I speak to Mr Gerald Png (above right), director and sole proprietor of Soul Food Enterprise Pte Ltd to get his views on management and leadership.
Warm, fuzzy feelings. That was how I felt when I first stepped foot into Soul Food. I loved that even though it was my first time there, I felt like I was entering a close friend’s home, it was that sort of welcome that made me fall in love with the place.
I had walked past the restaurant prior when I was at the Enabling Village for a departmental lunch with my team and was curious about it so peeked in and told myself, I would have to return.
A few weeks after that lunch, a good friend of mine mentioned Soul Food to me again. Kismet, right? I was even more intrigued and decided to find out more, hence leading to this interview, which is apt considering the theme of this issue.
Since its inception in January 2008, Soul Food’s mission has been to equip, employ, and empower persons with special needs by giving them a platform to contribute to through their restaurant and food production business hence being more included citizens in mainstream society.
What I admired about Soul Food is that where in most cases, persons with special needs tend to be assigned to the back of restaurants for example, Soul Food intentionally gives them varied opportunities to acquire specific kitchen skills, food preparation, and customer service in a highly commercial environment. What makes a difference is the benefit of the employees have a longer runway to learn and acquire skills, which enhances their confidence and competence to perform their various tasks.
I can vouch for both the service and the food. Their set lunch which goes for S$30 nett (you read right) comes with a starter, main, dessert, and coffee or tea. The meal was a perfect balance of good, wholesome flavours with restaurant level standards which makes the S$30 worth every single cent. I have added Soul Food to my list of lunch venues.
Soul Food is open for private dining events and parties on weekday evenings and Saturdays. Do consider this as a venue of choice as you are not only getting a wonderful venue to host your event at but you are also supporting the mission and cause of Soul Food. Their main dining room area can sit about 50 people quite comfortably while the entire restaurant can accommodate up to 70 people with enough breathing room for everyone.
Readers, you must be wondering why I have not gone into detail about Mr Png, the director and sole proprietor of Soul Food. The answer is simple; he truly is that humble. He left his rewarding career to eventually set up this restaurant, not just out of love for his daughter, Ms Cheryl Png, who has learning difficulties but also try to reach out to others with different needs.
Mr Png is humble, passionate, patient, and happy. In fact, you can see the pride and happy glow on his face when his customers and clients affirm the work of his team. He is happy to stay in the background, letting them shine, hence why I have written this story the way I have. Getting this dialogue with Mr Png on his perspectives on management and leadership took a little more effort as he feels that he is still at the early stage of a very steep learning curve. Fortunately, he was convinced otherwise which led to very insightful interview.
Mr Png shares his insights on management and leadership, and I marvel with interest that his management of the differently-abled team has similarities to that of the other leaders I have interviewed to date. So employers, please give persons with special needs opportunities by supporting and empowering them towards gaining more meaningful and independent lives.
Sadie-Jane Nunis (SJN): There is a constant debate that management and leadership are different. What are your thoughts?
Mr Gerald Png (GP): I am of the humble opinion that a leader points people towards the goals that he desires them to achieve. While in the course of attaining those goals, the leader manages his people by providing the resources and support that they need. However, this is often easier said than done as I have come to realise this, especially since we are a small social enterprise with shallow pockets and so, have limited manpower and resources.
SJN: What is your management or leadership style like?
GP: Prior to starting social enterprise that equips, employ, and empower persons with special needs and different abilities Soul Food, I had the privilege to be in leadership and management positions in the advertising industry, retail, finance, and community services sector.
Although I applied different management and leadership approaches fairly successfully, some common denominators are my hands-on, roll-up my sleeves style of leadership and management. I tend to focus on areas like communicating strategy, influencing my peers and those I oversee, and working alongside them. I worked hard to get them to understand what I envisioned and to get their buy-in. I used to do a better job at this, but it has been a challenge since the recent years, as I wear a few different hats as a food-and-beverage (F&B) business owner, employer, and worker—having to deal with big picture issues and also micro-managing as our business grows and evolves. Some of these hats that I have to wear, I do not necessarily have the skill sets as yet but I have to wear them anyway and learn as I go along. At this moment, I am somewhere in the lower half of a steep learning curve amidst a very competitive environment.
SJN: What strengths should an effective leader have?
GP: I would say that an effective leader is someone who is not afraid to fail. Be humble, listen, ask questions, gather information, and listen some more. And when it is time to make hard decisions based on my learning and business climate, be bold to make it but be ready to admit if it was a bad one, learn from it, bounce out of the pit, and try to a do a better job next time round.
SJN: What is your biggest personal achievement (s) to date?
GP: My greatest achievement is starting an F&B social enterprise without any prior experience and with very limited resources. And getting friends and family to believe in what I set out to do through Soul Food.
SJN: Why did you decide to set up Soul Food?
GP: Being a parent of a child with special needs, during my daughter’s growing up years, I tried to ascertain her strengths and natural abilities in the hope of steering her onto a path of learning and development of skills that would lead to a meaningful lifelong vocation. I discovered her natural ability when it comes to working in the kitchen and noticed how she developed an interest in cooking. There began an intentional journey for my 12-year old daughter, who is turning 25 this year.
SJN: How do you stay motivated?
GP: I stay motivated in the knowledge and belief that our young people with special needs, when given the time to be trained, an opportunity at employment, and a community within the workplace, will gain confidence and competence to become dignified, contributing members of society.
SJN: How big is your team and how do you manage and motivate your team?
GP: We have a staff team of eight; four neuro-typical developing staff who oversee our kitchen and front-of-house (FOH) operations and four persons with special needs. We have a slogan—Soul Food—Made by Many Hands. We motivate them by demonstrating care, modelling, and coaching appropriate work attitudes, including them into a larger community than ourselves. They are inspired by our acknowledgement of their contributions to our business and that we believe in them.
SJN: What are some of the challenges faced to date and how did you overcome them?
GP: To build the business to a level that is sustainable and profitable so that we can continue to train and hire people with disabilities (PWDs). This is one of our key challenges that we endeavour to rise above, through the delivery of a consistent quality product and to establish a brand as a for-responsible-profit social enterprise.
SJN: How do you hope to inspire or encourage other companies to be more inclusive employers?
GP: When we become a successful and sustainable business, we will be able to influence other like-minded companies to share our journey. We will also have the credibility to talk to F&B business owners and offer them our perspective that PWDs can make contributions to their business despite a longer runway for the acquisition of knowledge and skill sets. Like us, they belong and desire to be embraced by an inclusive society, such as ours.
SJN: Where do you see Soul Food in the next three to five years?
GP: To explore other segments in the F&B market. Collaborate with established F&B players, other social enterprises and social sector agencies to enhance the cause for inclusion of persons with special needs in our workplaces and the community-at-large.
PHOTOS: SOUL FOOD
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