Lawyer salary

Why this millennial suspended her job as a lawyer to sell coffee

Madeline Chan, founder of Mad Roaster. (PHOTO: Madeline Chan)

By Darryl Goh

SINGAPORE — When Madeline Chan was a refugee lawyer in Thailand, she was struck by how difficult her clients were to meet their daily cash needs for food and rent. While it’s important to help refugees fight for asylum, she said refugees also need recurring income to get back on their feet.

Chan, a graduate of the London School of Economics, quit her job as a corporate lawyer in 2019 and moved to Bangkok to work at a legal clinic called the Center for Asylum Protection, which provides legal services to refugees passing through Thailand. .

“All I could give them in the area of ​​international law is declaratory judgments. Words on paper that had no tangible effect on their daily lives. It made me think that, for the refugees at least, the solution might be outside the law,” the 28-year-old said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore.

Chan returned to Singapore in early 2020 and used her savings to open Mad Roaster, a cafe that uses a new approach to help refugees earn a living. Each coffee product has a sticker with the Mad Roaster logo colored by a refugee. For each colored sticker, each refugee will earn 50 Singapore cents.

Chan is currently on unpaid leave at the law firm she joined after returning from Bangkok.

In proposing the idea, Chan sought to sell consumables as they provided a more stable cash flow and are in higher daily demand than non-necessary items such as embroidery, which are common products in the livelihood programs of the existing refugees.

“People buy a tote bag and don’t need another for the next few months, which means the refugee artist behind that tote bag won’t find a job for a few months. But she still needs to eat. I needed to sell something as recurring as their needs,” she said.

Mad Roaster began as a hawker stand at the Amoy Street Food Centre, with Chan selling western coffee and brioche toast. In 2021, when the food center was closed for renovations, Mad Roaster opened an air-conditioned cafe in Bukit Merah, with an expanded menu including cold infusions and babka (sweet braided bread).

On Mad Roaster’s social media pages, Chan occasionally posts updates on how the refugees are spending the money they earn. One of them took an international English exam last year and did well. Refugee stories are also printed as stickers on coffee mugs with their names, to draw attention to their plight.

For refugees who are often overlooked and have few advocates, Chan hopes Mad Roaster’s business model can bring relief to them, some of whom have struggled hard to survive.

“They’ve already fought so hard to get to this point (of safety) and I wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s cool. Now I will fight for you,’” she said.

1. What inspired you to go from lawyer to café owner?

I think lawyers are basically problem solvers. While I practiced refugee law, my clients came to me desperately for food, rent, or money to buy medicine for their sick children.

Hearing the constant cries for help from my clients made me realize that rent is a recurring expense, food is a recurring need, but kindness and charity can only last for a while. If I could create livelihoods for the refugees, they could provide for their recurring needs themselves.

Having worked in CBD myself, I knew how often people drink coffee here. If I could incorporate refugee art into an everyday consumable, as long as people drank coffee, they would inadvertently buy refugee art and support the livelihoods of refugee artists.

Once I had the idea, I guess I was just stubborn enough to make it happen.

2. What inspired you to help refugee communities in Thailand?

Refugees experience terrible things in their country of origin. They leave with broken bones, raped women, their lands reduced to ashes. They go through the toughest routes to get to a safe place. And when they finally arrive “in a safe place”, when they finally think they can breathe a little, no one believes what has happened to them, no one cares or wants them in their country.

I think mentally anyone would be a little tired at that point. They’ve already fought so hard to get here that I wanted to be able to say, “Hey, that’s cool. Now I will fight for you”.

3. How did your family or friends react when you decided to make the switch?

I think my family and friends were initially skeptical. They wanted to be supportive, but they also knew the realities of starting a business. And they weren’t wrong. It has been a difficult journey; it continues to be.

I think a great piece of advice that helped me was “be stubborn about your goal and flexible about your methods”. I had to accept a lot of feedback and criticism, but it didn’t change my goal, I just tried to use it to improve my methods.

4. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

See a need, fill a need – especially if you can understand the need or have seen how big the need is in real life. It may not help you succeed in business, but it will help you have a purpose in business.

5. What are your future plans for Mad Roaster?

I hope we can improve sales at our two outlets – Amoy Street Food Center and Depot Road. The goal will always be to maintain recurrent and sustainable livelihoods for the refugees in our program. If we don’t sell enough cups of coffee, if our food products don’t sell enough to help cover operating costs, we can’t do it.

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