“It Started With My Family”: Jesher Loi of Ya Kun Talks About Being A Purposeful SME

By City of Good  /
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Hear the name “Ya Kun” and you’re most likely to think of the heritage brand’s kaya toasts and kopi.  

But doing good is also a huge part of its DNA, according to Jesher Loi, who represents the third generation of the family business.

“I used to hear stories of how my grandfather [Ya Kun founder, Loi Ah Koon] would give free meals to customers who had no money,” he recounts. “That spirit of helping one another was prevalent and strong back then.”

That spirit has passed down the generations to his parents, whom Jesher describes as “very generous”. While in junior college, Jesher recalls how his father pledged a day’s takings from Ya Kun’s flagship outlet to the National Kidney Foundation. “I have pictures of myself in my school uniform at NKF, dropping in money to kickstart the campaign. That was my first encounter of how to use the business to do good.”   

An alumnus of the Company of Good Fellowship, Jesher is finding new ways for Ya Kun to be a purposeful business. These include utilising its outlets as collection points for donations-in-kind, and turning the Ya Kun app into a platform for good. Customers can ‘donate’ their loyalty points to World Vision International, or use it to treat others – including frontline workers, during the height of Covid-19 – to a cup of coffee. 

YaKun giving out coffee to frontliners
Free coffee given out to frontliners, courtesy of the Ya Kun Team

The app allows users to send people gift vouchers in micro denominations of $1.80 because Jesher believes that smaller-value gifts decentralise giving into the hands of many. “That’s exciting to me because we are moving society in a different direction and changing culture.”

In our chat, the director of branding & market development repeatedly debunks the myth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) being able to do less than bigger firms. 

“SMEs understand the need for community and the concept of mutual assistance – I need you, you need me. It is counterproductive for them to be stingy,” he muses.

How do you understand giving?

I believe giving is a mindset or a culture. If we understand it this way, we don’t have to wait till December to give. In Ya Kun, we don’t often use the word ‘give’ but we may say we ‘support’ a colleague in need. So the means of giving, our view of giving, is infused into our everyday work environment. It is not a single event.

What issues do you face when driving Ya Kun’s do-good efforts?

Everybody is super stretched. When I attended the Company of Good Fellowship, I heard how the bigger companies could spend a day cleaning beaches. I can’t do that because I’d have to close the stores, someone has to cover shifts, or today’s work will be pushed to tomorrow. This is the struggle of SMEs, how to give people the space [to do good] because the work never stops. Another challenge is, due to limited resources, choosing who we work with is very important. 

How do you get around these challenges?

Know your strengths and weave giving into your day job. So for Ya Kun, our strength is in the number of outlets we have. For ‘The Shoebox Project’ initiative two years ago, we invited people to drop off Christmas presents at our outlets and delivered them to children in need. By using our strengths – our locations, our brand, our network – giving can become an extension of our work. Our employees don’t have to drop whatever they are doing to accomplish it.

Shoebox 2
The Shoebox Project, a collaboration with Ray of Hope for the public to drop off Christmas gifts
for children at Ya Kun outlets

There is a perception that SMEs in Singapore are more focused on profitability than purpose. How does Ya Kun balance between the two?  

For the sake of debate, I have never seen an SME that lives by that [mentality]. A lot of SME owners want to give back. In fact, they are very giving, not just in terms of money, but in sharing contacts and information.

Of course, there is truth in asking what good is a business that is only giving, but not profitable. A business should be profitable because that is how you contribute to society: You keep the economy buoyant, pay your taxes, and pay your employees. But I also believe that giving can be part of your business. It need not only be a case of “Oh I have profits, so now I can give.” There are so many modes of giving. Take incidental giving, which can happen all year round. 

Is this something you witness on the ground in Ya Kun?

Yes, the staff at our outlets are very tight-knit and we hear stories of kindness like how they band together to help a colleague in need or make meals for each other. Stuff like this keeps society going because you never know when you might need help, support, time and resources.

Does such a culture complement the company’s corporate purpose efforts?

I think it’s part and parcel. Let’s say the company has a strong giving philosophy, but its outlets don’t exhibit that same level of giving – it’s a mismatch. So creating a uniform culture is really important and helps reduce that disconnect.

What’s your advice to other companies, especially SMEs, who want to start doing good?

Companies may think they are not ready to do good, or that they don’t know how. My advice is to keep your ear to the ground. If there is an issue that moves your heart, that ignites a fire in your belly – that is likely something you can work on. The more you dabble, the more involved you will get, and the more you will give back and support.

What does a City of Good mean to you?

There are obvious answers like a city that cares. But the reality is business is competitive and tough. You have companies trying to take your market share. You have a hard time venturing overseas because you are not a local [company]. So we need to be tough and resilient. But that being said, the counterbalance to resilience is kindness. I believe the two go hand in hand and are complementary. So a City of Good is one where the people are resilient and tough, but also kind, considerate and charitable.   

Discover how your company can find its purpose. Visit www.companyofgood.sg to learn more.