“The social mission is more important than the financial KPIs," says Geraldine Tan, who, through the difficult Covid period, has kept her cafe staff who have special needs. (L-R) Benny Yeo, Vera Long, Jasnam Singh, Geraldine Tan, Peter Tan. All photos by Alex Wenxuan.

At 42, she landed a job at US multinational company Gallup that others could only dream of: A five-figure salary, an office overlooking the sea and even a personal secretary to make her coffee.

But about two years in, Geraldine Tan gave it all up. 

Turning her back on her cushy corporate life, Tan, now 51, ploughed her savings into setting up My NoNNa’s, a social enterprise that seeks to provide meaningful employment for people with special needs.

“The Lord has prepared me to do this job.”

My NoNNa’s currently operates two eateries at Nanyang Girls High School and Singapore of Technology and Design (SUTD), with a third eatery set to open at Catholic Junior College. The social enterprise partners with special education schools such as Delta Senior School, Mountbatten Vocation Institute and Cerebral Palsy Association and takes in their students for F&B internships. 

Tan aims to provide meaningful employment because she was “horrified” when she visited a shelter workshop employing persons with special needs. They were surrounded by heaps of paper, spending six to eight hours everyday removing staplers from documents. 

The going has been tough – Tan estimates she has pumped in about $300,000 in the past five years to keep the business afloat. To make matters worse, Covid-19 has caused My NoNNA’s cafe at SUTD to lose 80% of their business. 

Yet, despite feeling tempted to throw in the towel more than once, Tan has not given up, describing her job – chief executive officer of My NoNNa’s – as her “calling”.

“The Lord has prepared me to do this job. If you look at my history in the corporate world, every job I had has prepared me for what I am doing now,” said Tan, who has spent decades managing teams of up to 3,000 people in catering arms.

“Managing people has been my forte and thankfully I was placed in the right jobs,” Tan said, who spent 15 years in management and operations at Singapore Airlines. “If someone else tried to do this, they might fail because they lack the management skills, or they cannot connect with the special needs.”

A wake-up call

It was a stroke she had suffered at 40 that pushed her to re-evaluate her life.

Describing it as a “wake-up call”, she said: “I became very conscious of my mortality. It left me with a hounding thought that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this job. But at the same time, it was such a good life.”

The stroke impaired her speech and handwriting, driving her to rehabilitate herself by talking to anyone she could get hold of on the phone, and copying out extracts from the newspapers to improve her handwriting. 

“If I did the math, I would just tell the Lord it doesn’t make sense.”

She made a full recovery from her stroke in three months, and she went back to the corporate world.

But she couldn’t banish the nagging feeling that the Lord had more in store for her.

She had been going in one direction in her life, but the Lord told her that she was not meant to keep going like this. He wanted her to do something more meaningful. 

Still, she tarried for five years, as she was afraid of giving up her job and the financial security.

“It was something I knew in my gut I had to do, but my mind told me it was not possible. If I did the math, I would just tell the Lord it doesn’t make sense. I don’t have a mountain of cash behind me.

“If I give up my job and do something more meaningful, what’s going to happen to my good life?”

But on her 45th birthday, as she was relaxing at the Margaret River in Perth, she heard the Lord tell her simply: “It’s time.”

“Instantly, I knew what He meant.”

It took her another two months to tender her resignation. But she did.

Seeing strengths

Tan decided to work with persons with special needs after watching the condition of a close family friend deteriorate as she stayed at home for 20 years.

Her friend, who had an intellectual disability, had struggled to hold down a job after graduation.

“The people with special needs have gifts too. We hire them for their strengths so it allows them to flourish.”

Tan also found out that only about 30% of graduates from special education schools find employment. Many of them don’t stay employed beyond six months, she discovered.

This is due to a variety of factors, including the lack of appropriate training for supervisors to work with people with special needs.

To combat this, Tan decided that she would train them so they can be employed sustainably. She does this by teaching them how to communicate effectively with their supervisors and colleagues, as well as life skills like cooking and cleaning.

Most importantly, she focuses on using their strengths.

Tan (back) believes in hiring her staff with special needs for their strengths, so that they can flourish. Her dedication to them has forged strong, family-like bonds at My NoNNa’s.

For example, people with autism are very good at following step-by-step instructions over and over again, said Tan.

At the heart of her work, she believes that the Lord gives everyone a gift, including those with special needs.

“If you teach them step one to five, they do step one to five every single time. Able-bodied employees like us, we will do a few times before we start thinking of shortcuts. So, if you want a consistently good product, won’t you rather have someone who does step one to five all the time?”

Tan also hires the elderly as they are more patient, making them the “perfect supervisors” for her staff with special needs.

