Well Grounded: the social enterprise helping unemployed people find work in the coffee industry

Well Grounded has partnerships with more than 40 employers, from specialist coffee shops and small independents to bigger chains and suppliers

Hazel Sheffield
Tuesday 01 May 2018 13:29
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Robin Wilkinson (left) trained as a barista at Well Grounded, a social enterprise set up by Eve Wagg (centre)
Robin Wilkinson (left) trained as a barista at Well Grounded, a social enterprise set up by Eve Wagg (centre)

It’s Wednesday morning in Poplar, East London, and Sarah Bennett and Natasha Ward* are dialling in a coffee grinder. That’s barista-speak for measuring the grind and weight of the beans to get a perfectly balanced shot of coffee.

They swap stories about their lives as they work: this week Sarah, aged 29, has left her daughter at nursery for the first time to come and learn how to make coffee. She dreams of opening a coffee shop for parents and babies in Poplar.

Meanwhile, Natasha, 23, is retraining after working as a mental health nurse in Essex. She has a work placement at a coffee shop starting soon and has been putting in extra hours practising steaming milk.

“I’ve only been here three days and I’m so happy,” she says. “I used to feel panicked in the morning before work, worrying what would happen if I did something bad, what people would think about me.”

Sarah also suffered from crippling mental health problems and tough mornings on the commute to her former job as a sale assistant at Canary Wharf. “I was panicking and getting breathless,” she says. “But coming here has helped my anxieties. You don’t feel unequal, you feel like everyone is a family.”

This is Well Grounded, a speciality coffee training academy helping people find work. It was started by Eve Wagg in 2016 as a community interest company, which means all profits go towards the core aim of helping people find work. Natasha and Sarah are on the fourth eight-week training programme, taking the total number of people trained to 126 – and the number of people in work to 44.

“Coffee is a speciality craft, much like a sommelier or a baker,” Eve says. “So you enter a world where you are an expert and you can sit around a table with the CFO of a bank and you will be the expert around coffee. That’s a really empowering thing. It creates a common dialogue. People might not have had that before.”

Eve became obsessed by coffee as a graduate when she first tried a speciality brew at Monmouth in London’s Borough market. During her masters at Cass Business School she began to wonder if there was a way to link her passion for coffee with her longer-term goal of helping people find employment.

Robin Wilkinson wrote a poem about her experience at Well Grounded

But it wasn’t until she was in the final round of an interview to be the managing director of a sports charity that she realised she needed to stop everything and start Well Grounded. “I was only 28 – I didn’t get the job I was going for,” Eve says. “But the chief executive said he wanted to help me. When I told him about my idea he said, ‘You just have to do it’.”

At first she made partnerships with other social enterprises who were the first to ‘get’ the purpose of Well Grounded. Through UnLtd, a lottery funded programme that supports social entrepreneurs, she found a mentor, a chief financial officer at an international bank.

Now the business has partnerships with more than 40 employers, from specialist coffee shops and small independents to bigger chains and suppliers.

Through Poplar Harca, an award-winning housing association in East London, Well Grounded receives a grant and workshop space. In return, they run training sessions for young people in Poplar, a London borough where a high percentage of young people live in poverty.

Eve wants to open a second coffee academy in London before the end of the year and start moving from voluntary funding to trade funding, through contracts with colleges, private training sessions and other events. Well Grounded is also working on opening an online store to sell branded KeepCups.

The team has developed an eight-week programme to teach trainees all the technical details of making and serving coffee, which end with a professional, internationally recognised qualification. But they also learn soft skills such as dealing with customers and taking stock of their own mental health.

“It’s not just practical skills, it’s about how you stay in a positive frame of mind,” Natasha says. “They say, ‘If you’re not in a frame of mind, tell us’.”

Trainees are asked to reflect daily on their feelings using a learning cycle, where they are encouraged to do something, observe how it makes them feel, then try something else based on that experience.

This idea was so effective for Robin Wilkinson, a 22-year-old from London, that she has since used it in her day to day life. “I started writing similar things like, ‘What did I do today, what have I learnt’,” she says. “It really helped me to just be a happier person.”

Robin learned of Well Grounded through a friend who had gone on the programme. She was 22 and going from job to job. “I wasn’t in a very stable mindset. I wasn’t very happy,” she remembers.

She thought Well Grounded could help her find stable work, so she got in touch and was invited to an assessment day along with 40 other applicants. She remembers feeling, straight away, that she was being talked to as an equal, and although she felt shy she was happy to take up a free training place when it was offered to her.

“I hadn’t been in education and enjoyed it for a while, so it was nice to want to learn,” she says. “That was fun.” Thanks to the programme, Robin has a part-time job at the Luminary Bakery in Hackney, which offers disadvantaged women training, work experience and employment in the bakery. It’s early days, but she hopes to save her earnings to eventually go travelling.

She reads me a poem she wrote about Well Grounded: “Growing up in London can be tough when you are alone,” it reads. “But Well Grounded found me. No one has ever believed in me, let alone believed in me as much as these guys. I’m used to people giving up on me. They actually want me to flourish.”

*Some names have been changed

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