Go follow your dreams and passion, even when others don’t support you. Only you know what is right for you. We all need to do something in life that we love so much and are so proud of so that it doesn’t feel like a job anymore. Love yourself by giving yourself space to learn, reflect, and grow.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Sumadiwirya.
Claire Sumadiwirya, the owner of Bellden Cafe, blends her passion for coffee and community through high-quality food and drink offerings, authentic community service, and charity efforts that give back to those in need. She utilizes her MBA in Accounting and Marketing, as well as a decade of professional experience in global entrepreneurship, to support her business and community-based efforts.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Iwas born in Shanghai, China and moved to Bellevue, WA when I was twelve years old. Growing up as a single child, my parents were very busy with their careers so I grew up mostly with my grandparents When Bellevue became my home, my new community of school friends and neighbors became my strong network of supporters through their kindness and hospitality.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Bellden Cafe is a community-driven cafe that offers specialty coffee, wholesome house-made food, and sincere hospitality. We have created a line of charity drinks and offer 25% of the proceeds from these beverages to the chosen charities devoted to causes like feeding the homeless, helping families in need, and supporting environmental preservation. We also offer annual sponsorships for charity causes and pay our team eight hours a quarter to volunteer. Our mission is to build a community that can get through the hard times, celebrate the good times, and treasure the meaningful times. Our motto is #TogetherWeAreStronger.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Right after I had my first child, I was sent to Shanghai for a job assignment. Due to the heavy pollution in the city and his particular sensitivities due to a premature birth, he became very ill requiring us to stay in the hospital for weeks. In Shanghai, cafes are not located inside hospitals. Without family and friends nearby to help, I was exhausted and lonely with no immediate access to a simple cup of coffee or meal. If I wanted to nourish myself, I had to leave my baby alone in the hospital to go get food elsewhere. Then, one day the hospital staff surprised me with a cup of coffee and homemade soup. Their unconditional support and kindness inspired me to open Shanghai’s first and second in-hospital cafes, so that other families could be supported with food and drink while managing the challenging illness of a loved one. When I returned to Bellevue, I wanted to continue my mission to blend coffee, community, and charity by opening my third cafe. I named it Bellden because I wanted it to be the den of Bellevue and designed the logo to reflect my son’s silhouette, to always remind me of why I started.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
After I returned home to the US, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my future career after many great experiences professionally. I knew I wanted to build a social enterprise that would make a difference and bring the love I felt when my son was ill while we were overseas. During the process, I volunteered a lot with different charities and was truly surprised about how much our community needed help. From the homeless population that is in desperate need of basic living arrangements to low-income families whose kids can’t afford education; from severely damaged trails all over the state to foster kids who are forgotten through the system. I felt I needed to do more, not just volunteer, but provide like the hospital staff in Shanghai did for me when I needed it most. Then, everything just clicked! I realized I could create a mission-driven cafe that partners up with local charities to support and build the community.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Throughout my younger years, I made the choice to explore the professional world by working jobs in different industries. Even though my parents provided me with a very comfortable standard of living, I always enjoyed earning money and experience through hard work. I had many interesting jobs. For example, at 14, I was a professional summer wardrobe helper, meaning I ironed clothes all day. I also had positions in finance, marketing, operations, hospitality, and many other areas, which helped me to gain so much life experience and assisted me in getting my community project started. Even though all the industries that I worked in were all very different, they all had one common factor: people. Now looking back, I truly believe that each person I interacted with: whether it was my co-workers, my boss, or my customers; all took me one step closer to the way I am building my project through knowledge and communication.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There are so many! When I was pregnant with my second child while still in Shanghai, I was determined to come back home and deliver at a local hospital, Overlake Hospital. The hospital took care of me when I was little, and after the experience of having a preemie baby somewhere far from home with my firstborn, coming back and delivering at my home hospital was the only thing I cared about. After delivering my daughter, Skylar, safely, and then my third baby a few years later, Overlake Hospital invited me to learn more about their new project, Future Care. The project is a world-class birthing and cancer care center with intention to treat a highly diverse population, as well as serve those who can’t afford healthcare. After a few meetings, my testimony was published on the hospital website and I was voted onto the hospital foundation board as the youngest, female, minority board member. Today, I proudly represent Overlake Hospital in the community as it is fighting at the frontlines to keep Bellevue residents safe from COVID-19. Just last month, I donated PPE masks, coffee, and food to the frontline workers with my team!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I remember the first time I demanded a meeting with the Shanghai hospital board because I was hoping to open their first cafe. I arrogantly assumed that they didn’t speak English and didn’t understand how the American healthcare system worked. Therefore, I spoke extra slow and mixed English with my poor Chinese hoping to communicate clearly. Little did I know, most of them earned their graduate school degrees in America and Europe after earning undergraduate degrees from prestigious Chinese universities. Not only were they fluent in English, but their understanding of the healthcare system was way more in-depth than mine. Here I am in a foreign country where they speak my language better than me. I felt embarrassed because as a minority, I am sometimes treated the way I treated them.