“If they are grandparents, they see the staff with special needs as their grandkids,” Tan said. “We are like one family.”

At the heart of her work, she believes that the Lord gives everyone a gift, including those with special needs.

“When you go back to the Lord, He will ask you what you have done with His gifts. The people with special needs have gifts too. We hire them for their strengths so it allows them to flourish.”

Never forsaken

In the past five years, Tan has faced many trials and tests, most of them financial. The fact that My NoNNa’s is still around today, she testified, is due to the grace of the Lord.

One challenge she faces in teaching her staff, however, is overprotective parents. Parents tend to coddle their child with special needs, but this prevents their child from learning life skills.

Her latest test came when Covid-19 struck, and she lost 80% of her business. 

“These parents must want their child to be independent,” Tan said, “and trust that their child can go the distance towards independence.”

She once hired a 45-year-old man with intellectual disabilities who had been so coddled that he had a fear of interacting with people, let alone serving customers. She had to start from scratch, giving him tasks at the back of the house so he could avoid talking to people.

It took her nine months to build up his confidence, until he had reached a point where he could greet customers and take their orders.

He recently hit another key milestone of learning to cook rice.

Tan said proudly: “Since then he has become the designated rice cooker and the supervisor doesn’t need to keep paying attention to him.”

Right about the time she wanted to tell the Lord that she was closing shop, He provided.

Her latest test came when Covid-19 struck, and she lost 80% of her business. 

“The Changi Business Park crowd, who were regulars for our lunch crowd, or even come in the evening for beer, disappeared completely because they were working from home. We were dead in the water,” she said.

During that period, many F&B businesses let go of their staff. But Tan held on to hers. 

“If you leave them at home, they will deteriorate. When they come back a few months later, they will forget everything,” she said. “The social mission is more important than the financial KPIs.”

Nevertheless, she did not know how she was going to pull through.

Right about the time she wanted to tell the Lord that she was closing shop, He provided.

Out of the blue, she received a call from DBS, and My NoNNa’s was appointed a partner for their Feed the City programme, which provided sponsored meals for the elderly and low-income families. 

“When you’re about to sink and the Lord pulls you out … Then you realise that you have to keep kicking.”

Just like that, My NoNNa’s went from having no business to preparing a few hundred meals a day.

The Lord has shown up for her in similar ways over the years, she said. Each time she runs into financial difficulties, He would send a friend or contact to help.

“It’s like when you’re on your last breath and about to sink, and the Lord just pulls you out. Then you realise that you have to keep kicking,” she said.

Tan’s faith has been strengthened through this journey, where she is forced to rely on God. She “hounds Him everyday”, looking to the Father for help.

She added: “It’s a miracle we are still here. You remember when Peter was asked to step off the boat? He floundered because he thought the Lord would not support him.

“But he believed, and he could actually stand on the water. That’s how I am with my relationship with Him.”

New milestones

This year, Tan is planning to run a hands-on training course that will equip F&B supervisors to manage people with special needs.

“The Lord tells me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you. Just take care of my kids.’”

“I don’t want to just hire them for myself. I want to enable others to hire them,” she said.

She has taken in staff with various disabilities, such as autism, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy and even a chef on a wheelchair. 

Tan’s passion for her staff is evident. During the interview, her newest intern, 20-year-old Peter Tan, had taken the wrong cloth to clean the table. Peter is autistic and cannot be trained in the same way as the intellectually disabled, so she gives him special guidance. 

Excusing herself from this interview for a while, she patiently explained the procedure to him before returning to the table, unfazed by the interruption.

As the senior intern, Yeo (right), who has mild intellectual disability, is tasked with guiding the newer interns in their jobs.

Benny Yeo, 28, another intern who has been working here for eight months as a waiter, told Salt&Light that he enjoys cooking and serving at My NoNNa’s, and wants to continue working in F&B after his internship ends.

Before this, he had been working in housekeeping at the hotels near the Singapore Expo.

Apart from serving tables, Yeo has been entrusted with the role of guiding other staff members, teaching them how to wash crockery, wipe the tables and set out the tables.

Tan feels the most rewarded when she watches her employees hit these milestones of learning and achieving new skills.

Tan said: “The Lord tells me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you. Just take care of my kids.’”

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Interested in F&B training to manage staff with special needs?

Members of the public keen to register their interest for the F&B supervisor course can send an e-mail to: [email protected]

My NoNNa’s is located at: SUTD Building 2, #01-203.

You also can visit their Facebook or their Instagram account for more information.

About the author

Alex Wenxuan

Salt&Light intern, Alex, is a Year 4 undergraduate at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. He hopes to use the new media to advance meaningful causes and has served in different non-profits during his time at university.