Viet Nam’s Donkey Bakery Takes Open Hiring to a New Level
By Katie Smith Milway, Sr. Fellow in Social Innovation and Partner at The Bridgespan Group. She co-authored the study “Hidden Talent: How Smart Companies Are Tapping Into Unemployed Youth,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, September 2016.
Cong, 21, wears his chef’s hat pulled snug on his brow as he carefully measures butter for a batter that he’ll transform into one of Donkey Bakery of Hanoi’s mouthwatering cupcakes. Nearby, consulting chef André Bosia is using sign language to indicate a little more salt. That’s because Cong and his fellow cooks are hearing impaired. Meanwhile, their customer service colleagues are blind.
One of the greatest impediments to social mobility in any country is the inability of young people to get a starter job with a promising future. There are millions of 16-24 year olds who face this roadblock, in particular, those without high school or college diplomas, with criminal records or with disabilities, as reported in the recent Bridgespan Group study, “Hidden Talent: How Smart Companies Are Tapping Into Unemployed Youth.”
Yet, the co-founders of Donkey Bakery, Vietnamese social entrepreneur Luyen Shell, 63, and her business partner Marc Stenfert Kroese, 59, of the Netherlands, have actively screened in employees that many screen out, because they have seen the gratitude and diligence these workers bring to their jobs and how that translates into employee and customer retention. “We cater all the international school canteens,” said Kroese. “And they always tell us our cooks and servers convey both food and love to their students.”
In essence, Shell and Kroese have taken open hiring, an approach that prioritizes hiring workers based on their will to work hard and learn vs. credentials and references, to a new level. Greyston Bakery of Yonkers, NY, whose founder won Babson College Lewis Institute’s Social Innovator Award in 2016, has become a US poster child for the movement. At Greyston, which bakes sweets including brownies for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, would-be employees simply add their name and phone number to a hiring list. When their number comes up, they get a call to join the workforce. Candidates with mistakes in their past get a fresh chance, no questions asked.
At Donkey Bakery, Kroese and Shell rely on word of mouth among the deaf and blind community. “Most of these colleagues were sitting, forgotten, in a corner of their homes before they got the chance to work,” says Shell. Adds Kroese: “We have just one question: Are you willing to learn? Personal motivation is the most important criteria – people who want to work and to learn. A lot come in beaten up psychologically, because of few career paths for people with disabilities. Some are misused by the mafia to hawk to tourists in return for a space to sleep à la [the movie] Slum Dog Millionaire.”
Shell, who fled southern Viet Nam after the fall of Saigon and gained refugee status in the US, landed in Hanoi in late 2004 when her husband, an NGO worker from the UK, took a role leading the Viet Nam operations of Seattle-based nonprofit World Concern. A fashion entrepreneur, Shell began volunteering with a local Hanoi organization that employed handicapped people in making quilts with hopes of sourcing products for her US retail operations. On her first day, she navigated a maze of alleyways to arrive at a room where four deaf people were stitching the coverlets. Luyen, whose late brother had been blind, thought that with a consumer-informed product strategy, the quilters could raise capital, scale the operation and improve worker conditions. They asked her to lead the charge. In a year she doubled employees and sales and caught a vision for founding a truly social enterprise that could employ handicapped at greater scale and across a broader range of services – from sewing to catering to retail baking.
A chance meeting with an international hotelier got Shell her first big contract for uniforms, linens and other cloth goods, allowing her to hire five hearing and mobility impaired employees to launch LShell Design. Today the design shop is a unit of Donkey Bakery; staff has grown to 85 people on revenues of $500,000 and catering margins of about 15%, all of which gets reinvested to grow the social enterprise.
Along the way, Kroese joined as Luyen’s business partner, after the great recession forced Shell to revisit her strategy. Shell and Kroese came up with a “Breads & Threads” shop with bakery, catering and sewing. An aerospace entrepreneur, Kroese had dreamed of doing something in social business. “When I met Luyen through a travel club, I began bringing her high quality sewing supplies from Europe. Then I fell in love with the employees.”
It’s not hard to do: Take Oanh, 28, who came to Donkey Bakery’s sewing operations four years ago. She had the basics of sewing and grew to become one of the LShell’s highest quality producers. She can’t hear and she can’t speak, but she smiles ear to ear.
Or take Hoa, 35, who is legally blind and runs human resources. She lost her eyesight in a failed operation to correct short sightedness. Trained as an accountant, a friend referred her to Donkey Bakery where she says she has learned everything about HR on the job. On a steamy Hanoi day this month, she was staring at a dark computer screen as her fingers flew over the keyboards designing recruitment forms.
Or take the baker, Cong, who at 18 signed to Shell that he was willing to learn to be a baker, but then stumbled on the job and needed a second chance. His peers voted to give him one, and Cong has since become one of Donkey’s best bakers. He can cater, serve and decorate pastry. And he earns $300/month, about par with a local Hanoi primary school teacher, plus allowances for housing, gas and lunch.
As I’m leaving the bakery, I witness a rare seeing and hearing job applicant, for whom there are few positions, sitting down to speak to blind Hoa. The applicant seems to have no idea that her interviewer has a significant disability – because, in fact, Hoa’s abilities, like those of her coworkers, are extraordinary.
Donkey Bakery is seeking a Babson College intern for the summer of 2017. For more information, contact founder Luyen Shell at firstname.lastname@example.org.