Pope Jai Thai founder, Daniel Teh, was one of six young people who won the National Youth Council’s Singapore Youth Award on October 21. He talks to City News about his experience.
Proverbs 19:17 says “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward them for what they have done.”
Such is the case for Daniel Teh, founder of Pope Jai Thai, a Thai restaurant that is a social enterprise that provides employment for the vulnerable and those with special needs.
Since launching his restaurant in 2014—the restaurant moved to its current location at *Scape last year— Daniel has found favor with many, including social entrepreneur Elim Chew who is now his mentor. Both are members of City Harvest Church.
Daniel’s work, giving dignity and a living to eight groups of beneficiaries, has attracted attention and accolades. Last December, Pope Jai was the inaugural recipient of the President’s Challenge Youth Social Enterprise of the Year. In August this year, he was invited to speak at TEDxNTU. And now, the Singapore Youth Award.
It was Elim who nominated him for the SYA. The award, which celebrates values of resilience, courage, service, leadership and inspiration, according to chair of the award panel Sudha Nair, is open to persons under the age of 35. Other recipients of the award were singer-songwriter Inch Chua, who also helps ex-offenders to rehabilitate and return to society; Amanda Chong, a public prosecutor who started ReadAble, a literacy program for the underprivileged; orthopaedic surgeon Hamid Rahmatullah, para-athlete Jason Chee and Jean Loo, the Lien Foundation’s co-lead of early childhood development.
Your fellow winners vary from musician Inch Chua to state counsel Amanda Chong. What did you think or feel standing next to them?
I am honored and thankful for the given opportunity. It’s by God grace that I was given the opportunity to stand next to them. That day, they shared with me that they were inspired by my stories and the work I am doing. I’m thankful that I can be a living testimony to them and motivate more people to do good.
As you have said, it is God who has given you success. How has He guided you through starting and running Pope Jai Thai?
Yes. Through the trials and failures I have experienced, I am strengthened. God has given me the wisdom and grace to move forward. I’m constantly reminded to stay humble and honour the weak.
What is your staff strength now at Pope Jai and are they mostly from the beneficiary groups you have chosen to work with?
We have a sustainable group of full-time employees, 90 percent of whom are from eight beneficiary groups. What we lack right now is the skillset at the management level to form a strong foundation. I hope to rally and encourage more people to step forward to join my team to continue the good work.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean was the guest-of-honor at the award ceremony. What did he say to you?
He congratulated me and thanked me for the service to the community and the nation. He also said to me, “ You mentioned in your speech that you are now a gangster turned unconventional social entrepreneur, mentor, community leader and husband. So, when you are turning to be a father?”
Running a business is not easy, and your business model presents unique challenges. What do you need support in right now to move Pope Jai forward?
I need a number of things. First of all, like I said, I need to build a strong management team and I hope the right people reading this will consider coming on board with us and bring us the wisdom, strength and protection to move this business forward. Two, we need more open doors in the business and more opportunities, to give us the sustainability, the funds to grow. Three, we need financial resilience—we are sustainable right now, but I pray we will grow to be financially healthy and be able to use the money to support and employ more people who need jobs. Finally, we need greater community breakthroughs at different levels, to educate and also to serve the community on a wider scale.
What will Pope Jai be doing in the next five years?
We just formed our new social arm, a voluntary committee made up of volunteers from different backgrounds who assist me in conducting community engagement, strengthening community partnerships, overseeing case management and volunteer management. This frees me up greatly and allows me to focus on the business aspects of Pope Jai, while allowing this business to continue finding and meeting needs. We are also exploring a Halal concept so that we can do outreach to the Muslim community as well.
At the TEDxNTU talk, you spoke about about a culture of honor: giving your staff dignity, enabling them to contribute to society. Why is this important?
Cultivating a culture of honor is to believe in the seed of greatness in each person, and letting that greatness shine. The key thing is to look at their strengths and not on their weaknesses. Being able to share at the TED talk to over 2,000 people was a great opportunity for me to use the living testimony of Pope Jai and my stories to emphasise building a culture of honor. I’m also thankful that when the SYA took place, I received requests from the media to share more about the culture of honor and how I apply it in my company.
What change do you hope to see in society?
People will be more gracious and learn to give back to community. I also hope to see people promote the culture of honor and walk the talk.
God certainly has brought you on an exciting journey! Is there a Bible verse you hold on to when things get tough?
The Book of Revelation, chapter 2 reminds me to return to the first love and remember the greatness of God and the amazing work He has given to me.
Pope Jai Thai is located at 2 Orchard Link, #03-03 Scape, Singapore 237978