There are baguettes, croissants and soufflés by a French window in Shanghai. At first sight, we may consider these little intricate works as a mere feast for the eyes and taste buds. Yet for some young people in Shanghai, China, these pastries are what they rely on to climb the social ladder.
Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB) was established by a group of French people in 2008. It was initiated as a platform to do good to the society. In 2006, one of the founders, Francois-Xavier Kobilinsky, travelled to Vietnam and was inspired by Boulangerie de Hue, a social bakery there that was built to teach orphans to be bakers. Later, a similar project was set up in China with the help of an incubator called French Junior Chamber of Commerce. The raison d’être of the startup is two-fold. One is to instruct orphans and other disadvantaged youth in a way that they could provide for themselves and their families. Due to the lack of access to quality education and training, these people usually have no choice but either slave away in low-end insecure jobs or simply hang around with no occupation at all. The latter scenario can cause greater social instability. SYB partnered with NGOs associated with youth development from provinces such as Gansu and Yunnan to reach out to young people in rural areas.
The other mission of SYB is to satisfy the rising demand of baked French products in China. At the time when SYB was born, the idea of the European or French bakery was relatively new to Chinese people but it soon swept across major cities and a huge market was quickly formed. Even more than ten years later, there are still not enough bakers to satisfy the insatiable market needs, making SYB’s existence all the more indispensable.
Producing Bakers and Bread
Photo Credit: Shanghai Young Bakers
SYB provides a comprehensive menu of services. Its primary operation is to function as a social enterprise offering vocational training opportunities to the disadvantaged youth. Recommended by the partnered NGOs, prospective students will be interviewed to decide whether they do have a vocational need and whether they are determined to make western pastries for a living. Each year, the cohort will consist of around 32 students, who will attend courses and serve as interns alternatively. Simply put, 16 of them will receive baking education at school, while the rest will go to international five-star hotels in Shanghai to practice on the job and meanwhile receive a certain amount of payment for their services. The two groups will switch roles every two weeks.
In terms of the courses, apart from basic French baking based on the curriculum from Ecole Francaise de Boulangerie et de Patisserie d'Aurillac, a renowned bakery school in France, SYB will also teach techniques for traditional Chinese pastries, allowing students to earn an authorized and well-recognized diploma for making baked Chinese products.
What creates a more profound impact is that lectures on life skills are also available, including writing CVs, passing interviews, managing assets, developing a sense of responsibility, and finding meaning and value in life. This part of the curriculum is made possible with the help of East China Normal University for their volunteering and expertise. Moreover, the students are required to learn English to better communicate with other bakers at work.Two to three students will have to master French every three years in order to further their studies in France.
Photo Credits: Shanghai Young Bakers
SYB also earns profits from its business sector through offering baking training sessions for ordinary people, assisting companies in holding team-building activities, joining bake sales during weekend markets, and delivering Bakers Baskets to clients who order on a weekly basis.
Of course, it is impossible for SYB to maintain its operations by solely counting on business activities. In fact, 70% of the financial support comes from sponsors. One example is a company producing yeast and other baking ingredients. They provide materials to SYB for the baking courses, in exchange for the chance to promote their products, a great talent pool, and assistance in developing recipes. Six graduates from the program are currently working at Lesaffre, a global yeast producer and sponsor.
Obstacles Along the Way
SYB has already grown for around a decade, during which it has encountered a lot of thistles and thorns. Funding is its primary challenge. Training people to become bread-makers and eventually breadwinners is costly. A year’s cultivation requires a sustainable input of ingredients, course venues, teachers and so forth. Marine, the Program Director, says it is often not enough to maintain operations simply with the contribution from partners. The surprise donation now and then (which makes up 5% of their funding) will not suffice either. Additionally, the income from business activities is also hard to predict. That’s why SYB can only train a batch of 32 students each year rather than expanding itself into a formal baking school. To solicit more financial resources, they have now turned to different social media platforms and exposures during market sales to gain more public attention.
A Graduation Photo.
Photo Credits: Shanghai Young Bakers
Another challenge for SYB is its human resources. Certainly, there are volunteers working from time to time but their terms are limited and unsustainable. Those who are willing to commit to the cause for a long period are difficult to find. For the lack of baking teachers, SYB has been sending two or three graduates every three years to France with a passion to become trainers. The advantage in doing so is that these teachers are familiar with the professional training process themselves and will effectively carry out the program.
A Recipe for Success
The idea of linking up the consistent shortage of bakers in China with the future of the youth in need is indeed fascinating. Far from being just a bakery training program, SYB has also guaranteed the employment capability of young people who are relatively underprivileged. To create a benevolent ripple effect, SYB is now educating other enterprises for their own social bakery programs. In 2012, it provided consultancy to a charity organization in Tibet on how to establish similar courses to help the local youth.
A note written by a student.
Photo Credits: Shanghai Young Bakers
SYB was recognized as one of the top 10 Shanghai Charity Programs with the Most Potential in 2010. They have also won the CSR Innovation Award Honorable Mention in 2017.
It is by no means effortless to run a social enterprise for more than ten years. SYB itself is already an immense inspiration for many for its grasp of the market trend and resilience in the face of challenges. Regardless of all the uncertainty in the future, what is always certain is their pursuit of the cause, a creative ambition to pass on to young people the power to make and earn their bread, to feel respected and dignified, and to prosper and thrive.
In the future, perhaps more organizations, be they for-profit or non-profit, will follow the footsteps of SYB in educating youth as "breadwinners".
Find out more about Shanghai Young Bakers through their Facebook page and wechat account.
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