Interview with Geraldine Tan, Founder of My NoNNa’s, wheelchair-friendly café in SUTD

(photo courtesy of Geraldine Tan)

1. Share with us the school activities you took part in while studying sociology in NUS.

I was very active in NUS.  I did windsurfing in the first year and I was actually windsurfing more than I was studying. In my second year, I was spotted by the basketball coach of the varsity team when I was invited to play basketball for the inter-faculty games. The rest, they say, is history. I was still actively playing during my fourth year in NUS. I also did a lot of other crazy sports in my NUS days.

I did canoe water polo, sailing and sporting activities. I stayed in Kent Ridge Hall from my second year onwards. I was heavily involved in hall and faculty sports’ activities.

2. What is the greatest takeaway from your education years?

The greatest take away is the importance of relationships and the importance of networking. It is not so much the knowledge that you learn, as you can learn knowledge all through your life. One of the things I’ve learnt from my lecturers is that you should always strive and continue to learn, every year. They make sure that they themselves are always learning something new and developing a new skill. This is something that I have taken with me all my life. The idea is that if you’re learning, you’re growing. And if you stop learning and growing, you die. So, it is imperative that you keep learning throughout your life.

3. What are your hobbies?

I don’t have time for sports these days since I am running my café. I like music and singing, and I try to have singing activities here in the café. I invite people to come play music and we sing along with them. I try to blend my work and hobby now, as I can’t indulge in time-consuming hobbies.

4. What was the inspiration behind My NoNNa’s?

After 22 years in the corporate world, managing mostly abled-bodied people, I felt that I needed to do a lot more meaningful work. I had a family friend who is intellectually disabled, who went to good schools and was trained for employment. However, her family kept her from working when they discovered she could not find a fit in the working world by the time she left school. The family did something which I tell parents not to do, which is to keep her at home and only bring her out once in a while. She should not be kept away from working. It was the wrong approach. Her condition will only deteriorate more rapidly, instead of improving.

I wanted to see if I could help the intellectually disabled who were reaching working age. They need more guidance in order to survive in the working world.There are a lot of them out of there who are unable to find actual work. I work with a lot with the special education (sped) schools, and in every graduating bunch they will have top categories who can move into hotels, catering or work at Macdonald’s. I do not take the top tier; I work with those in the rest of the pyramid to give them more time for specific learning.

The inspiration and concept for My NoNNa’s came about as I have a love for Italy and Italian food. I am a self-taught private chef by training, and I used to cook Mediterranean food and Italian food to customers at their homes as a hobby. Nonna is Italian for grandma, where I used to learn Italian cooking from a grandma in Italy.

I realised that Italian food is very manageable and easy to teach when I was setting up my social enterprise. The recipes are very much comfort food, home styled cooking. You only have to instruct the intellectually disabled to boil water for a certain number of minutes, how many teaspoons of salt to add, how long to cook the pasta. Thus, I found it very structured.

At the point when I was designing My NoNNa’s, Caritas was approached by the St Joseph Institution (SJI) at the holding campus, they had an available stall and was not charging rent and allowed the special needs to work. Caritas thus took it up. They came to me at a time when I was looking to launch My NoNNa’s. Slowly, we expanded in other schools as well. At the end of 2016, we got a space at SUTD, hiring people with physical disabilities and autism. I asked SUTD to design a wheelchair workplace friendly café so I can hire staff who need wheelchairs to move. This café has become a melting pot of special needs. Now, I have a stroke patient, 2 intellectually disabled individuals and an autistic, a mash up!

Currently we have another two stalls at Raffles Institution and Nanyang Girls’ High School.

5. What upcoming plans can we expect from My NoNNa’s moving forward?

To have an outlet open to the public all year round, which we would probably do as a joint venture. And to always end up with a consistently good product which is very important in F&B operations. I would also like to try to encourage other Food & Beverages (F&B) to hire the special needs. But it is an art to manage special needs individuals. You need skills and training to manage them and this is what I call the pyramid of enabling, which involves a science around enabling them to work.

The pyramid of enabling involves more than special needs individuals. At the apex is the management that wants to hire the special needs individuals, but we basically have to pin down with the management, what exactly is the task that you want the special needs to do, what do you want to assign them with, what are the kind of jobs that you need to be done, right down to the specifics. We believe that the curriculum to train special needs individuals has to be designed with the management of the employing organisation. Then, you can train the special needs individuals to do just that. But that’s not good enough. At the other corner of this very pyramid are the supervisors of the organisation that are going to be directly supervising these special needs staff. This group has not been properly trained. And if you don’t train them to manage the special needs staff they will think that it is a burden or a liability, instead of feeling a sense of empowerment.

It requires patience on how to work with them, deal with their meltdowns and interaction with them. If they are just standing them watching you, the fault is yours (the supervisors). Because they have already been trained. Who is the one to activate the next task? These are the tricks we want to teach the supervisors. It is not easy because you have to look out for them and do your own work as well. But they have already followed the training. You just have to check-in with them at appropriate times. You have to organise yourself well. In the pyramid of enabling, two-thirds of the responsibility lies with the hiring of the organisation. We want to be able to brainstorm with the management to work out the curriculum, what are the actual jobs and tasks to train the special needs in, in order to train the supervisors as well. I should put a trademark on this enabling pyramid soon!

You need to know where their strengths are, their ability to structure, capitalise on it and hire based on their strengths.

6. Where do you see yourself five to ten years down the road?

I should be retired, you know. (Laughs) Young people like you should take over and I would retire. I personally feel that once I set up the training arm of Cirrus Culinnaire, I can retire in 15 years. Or when I successfully have hired one hundred special needs, I will retire. That would make me the largest organisation hiring special needs!

7. What is one thing you will say to your past self and your future self?

Past self: Go and study medicine! I’ve always admired doctors and I still do. So please study harder. I was never really hardworking and I’ve never been a hardworking student. I was always smart enough to pass and do well enough to go to the next level.

Future self: Be re-born a multi-millionaire, where we will find the support and do great things.

I believe that with big corporate funding, we can do big things.

8. What advice do you have for undergraduates looking to start a social enterprise?

I feel that I benefited from working in the corporate world before I started the social enterprise. And although you should not take as long as I did, 22 years after to set up a social enterprise, do take a little time to live in the corporate world first. Corporate life is important to learn and understand, learn the basics of what it is to be in the corporate world—don’t take too long to get exposure but learn about the basics, you have to learn about how to own and operate a business in this aspect. Learn from being inside it and then you know how it works and what makes it tick, then you can effect greater change.

I would also say make sure you have adequate funding. Because a social enterprise is a business like everything else: just that there is a social mission which sits on top of your financial KPIs. Find ways to justify your existence.


More about My NoNNa’s



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