When businessman Lai Chong Haur, 51, quit the corporate world to take over the Seven Tea One social enterprise from his co-founder in 2018, he knew he would not regret it.
In fact, he had also been using his own funds to keep the organisation afloat since the pandemic hit.
A set-up for people with special needs, the social enterprise employs and trains differently abled teenagers and the marginalised to earn an income in a non-discriminatory work environment.
“The business of Seven Tea One (also known as 7tea1) is based on the philosophy of ‘business as a matter of inclusiveness’ and since we are essentially a local herbal infusion tea company, our name 7tea1 means ‘seven kinds of teas bringing communities together as one,” explained Lai.
The handcrafted teas are made from local ingredients such as herbs, flowers and spices sourced from urban small-scale, family-run farms and community gardens around the Klang Valley.
They have since expanded their products to nine kinds of herbal infusion tea leaves, a variety of cookies, pastries and cakes, dried fruits, handmade soap, and also cooked meals, which were introduced during the lockdowns.
Seven Tea One is one of 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2020 and one of the two Gamuda Inspiration Award winners.
Valuable skills for the future
Since winning the awards, it has set up a second centre, located near the first centre and cafe in Setia Alam, Shah Alam, Selangor, and rented a two-acre (0.8ha) land to grow their own herbs and plants.
“The second centre focuses mainly on providing more training programmes for the teens such as flower arrangement, handicraft, living skills, office administration skills and basic computer skills.
“We hope more parents will send their teens to our centre to equip them with valuable skills for their future.”
Currently, there are 21 special needs teens attached to the Setia Alam cafe, although only three or four of them are allowed to work there daily, in order to maintain SOPs.
The pandemic and lockdowns have greatly affected the cafe’s business and sales. To weather the storm, they have focused on promoting online sales via e-commerce platforms, their website and through social media.
They also offer bulk purchases of gift sets by individuals and corporations.
“We also started our #WeAreTogether campaign where we seek contributions from our friends and supporters to buy our cooked meals and gift sets (cookies and dried fruits) which we deliver to Sg Buloh Hospital, Hospital Tengku Ampuan Rahimah, Klang, welfare homes and also needy communities in Pandamaran and Kg Subang in Selangor.
“These campaigns are beneficial because they give our differently abled teens the opportunity to train and produce these items and also generate a small revenue to sustain our centre.
“We pay our teens wages for every hour they do their training here. As for contributors and donors, they are actually doing a two-way charity – helping the needy, and also the centre and our teens,” said Lai.
He added that although the teens’ take-home pay has been reduced due to fewer working hours, they are happy because what’s important is the teens have consistent training rather than just staying at home.
In future, Lai hopes to expand their mission to more localities so that they can make a greater impact on special needs teens from B40 families.
“These families may have transport problems in bringing their teens to our centre, hence it is only logical that we have our centres near them.
“We hope to grow our centres’ operations and increase the number of our beneficiaries. Hopefully, within these three years, we can have three or four centres with more than 50 beneficiaries,” he said.
“We also hope that our teens, after being trained in vocational skills at our centres, can get job placements in the market. We are looking forward to collaborating with private companies to ensure that they can secure jobs,” said Lai.