I quit my job as a lawyer when I realized I could help more people by opening a coffee shop

 Ironically, I only became a coffee aficionado in 2020 when I launched my own coffee stand. Prior to this, I had never envisioned being my own boss. Despite being a lawyer, securing a partnership in a law firm had never been a career goal of mine due to the immense stress and responsibilities attached to the position. Following my graduation from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a degree in law in 2015, I trained for the bar and took up a job at a reputable litigation firm in Singapore. For four years, I handled commercial disputes for multinational corporations as a litigator. However, as someone who embarked on a legal career with a desire to help people, I felt compelled to do more for those who lacked the resources to obtain legal representation. Multinational corporations already have legal teams in their employ.

As a refugee status determination lawyer in Bangkok, Thailand, I found a fulfilling job helping the displaced apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It was rewarding to see success stories when appeals I worked on got accepted or when I managed to get someone to a safe country. However, I soon realized that obtaining refugee status was only the beginning of their struggle. Those I helped were still living without any means of support and were dependent on aid for their survival. This prompted me to seek more sustainable ways of helping these people, focusing on creating livelihood opportunities for them. I discovered this was a much more effective approach than simply donating money, as aid was not always distributed to those who needed it most. Witnessing the painful and uncertain way in which refugees had to live, being constantly reliant on aid, was a poignant reminder of why I felt this way.

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My friend's idea of creating products from refugees' handiwork was limited in its potential to generate sustainable income. I came up with a better solution: using coffee as a means to provide livelihoods for refugees. Despite lacking knowledge in coffee-making, I decided to pursue this idea because coffee is a commodity that many people purchase regularly, without much thought.

In order to learn the art of coffee-making, I decided to seize the opportunity and hone my skills in Bangkok. Despite not being able to speak Thai, I persevered and approached numerous cafes until I secured an apprenticeship at one. For three months, I worked tirelessly, learning everything from the fundamentals of running a cafe to the nuances of coffee brewing techniques, often staying late into the night to perfect my craft. However, my plans were halted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced me to return to Singapore in 2020. Despite the setback, I remained determined to continue working with refugees but realized that I could no longer do so as a lawyer while being in another country. It was then that I saw an opportunity to pursue my passion for coffee and establish my own coffee shop, now known as Mad Roaster (a nod to my childhood nickname). With my savings from my previous career, I invested between $20,000 to $30,000 into the business, which has since become a beloved fixture in the community.

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Given the favorable exchange rate and high spending power in Singapore, selling small cups of coffee every day can make a significant impact on the lives of refugees in Thailand. To create livelihood opportunities for them, we came up with a plan to commission them to color sticker labels that would be used on our coffee cups. Currently, there are 11 refugees working with us, with each tasked to color 300 labels at a fixed price of 10 Thai Bhat per piece. Once the stickers are printed in Bangkok, we then pay and mail them to our shop in Singapore. With this initiative, each refugee earns a stipend of 3000 Thai Bhat (approximately $88), enough to cover the rent in outer Bangkok. During months when our sales are good, we can even provide additional commissions to them. As a result, the cost of packaging our drinks has increased, where it is equal to the cost of the ingredients used, which is a rare occurrence in most businesses.

Aside from being adept at brewing coffee, I have also honed my skills in baking. During my college years, I was already dabbling in amateur baking, although I hadn't yet tried my hand at making bread. While spending time in Singapore's bustling hawker centers, which house a variety of food vendors, I noticed that coffee and bread were often served together. Intrigued, I decided to tackle the challenge of learning how to make brioche with no prior experience or formal training.

Our hawker stall has become more successful with the arrival of regular customers. Once we were idle and merely watched passersby, but now we occasionally even have a queue around our stall. In response to our success, we opened another café where we produce our bread, which is located about four miles away. Being the manager of a small business with only a few full-time staff, I had to learn to be versatile. On a typical workday, I would hurry back and forth between the two shops, delivering coffee beans and baking bread. However, something always seemed to come up unexpectedly, such as a broken coffee machine or a missing staff member, forcing me to pause and solve the issue. Since establishing my business, I've repaired burnt wires, switched out power outlets, managed logistics accounts, and delved into social media advertisements. The list of duties appears endless.

As the owner of two coffee shops, I've realized how much I value my previous career as a lawyer. When I worked as an associate, I could disconnect from work after a case ended. However, running my own business means my mind is always active, constantly addressing work-related issues throughout the day. Despite this, I don't regret my decision to start this venture. With the security and dignity afforded by Mad Roaster, my 11 refugee employees and any future hires are in a unique position. While we have no solid plans for expansion, we aim to do so eventually. Once our business stabilizes, I plan to resume law practice while continuing to manage Mad Roaster.

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