.

“At that point when I read about Bettr Barista, I woke up. We had to go through two interviews to be selected, and during the interview I wasn’t completely honest. I said I wanted to change my life, but I didn’t mean what I said… After I found out about what they did, I woke up. That’s when I told myself that if people were willing to give me this chance, I shouldn’t waste it,” Shirley shared.

From then on, she began to find purpose and meaning. And coffee, which was a novelty to her then, eventually turned into passion. The Programme was a constant struggle for Shirley, as it involved as much theory as practical work. Her dislike for hitting the books made picking up basic barista skills all the more challenging, yet she managed to excel.

After completing the Holistic Training Programme with outstanding performance during her internship, Shirley took on the role of full-time assistant manager at Smitten Coffee and Tea Bar. But that wasn’t the end of her affinity with the social enterprise.

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Image Source: The Pride

As her two-year contract reached its end, she realised that running a cafe was not her cup of tea. Much preferring to spend her time training new part-timers in making a good cup of joe, Shirley found her calling. “I always looked forward whenever there were new people coming onboard for me to train. I realised that was what I wanted to do,” she revealed.

Since then, Shirley has rejoined the Bettr Barista family. After two years of training at the Academy and obtaining an Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment (ACTA), she has become a full-time alumni trainer.

For someone who used to dread going to lessons, Shirley is now qualified to run Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) classes. Today, she juggles managing Bettr Barista’s newly launched coffee carts and running public classes at the Academy. Hopping from cart to cart to oversee new graduates and baristas, Shirley ensures that shots pulled are up to par, and that operations run smoothly.

As a trainer, it’s not enough to just master the coffee-making techniques. As a young adult, Shirley had often found herself leading classes of people in their 40s and 50s, and it took soft skills to command the room.

“It’s not the certification that will enable me to stand there and do so. It’s a lot of training that we do and training that Better Barista has helped me in order to be confident enough to stand there and talk to people, teach and train them.”

But being a working single mom with a busy schedule to fill also means that sacrifices have to be made back home. With a full-time helper caring for her kids, work-life balance is something she’s still working on. Shirley admitted, “By the time I finish work, I’m just tired. And going home to deal with them asking for love is something that’s difficult to do when I’m tired.” Nonetheless, her non-working Sundays are cherished, spent lazing at the pool with her little ones who enjoy dipping in the water.

Having come so far, Shirley’s career as a barista and trainer is not yet complete. Not content to rest on her laurels, she is working hard to complete her Authorised SCAE Trainer certification next month in order to run international classes. The first of Bettr Barista’s graduates to earn this accolade, it’s unlikely that she will be the last.

Bettr Barista Coffee Academy

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Image Source: The Pride

Through its Holistic Training Programme, the social enterprise has helped to empower many at-risk youths and marginalised women like Shirley with viable work and life skills.

With 16 intakes since its beginning five years ago, 90 per cent of Programme graduates have gained employment after completing the course.

Just last October, Bettr Barista launched its coffee carts. An extension of the Academy’s impact, each cart is operated by its internationally certified alumni, turning the carts into micro-enterprises that empower and nurture social entrepreneurship. In addition to its social initiatives, one per cent of all revenue from these carts goes towards higher education for youth in-need via the Income OrangeAid Future Development Programme.

You can support their cause by buying a bettr cuppa at these cart locations.