When I recognized I was doing that in the meeting, I broke out laughing in embarrassment and apologized. It was a very memorable meeting for the Shanghai hospital board. This experience really opened my eyes and heart to improve my communication skills by learning to step back and observe. Never just invite someone to the conversation, but be in the conversation with them with the full acknowledgment that this could be a perfect chance for me to learn something new. Furthermore, it helped me understand that like leading others, the first step to making a difference is to understand what others have to offer and what they would like to work on together.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My parents have always been my biggest cheerleaders who have helped me to succeed. They were incredibly busy working to provide a life for me, but no matter how far away we were from each other they always managed to send me an encouraging text or email letting me know that I am doing a great job. My father has always been my best friend and mentor. His high standards of ethics in business and his unconditional kindness toward others were what shaped my vision on this journey. My mother moved to the US with me with no knowledge of the English language after giving up her prestigious position in the medical field. However, her first step was to find a local community where she could volunteer to help others. They have always trusted me with decision making because they know that only growth from success and learning from failure will make me a better person.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
During the building stage of my home cafe in Bellevue, one of the biggest roadblocks was finding a good roasting partner. Because the coffee industry has been historically dominated by white males, I truly felt like an outsider while searching for that partner. After several incidents where I was either dismissed with small samples or stood up at meetings, I finally found the one: Coava Coffee Roasters from Portland. Not only are they passionate about coffee just like me, but they also care about others with compassion and respect. They helped me to pick the best choice for coffee to serve my guests, and their authenticity and kindness brought hope to my sometimes lonely journey in coffee.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Improved communication: listen, learn and love.
- Increased transparency: unbiased data with scientific backing and expert knowledge.
- Strong community connection: put aside our differences in cultural, religious, and political views and focus on including everyone in the society on overcoming issues like homelessness, income, and social inequality and environmental harm. We all have a voice, but a unified voice can be heard more effectively.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Work Less and Disappear
As an entrepreneur and social changer, everyone knows that a 4 hour weekday is not possible. However, self and team sufficiency are still important parts of building a strong team and a trustworthy organizational environment. In our cafe, we don’t have specific positions like barista, back of the house, or front of the house. Instead, we have team associates, leads, trainers, and managers. Because this social enterprise is my baby, I worked long hours every day to get the cafe up and running. At the end of the day, I felt mentally and physically exhausted. Also me being there every day, was actually taking away the authority of the leadership team. Therefore, eventually I learned that the more productive way to encourage the team to function smoothly was to work less and disappear. Not MIA kind of disappear, but more like take a step back from the front line so I can focus on the mission and community more. The key benefit of this is that it gives the leadership team a chance to build success with the team together.
- Focus on Relationships
The key to building a socially impactful business is treating everyone who I encounter like I would like to be treated. For example, when I was in business school for my Master’s degree, I interned in different industries each summer. There were internships that I learned so much from, and others that I felt were a waste of my time. Then one day it dawned on me that I needed to focus on how I was providing value to the companies I was interning for. What if the ones that I felt were wasting my time actually felt the same way? And what if the ones I loved felt the same way about me too? What I should have done was ask for an exit meeting where I could have learned whether or not I had a meaningful impact at those summer internships and what I could have improved. The definition of a healthy relationship is one that helps both sides to grow. It doesn’t have to only be business-related, but needs to be mindset related. Today, I work hard to teach my employees the importance of personal fulfillment and meaningful relationships. Through this process, I have seen first hand how a happier team member leads to a stronger team, which then allows for happier customers and a more vibrant community.
