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Many are aware of Starbucks Malaysia’s first “Signing Store” at Bangsar Village 2 (BV2) but few know of what went on behind the scenes to get this amazing store up and running. To enlighten its readers, theSun shares insights gleaned from three “partners” on the “unexpected” yet awesome endeavour.
Fans of the coffee chain are aware of its focus on giving back to the community where it operates. Its mission statement: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.

From working with the underprivileged in village communities, to helping provide jobs and build careers for the less fortunate and physically impaired, the “third place” has always been a special place for many, offering much more than just a range of delicious coffees and bites.

In June 2016, Starbucks Malaysia opened its first signing store. Sharing insights is Berjaya Starbucks Coffee Company senior manager of public affairs and digital strategy for Malaysia and Brunei, Salleharon Ahmad (Salleh), who tells how it all began.

“Starbucks Malaysia already had deaf “partners” in our payroll, some five over years ago. But their tasks were menial, more “at the back-of-the-house” responsibilities like cleaning work,” said Salleh. A day came when the “company” thought to ask some of its deaf partners, including Muhammad Aizad Ariffin, what they hoped for (working at Starbucks). “Aizad’s reply was that he would someday like to be a store manager,” shared Salleh.

Like most suggestions (zany ideas included) that “brew” from idle chatter and easy discussions within the walls of this coffee chain, Aizad’s aspiration did not fall on deaf ears (no pun intended), neither was it laid on the back burner or put on ice.
Fast-forward, the idea of operating a store run by deaf partners was raised in 2015 to Berjaya Starbucks Coffee Company Malaysia and Brunei managing director Sydney Quays, who brought it to the corporate table. Sooner than said, a “cross functional team” was set up and the store manager’s position was offered internally. Not long after, word was put out on vacancies.

By January 2016, shortlisted candidates were contacted and interviews carried out by Starbucks District and Operations managers for the best candidates to fill the right positions.

Interviews for deaf baristas began in March 2016. “We worked with deaf NGOs, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, the Welfare Society and also reached out to the deaf community through our deaf partners,” informed Salleh.

Although the response was good, the team was clear on the amount of work expected in opening a store run by the deaf. A particular area or concern was the selection of store, which would make the cut as Starbucks’ first signing store. Next, was the training of deaf baristas.
“The minimum requirement for applicants as a deaf barista is to have completed their SPM, otherwise equivalent qualifications and a passion for a career with Starbucks,” Salleh informed. Today, the signing store is run by a team of 13 deaf baristas, including Muhammad Aizad Ariffin, who was recently promoted to become Starbucks’ first deaf shift manager, along with Evonne Lo who is the store manager and a regular, hearing individual.

While what Starbucks did for the deaf community is phenomenal, providing an exciting career for deaf individuals, it also presented a chance for the deaf to “engage” with the coffee culture community and become part of modern society.

After much contemplation, study and careful thought, the outlet at BV2 made “the cut” having met specific traits and characteristics in terms of location and customer disposition, which include:
a safe working environment for its deaf partners – being located within a mall where operating hours are shorter;
strategic location – easily accessible, serviced by public transportation; and
familiar surroundings – especially with the YMCA Deaf Club located nearby in Brickfields as well as the BV2 store serving as a regular joint for the deaf community to meet at.
From the interviews to the three-month training of deaf baristas, which included classroom and on-the-job training, as well as the groundwork of getting the store manager competent in dealing with her team of deaf individuals – all the above could not have been possible without the collaboration of the Society of Interpreters for the Deaf Selangor and Federal Territory (S.I.D.) and Community Service Centre for the Deaf (CSCD).

Indeed, the amount of planning and the work behind the opening of Starbucks’ first signing store was monumental, but looking at the outcome now, it was all worthwhile.

“It wasn’t easy. To immerse and understand deaf culture is challenging. We needed to provide supportive tools that would help the deaf, besides teaching our hearing partners to be more sensitive towards the feelings of our deaf partners (often not as adept in expressing how they feel),” informs Salleh. Together, Starbucks Malaysia, CSCD and S.I.D. laboured hard and long hours to develop a training programme that catered to training deaf partners to be barista-ready.

