When French-born Floriane Lemoine first moved to Shanghai after two years of study in Beijing to become the project director for the non-profit Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB) program, she at first felt it difficult to adjust to the fast-paced life of her newly-adopted city.
“I’m a Beijing nostalgic,” she admits. “Shanghai is more for business people. It can appear more superficial.” Yet, as Lemoine discovered during her first year with SYB, which trains young Chinese people with few other career opportunities to transform into accomplished Western-style bakers and pastry chefs, it is Shanghai’s business-oriented and international nature that is crucial to the success of SYB’s students, who often go on to stay in Shanghai after graduating from the program to find employment in the city’s tremendous range of cake shops, bakeries, and luxury hotels.
Originally the brainchild of 12 French expatriates who founded the organization in 2008, the staff of Shanghai Young Bakers has since expanded to include a more international team of 94 employees and volunteers.
“We’re always recruiting someone,” says Lemoine. Where hiring competent instructors is concerned, the program employs a unique, self-sustaining approach: every year, SYB culls the best and brightest from its pool of graduates and sends them for six months to its partner baking school in France. There, they further pursue their studies in baking and pastry and acquire the additional layer of experience and training necessary to become SYB’s next generation of teachers.
Lemoine cites “a small team” and “limited resources” as her two biggest obstacles during her first year as project director. “I think one of the main challenges when you work in an NGO is that you have to deal with a limited budget,” she explains. Though the program can depend on corporate sponsors like the French chain Carrefour to cover about 80% percent of its budget, SYB is currently seeking to diversify its funding sources by offering services like baking classes (open to families and companies who want to do team-building exercises), markets, and consulting for professionals. Ultimately, Lemoin hopes that social enterprise will account for 50% of the budget.
SYB is currently the only organization of its kind, though the program is working to establish networks with partner hotels and bakers all over the country so that graduates can find posts near their families.
Despite the fact that Shanghai is SYB’s only location, none of its participants are Shanghai natives: the program’s yearly crop of 20 to 30 students hail from a variety of what Lemoine refers to as “less advantaged regions,” usually in central or northern China. Possible candidates for the program are first recommended to SYB through partner NGOs who work with underprivileged youth.
Though some SYB students are orphans, Lemoine explains that the program’s target demographic includes groups like juvenile convicts, children of migrant workers and young people with single-parent families, who receive less government assistance and often demonstrate more financial need. Applicants then undergo a screening process in which they are evaluated based on health, age (the average age of an SYB student is 20), family income, literacy, motivation, and their level of interest in baking. Once accepted, students are provided with accommodations from a local partner vocational school and, in addition to baking and pastry, are enrolled in English or “life skills” courses. By the end of this year, 100 students total will have graduated from the SYB program since its foundation.
Though Lemoine plans to return to France within the next few years, she says that as long as she remains in Shanghai, she will continue to work for the Shanghai Young Bakers. For her, the most rewarding aspect of her position is watching students evolve from charity cases into assured, self-sufficient individuals with marketable job skills. To see their transformation within the space of a year, she says, is to bear witness to “an accelerated process of birth. It’s really strong. They’re going through a really tough time and then you give them this opportunity. This really boosts their confidence, that they can master this. They get the pride of knowing they can do something, which is pretty unique.”