women to women
Women and Coffee beans
"Roasting coffee is like meditating for me. When I'm roasting coffee, selecting the beans, time just flies by, and it feels like nothing else exists in the world for me. Good coffee, bad posture. Bad coffee, good posture. It's hard to reconcile those two," says Ma May Cho.
In this month's Women to Women program, we will present the story of a woman who transitioned from corporate employment to owning her business, a woman who passionately crafts and blends coffee beans.
Question: Can you introduce yourself and your profession?
Answer: I'm Ma May Cho. I worked at Unilever for 5 years and opened café Deja brew in 2019. This coming February will mark its 5th anniversary. I used to work at the Unilever office in Bangkok, dealing with matters related to Myanmar for the Myanmar office, including key accounts. My role at Unilever involved training, sales, and marketing. Although I didn't have a lot of experience, I dedicated myself to one area and worked hard. After working for 5 years, I transitioned to working with coffee.
Question: What inspired you to leave a large company like Unilever and start your own business?
Answer: At Unilever, I learned a lot. It was a multi-cultural environment. I always had to focus on the food segment and constantly learn on the job. But I started feeling too stable, going to the office in the morning, returning home, sitting with my laptop. There was no excitement. When it was time, you'd get paid, so I started spending my weekends sitting in coffee shops. While working on my laptop, I pondered how to spend my time, where to travel next, and during these walks, I came across coffee cultures. That's when the desire to take a risk emerged, especially as I was about to return to Myanmar. When I got transferred back to the Yangon office, the idea of sitting in coffee shops and brainstorming led me to start something new and open a coffee shop. The first shop was on 37th Street. I spent all of 2018 learning about coffee, from planting to roasting, studying everything. Usually, people get their coffee from suppliers and open up; that's common. But for me, it was the year of learning and the help I received that allowed me to open the shop and understand the process better. The passion for coffee beans is the life of a coffee shop owner, and I understood that more deeply.
Question: What challenges did you face when you first opened your shop?
Answer: Confidence fluctuated, questioning if what I was doing was right, choosing coffee machines, wondering if my actions were correct. The routine of a regular salary and suddenly spending time selecting coffee beans in fields brought excitement. The belief in my ability wavered as results hadn't yet materialized. Buying the coffee machine and finding beans that suited my taste marked a turning point. Then it was just about finding the right location, staff, and space. When I realized my venture was shaping up, satisfaction set in. It was a crucial moment, beyond which there was no turning back.
Question: Why did you choose to open a coffee shop after transitioning from corporate life to owning your own business?
Answer: Everyone has their personal markers of identity. Before I even knew what I liked, I knew what I didn't like. I understood what didn't make me happy. Not knowing fashion or beauty, not wanting to work with a lot of people or engage in too much conversation led me to desire a different kind of environment. What I wanted wasn't just a peaceful existence but a meaningful one. I wanted to be in places like coffee shops, enjoying a cup of coffee. That's where my passion started. I chose this line of work because it's something I could do without burning out.
Question: Despite your corporate job involving a lot of interaction with people, why did you opt for a quieter, more serene kind of work when you started your own?
Answer: Learning from people and communicating can be beneficial. There are also those interactions that are challenging and draining. But it's not just about what drains you; it's about discovering what you truly enjoy and are passionate about. Finding my passion while brewing coffee felt like meditation. Spending time roasting and selecting coffee beans felt like I was in a different world, where the quality of the coffee mattered more than sitting comfortably. Finding a balance between enjoying good coffee and comfortable seating was challenging. Eventually, sitting in those cafes, drinking that coffee, and realizing that a cup of coffee with love could touch our souls led me to create a space for others like me, where not only the coffee had to be good but also the warmth and comfort it offered. This journey of discovery and creation led to the establishment of my coffee shop.
Question: What aspects of your corporate life helped when you started your own business?
Answer: Teamwork was a significant aspect back then. Everything had a system. When I started working alone, the transition from a well-organized environment to handling everything by myself made my confidence fluctuate. What I took from my corporate life were discipline, commitment, and the ability to collaborate, which translated into my performance in my own business.
Question: How did you feel when you first opened your own shop?
Answer: I was happy to see the shop take shape. More than worrying if it would sell, I wondered if it would even work, if people would come. I was delighted when people started coming in to drink coffee. It validated that I could do it. Accepting that it was fine to be just in a cozy corner, enjoying simplicity over grandeur, brought satisfaction and confidence. The real challenges like managing staff, quality control, and customer service came later. It wasn't a big financial investment initially, so adjustments and improvements were gradual. There were gaps, of course.
Question: How do you strive to stand out in the coffee industry?
Answer: I'm happy to see more cafes. I welcome more competition. I accept and appreciate the uniqueness each cafe brings. My cafe's decor is simple and straightforward.
Question: Opening a coffee shop is something everyone wants to do, right? When you have opened the small shop people dream of, does the practical business life resemble that? What changes?
Answer: Everyone has their own personal markers. Before I knew what I liked or disliked, I knew what I didn't like. I knew what made me unhappy. Fashion and beauty weren't my things, nor was working and talking with lots of people. When I realized I wanted a peaceful life, not just a happy one, I found my passion while sitting in coffee shops, drinking coffee. When I'm brewing coffee, selecting coffee beans, and spending my time, it feels like I'm in a different world. Good coffee, bad seating. Bad coffee, good seating. It's hard to find both. Sitting in coffee shops and drinking my own coffee made me content, and I realized that a coffee shop for people like me could fill a niche. So, I created a space where I wanted to be, with good coffee and a warm atmosphere.
Question: People say that to succeed in your own business, you need financial power. What do you think?
Answer: When I left my job, I had some savings. But no matter how much I had saved, I needed emotional security. Putting all your eggs in one basket means they'll all break. I started with what I could do. I didn't dream about money. When I struggled and worked hard, I received some financial recognition, and I've been resilient ever since.
Question: How do you think the coffee industry can evolve and grow?
Answer: After COVID-19, not just in Southeast Asia but worldwide, the food and beverage industry is thriving. Our food and drink sector seems invincible post-COVID. The industry is growing immensely. It will never stop. As long as there are people, there will be cafes. I see it as an ever-growing field.
Question: As this is a women to women program, what more would you like to say to women?
Answer: Women care for and support each other. We empathize. Even when we face sexist jokes, we don't abandon each other during our weakest moments. Seeing the strength of another woman empowers me. We proceed through caring and sharing. The more we connect and collaborate with each other, the better outcomes we can achieve. I'm also grateful for recognizing me and for this opportunity to engage.