Conversations with Daniel Teh

By Kuo Pei Yu and Chu Tianqi

Daniel Teh is the Executive Director of Pope Jai Private Limited, a social enterprise in the food and beverage industry which provides employment and training opportunities to various groups of beneficiaries. He shares key learning points from his experience in this line of work.

Pope Jai Private Limited is a social enterprise that provides employment and training opportunities to 8 groups of beneficiaries: people with physical disabilities, special needs, deaf/hard of hearing, mental health, visual impaired, youth at risks, vulnerable, and disadvantaged. These 8 groups make up 90% of our workforce in the company.

Under PopeJai Private Limited, we have Pope Jai Thai (Thai casual dining restaurant), Tao Chew (a traditional Nanyang coffee and tea brewer event services, and Ombre, our community social arm to provide a platform for volunteers to engage in community outreach activities. As part of this initiative, we conduct volunteer engagement and bonding between Singaporeans and our beneficiaries. For example, we invite our beneficiaries from these 8 groups to dine in the restaurant, and to enjoy a night at Orchard Road. This also provides a platform for the general public to engage with the beneficiaries through our events and get to know of our cause. 

For me, there are many activities going on daily. Throughout the day, I conduct mentorship for youths from diverse backgrounds and attend various business meetings. In the afternoon, I will usually be at the restaurant to support in operations. In the evening, I engage in several external community work in the grassroots.

Many years ago, I was a youth-at-risk. There was a moment where I realised that many of the things I did were due to my ego and arrogance. I asked myself at that point in time: I am physically able and have the right mind, but why am I wasting my time doing nonsensical activities? That was when I decided to pick myself up. I upgraded myself at Shatec by attending the culinary course there.

Then, after stepping into society, I realised that there was a lot of workplace discrimination against the disadvantaged in our society. As a former youth-at-risk, I found it challenging at times to integrate into the workplace. I then told myself: why not step up and make a difference to the society, and to meet the needs of the disadvantaged? This has inspired me to do what I do today.

Personally, I believe that everyone, including the disadvantaged, has their own strengths as well. For example, youth-at-risks, who are often street smart, can engage in the planning process while those with physical disabilities can execute those ideas. By working together as a group and leveraging on one another’s strengths, we are able to obtain a maximum return.

One of them is the challenges that I encounter every day. I am thankful for these challenges as they come along with opportunities. Challenges provide a season of growth.

Furthermore, whenever I look at the challenges that some of the disadvantaged face in their lives, I realise how small my problems are. And to me, the ability to honour and empower them gives me the motivation to do what I do every day.

One main challenge that I face is the changing the mindset of consumers. Many consumers doubt and question the quality and affordability of food that we serve as the food is prepared by people with special needs, youths-at-risk, and other people with disabilities. Hence, changing their mindset poses a challenge.

Another challenge is discrimination. Although there has been a decline in discrimination against the disadvantaged, this posed as a stressful problem in the past.

Many people have the misconception that doing a social cause equates to doing charity. I run a business model where we have to be sustainable. I did face financial crises before –  in the eight years of my career, I faced two financial crises, and I pulled through. Personally, I believe that as long as I cater good food and service, I will be able to pull through these tough times.

In the next 2 years, we are going to expand our business. Currently, we have built our foundation in Orchard Road, and we intend to open a cafe – Tao Chew 2.0 – where we provide an inclusive environment in the cafe. Furthermore, different beneficiaries will be split up into different stations to prepare the food, which will increase the efficiency of the cafe as well.

If you were given an opportunity to turn back time, would you do anything differently?

I hope to amend the mistakes that I have made over the years, and to move forward from there.

If you never try, you will never know. Attitude matters and attitude determines the altitude. And this is a thing that we have to learn to overcome. There are a lot of challenges ahead, but it is on us to see how far we want to go, and to step out of our comfort zone. For the young leaders, I encourage you to take up an internship programme for you to explore, as a stepping stone, before you head on to do something greater.

It is also important to consider the various stakeholders that you are working with as well. For instance, in my case, to empower the disadvantaged, I will have to take into consideration the caregivers, the society and the beneficiary. All three parties have to work together to promote our cause and make it a success.

That goes back to my previous advice – to start small. By doing so, you can slowly grow your ideas. In contrary, by starting big, you have a higher possibility of falling. Hence, I encourage you to go for internships or work in some establishments to gain some experience before moving out.

There are three pieces of advice that I would like to give to young readers. Firstly, it is to stay focused on the things that you want to do. Secondly, it is to make money. You have to make enough money in order to help others and to sustain your business. Lastly, which is the most important point, is to always do good. If you achieve all three goals, you will have a long way to go!