In November 2016, the Starbucks Outreach Community Programme was launched. Its aim was to enhance the livelihood of the deaf community by developing their soft skills to help prepare them for employment through workshops and training. The programme also caters to enrich the lives of hearing customers by enabling them to communicate and understand the deaf through sign language classes.
Response from the public has been encouraging, looking at the growing number of programme participants,many showing keen interest in taking the programme forward to their places of work, social circles, even their children’s schools and fellowship centres.

“Many are impressed with our initiative. The feedback from our customers, local and foreign, have been encouraging. We have received so many compliments and warm messages from our customers and many of them have taken the initiative to interact with our deaf partners – learning how to sign their name etc,” shared Lo, already three years with the company.

“I really appreciate the opportunity given me by Starbucks, to manage the store. I had to attend Sign Language classes for 10 weeks prior to taking up the position. I saw it as a challenge, for myself and also for me to move out of my comfort zone. It was a challenge I chose to take up and a whole new experience of which I am glad I did. Now I am able to sign and also better understand the deaf,” shared Lo, thankful she has Aizad to help. “Initially, it was difficult, especially when I had to do briefings with my deaf store partners. It took time for me to make sure they understood what I was trying to say. But it got easier, and I have Aizad,” she said.
At Starbucks, deaf partners are treated like any other partners. “They are able to commit to any task like our hearing partners, including taking orders, tending to cashier duties, making beverages, etc. And when it comes to work attitude and discipline, we ensure they abide by the rules – taking action on mistakes to set a good example and allow learning and development,” Lo said.

From a deaf partner, to a barista and a shift manager, Aizad who used to work as a full-time barista at Starbucks in Pavilion three years ago related his daily tasks which focused more on cleaning. “I didn’t have much opportunity to work at the front of the store as communication with customers would have been challenging,” he signs. However, this did not dampen Aizad’s determination to build a career at Starbucks.

Thanks to Starbucks, which provided him the opportunity, and his own drive to take up the challenge. “I wanted to be a role model to other deaf baristas,” he says and shares of how he would give encouragement and feedback on work matters and egg his deaf colleagues on to complete their barista training programme. “I know there are many deaf partners who aspire to be a shift manager as well,” Aizad shared.
Having done many back-end jobs at other F&B outlets and now building his career at Starbucks, Aizad feels grateful and empowered. “I have many great moments working in the store with my fellow partners.” Still, he finds communicating with customers who do not know sign language challenging. Glad is he on the start of the community outreach programme, which provides tools to help hearing-impaired partners like himself improve communication with customers for a better experience at Starbucks.

With his new promotion, Aizad says it is a whole new level of responsibility at work. “I really want to help other deaf partners achieve their dreams,” says Aizad, who loves coffee so much that he feels fortunate to be given the chance to work in a place where he can learn more about his favourite drink.

Not resting on his laurels, he says, “It’s an incredible feeling to share my journey and help develop other deaf partners. My next goal is to deepen my coffee expertise by becoming Starbucks Malaysia’s first deaf coffee master.”
While embracing diversity enhanced this company’s work culture, it also drove its business to success and has opened many eyes and hearts within the community. “It is the inclusion of all these diverse experiences and perspectives that create a culture of empowerment – one that fosters innovation, economic growth and new ideas. Our signing store in BV2 demonstrates our commitment to building a company where everyone is welcomed, with inclusion at its core,” Salleh said.

“At the heart of our business, we seek to inspire and nurture the human spirit – understanding that each person brings a distinct life experience to the table. Our partners are diverse, not only in gender and race, ethnicity, disability, religion and age, but also in cultural background, life experiences, thoughts and ideas,” he reiterates. Proud is Salleh to be working for a company that embraces diversity in people. And honoured is he to be able to contribute to the community by working on this project where deaf partners raise awareness for people with disabilities in the workplace.

For Aizad, his confidence level has grown in leaps and bounds. Along with other deaf baristas, they now have a brighter future. “The deaf boleh!” says Aizad and hopes for more companies to provide job opportunities to the deaf.