Why this millennial put her lawyer job on hold to sell coffee

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

By Darryl Goh

SINGAPORE — When Madeline Chan was a lawyer for refugees in Thailand, she was struck by how her clients struggled to meet their daily needs of money for food and rent. Although helping the refugees fight for asylum status was important, she felt that refugees also needed recurring income to get back on their feet.

Chan, who graduated from the London School of Economics, quit her corporate lawyer job in 2019 and moved moved to Bangkok to work with a legal clinic called Centre for Asylum Protection, which offers legal services to refugees passing through Thailand.

“All I could give them in the arena of international law was declaratory judgments. Words on paper that had no tangible effect on their day-to-day life. This made me think that, for 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 used her savings to open Mad Roaster, a cafe which uses a novel approach to help refugees earn a living. Each product from the cafe is branded with a Mad Roaster logo sticker that is coloured by a refugee. For every sticker that is coloured, each refugee will earn 50 Singapore cents.

Chan is currently on no-pay leave at the law firm which she joined after she returned from Bangkok.

In coming up with the idea, Chan looked to selling consumables as they provided a more stable cash flow and are in higher daily demand than non-necessities such as embroidery, which are common products in existing refugee livelihood programs.

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

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

On Mad Roaster’s social media pages, Chan occasionally posts updates on how refugees spend their money earned—one sat for an international English language exam last year and scored well. Refugee stories are also printed as stickers on coffee cups along with their names, to bring 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 fought hard for survival.

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

1. What inspired you to pivot from being a lawyer to a café owner?

I think lawyers are essentially problem-solvers. While practising refugee law, my clients would come to me desperate for food, rent or money to buy medicine for their sick children.

Hearing my clients’ constant pleas for help made me realise that rent is a recurring expense, food is a recurring need, but kindness and charity can only last so long. If I could create livelihoods for refugees, they could meet their recurring needs themselves.

Having worked in the CBD myself, I knew how often people drink coffee here. If I could integrate refugee art into a daily consumable, then as long as people drink coffee, they would inadvertently be buying refugee art and supporting the livelihoods of refugee artists.

Once I came upon the idea, I guess I was just stubborn enough to see it through.

2. What drew you to helping the refugee communities in Thailand?

Refugees go through terrible things in their homeland. They leave with their bones broken, the women violated, their land burned to nothing. They go through the hardest journeys to get somewhere safe. And when they finally get “somewhere safe”, when they finally think they can breathe for a little bit, no one believes what has happened to them, no one cares or wants them in their country.

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

3. What were the reactions from your family or friends when you decided to make the change?

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

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

4. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

See a need, fill a need - especially if you can relate to the need, or if you've seen how great the need is in real life. It might not help you be successful in business, but it will help you be purposeful in business.

5. What are your future plans for Mad Roaster?

I hope we can improve sales at our two outlets – Amoy Street Food Centre and Depot Road. The goal will always be to maintain recurring and sustainable livelihoods for the refugees in our program. If we’re not selling enough cups of coffee, if our food offerings aren’t selling enough to help cover the cost of operations, then we can’t do that.

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