- Differentiate Between Needs and Wants
I have three very young children, so time to myself is often very hard to come by. While I was planning for my new business venture, I found it very rewarding to volunteer at local charities because it was something that I really enjoyed and helped others simultaneously. It might sound weird, but when I do things for others, especially volunteering it gives me so much joy and helps me to relax. The biggest challenge that I faced was choosing non-profit partners. All of them were such great candidates. After many back and forth meetings, I realized that it was imperative to differentiate between needs and wants for my project. What are the needs of the non-profits? Can I contribute to their growth while also meeting the needs of my business, beliefs, operational strategies and budgets? Just because I want to support every cause that speaks to my heart, doesn’t mean that my team will also find the passion for those causes. In the end, I set up a system of selecting community partners through the evaluation of their finances, reviews on their volunteer program, and votes from the team based on the required workload and the favorability of the cause.
- Love Yourself More, Way More
When customers ask me what I do for the cafe, I would usually proudly tell them that I am the greeter, barista, accountant, community manager, janitor, dishwasher, cook, marketer, and the list goes on and on. I took pride in how much I was involved in the cafe, and how much I love my team and the business. On top of the business, I am also raising three young kids who are very energetic and curious about everything in life. As you can imagine, before the COVID pandemic, I felt like a superwoman because I felt like I could handle everything coming my way and still stay calm and look put together. Now, we are two months into the nationwide lockdown: me working everyday at the cafe and then returning home to teach my kids full-time.
Truth be told, the first month after the pandemic started, that sense of pride was completely gone. All I could feel was that I was losing my business, my time with my kids, and of course my sanity. And then the second month came, the sales were still decreasing from the business, the kids were still needing my help with school, but my days working were significantly shorter because we were not open at full capacity. Then, I realized that this season of life is not here to crush me and make me a failure, but instead give me a chance to find time to love myself more, way more. Instead of being a multi-tasking superwoman who is exhausted from all these social expectations, I just need to be myself, care for myself, and reach out to my community for support.
- Improvements Begin With Myself
Like many things in life, we are not in control of many aspects or people who we are interacting with. As a social entrepreneur, my desire to change the world and my hopes to improve the team may compete directly with life goals. However, how others desire to achieve those goals may be dramatically different from what I practice. For example, when I first opened this mission-driven cafe, I focused on hiring individuals who have cafe experience so they can adeptly train the new hires. It was all going well until I noticed that employees who had more experience tended to disrespect the new hires and me because they felt they knew better. Also because the experienced staff had gained their knowledge from different companies, they were constantly disagreeing with each other on best operational protocols. Our day to day operations were a nightmare: there was no sense of teamwork, an increasing amount of unhappy customers, and of course a lack of community support to our charity partners. After a month of reflection and research, I realized that what I needed to do was focus on improving myself for every aspect of the operation in my organization. Only with a well-established mission strategy and thoroughly written training program could I save my business. Furthermore, each element of these key pieces of operation has to be modeled by me to show my team what the standard needs to be. It is only fair to ask others to change when I improve myself first to be a better leader who they can look up to.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Go follow your dreams and passion, even when others don’t support you. Only you know what is right for you. We all need to do something in life that we love so much and are so proud of so that it doesn’t feel like a job anymore. Love yourself by giving yourself space to learn, reflect, and grow. It is completely okay to be wrong sometimes. Learning from errors can lift you up way faster to your next goal in life than ignoring it. Make an impression on each person you meet, because your positivity and calmness are contagious. You never know, your smile might save a life one day.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There is. In March, my dad, who is my best friend and mentor in life, flew out of the country to help others for the COVID pandemic crisis overseas. Growing up we rarely spent time together because of his work schedule. But whenever we were apart he always called me to tell me to have a great day because I have the power to make it a great day. Because the US border is currently closed, and there are so many uncertainties during this unprecedented time, I really don’t know when he will be able to come back. I would love to see him again as soon as possible to absorb all of this love and wisdom.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on Instagram @clairesmdry or LinkedIn. My beloved cafe handle is @belldencafe on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!