KUALA LUMPUR, June 25 — How does one go from catering for Prince William’s wedding to recruiting needy youths for a food apprenticeship programme? In Ili Sulaiman’s case, all it takes is heart — a lot of heart.
Together with Root Cellar KL’s Basira Yeusuff, Ili launched the Agak Agak Initiative, a food-based one-year apprenticeship programme that hires and trains young people from high-need communities.
The idea here is to run a profitable business while having a positive social impact on the community they serve.
“Our aim at Agak Agak is not only to change the life trajectory of these vulnerable youths,” says Ili, “but to provide a skilled and capable work force that is needed in the food-and-beverage (F&B) industry.
“It’s about uplifting the profession and putting Malaysian food and Malaysian hospitality on the world map. We are driven by achieving profitable milestones so we can enhance the programme and grow the initiative.”
Ili herself started early in the F&B industry, having worked in the field since her university days. As a sales and event co-ordinator at Mosimann’s London (a private dining club), she was part of the team that catered Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding.
For the past three years, she has been running own food delivery company — Dish By Ili — that serves Malaysian meals in tiffin carriers.
Starting the Agak Agak Initiative wasn’t the result of an overnight brainstorm though. Instead it was a steady journey for both Ili and Basira who were already engaged in some form of the social-conscious hiring and training programme within their respective businesses.
“At Dish by Ili Food Delivery and Root Cellar KL, we were already employing people with zero technical skills but investing in their training and development,” says Ili.
“We partnered up so we could do more. Announcing it to the world that we are doing this meant we can be held accountable for our cause.”
Compared to what the duo were doing separately before, the Agak Agak Initiative required greater focus on developing the programme and training modules.
Most of these modules are designed by Ili and Basira themselves, and structured to include measurable outcomes and creating an impact model.
“We are currently working with Leadernomics on the mentoring section of the programme and have other like-minded businesses like wavemakers.com (digital marketing consultant), Plant Cartage (urban farmers), Simply Studio e509 (design firm) to host classes for our apprentices.
“We also take them out on outings to various other institutions such as the central kitchen for Just Heavenly, Delectable by Su and even a semi-fine dining experience at Duddha, KLCC.”
Being completely self-funded at the moment, Ili and Basira are only able to select a handful of apprentices for the programme. For the first two apprentices in their programme, the pair did their own ground work and got referrals.
Ili adds, “For our second batch, of which we can recruit four youths, we are reaching out to NGOs like Yayasan Chow Kit’s KL Crash Pad and My Kasih Foundation, and speaking to vocational schools.
“Our criteria are simple: they should be 17 to 35 years old, willing to learn and have a passion for food. During the selection process, we will filter through the ones who really deserve a chance.”
It wasn’t always smooth-going. The team’s biggest challenge in the beginning was fund raising. Ili recalls, “We were stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation where we had to build the training ground (the restaurant Agak Agak) to be able to run the programme (Agak Agak Initaitive). We overcame that by investing our own money as well as our crowdfunding activity. Now our challenge is managing growth and expansion.”
Having just celebrated their first year, the Agak Agak Initiative is looking for further funding in order to take on more apprentices and expand the programme development.
Ili says, “Our priority now is to focus on the programme so it can be a second income channel. On the management side, we have to find the right balance between growing the business and growing the initiative so we don’t lose focus on the desirable goals for both.”
The learning curve has also impacted how Ili views her first business. She explains, “With all businesses you have to learn to pivot and you have to learn to acknowledge when something is not working out. I am still running Dish by Ili but I can now say: ‘Daily food delivery for Dish by Ili isn’t doing as well as 2016 but let’s see what other services we can provide?’
“Don’t hold on too tight on something you have built because sometimes when you take a step back and allow another to take over or assist you, they are able to add more value to your brand than you could ever have done on your own.”
Helping her stay strong throughout all of this is Ili’s innate belief that honesty is, indeed, the best policy. She says, “My mum always reminds me that whatever I do in life especially if it has anything to do with food, make sure it comes from an honest place.
“When you run your business being transparent from the way you manage your team or the way you cook the food, the people you engage with can feel it.”
Conversely, Ili has also learned that it’s not always possible to please everyone, however much she may want to. For her, it’s about identifying those who can see value in their initiative and wish to join them on the journey.
“There is no need to dwell on things you can’t control,” she says, simply.
While the experience has been more than what either of them had initially expected, neither regrets their decision to launch the initiative.
Ili says, “It’s the love and pain that you get from mentoring, coaching and managing people – whether it’s our team, our apprentices or my partners. Just looking back at us a year ago, we have grown so much in terms of how we conduct our business and, more importantly, as individuals.
“I think it comes from running an organisation that celebrates learning, creativity, drive, honesty and ownership.”
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