My name is Cecile Cavoizy
, and I’m the Executive Director of Shanghai Young Bakers
. I’ve been in Shanghai for 17 years, and I started out working for a large French industrial company. But I was really starting to feel cut off from China. Like, why had I even come to Shanghai? For the culture, for the people, to truly discover this country. So I started to look around for some development work to get involved with, and that’s how I became a volunteer with Shanghai Young Bakers. I quit the corporate world and focused solely on volunteering for a year, and then joined SYB as Executive Director.
In China, there’s so many young people that get trapped in a cycle of poverty. Often because of family financial difficulties, they have to drop out of school and get stuck doing odd jobs or working in factories, with no room for true growth. So the founders of SYB hoped that offering a high quality bakery training program to these disadvantaged youth would be a way for them to gain valuable skills, lift themselves out of poverty, and lead independent lives. And that’s how our program got started in 2008.
We find prospective students through our parent organization Chi Heng Foundation
, and also through other charities such as Madaifu
and Morning Tears
; they help us by identifying and recommending students. All of our students are 17-23 years old and they come from all over China, many from Henan and Shaanxi provinces. We get around 60 candidates per year, but we can only accept 32. Once a student is recommended, we interview them to understand more about their difficulties, their needs, and to make sure it’s the right fit. We have to reject many applicants every year. We focus on choosing students who need it the most, who really do not have any other opportunities. The typical applicant that we look for may have dropped out of school at 14 or 15 years old, and ended up in southern China working in one of those factories, and has become aware of their lack of growth in that position. These kinds of young people are really perfect for our program, because they understand hard work and are craving new learning opportunities. It’s not easy to be a baker. Our students do internships in hotels, and it’s a really tough environment.
China, like any country, has its systems. And there’s a lot of things in the system that work really well. But it’s very easy for some disadvantaged people to be excluded from the system, especially in the countryside. And once you’re out of the system, it’s very hard to get back in. That’s why, even though we’re based in Shanghai, we don’t actually take many students from Shanghai or other big cities, because there’s already more opportunities provided by those local city governments. Some of our youths don’t even have a middle school certificate, making it impossible to reintegrate into the Chinese education system, which then makes it difficult to fully integrate into Chinese society, and then their financial problems just become worse and worse. So, that’s the gap that SYB hopes to fill. And that’s why our training doesn’t just focus on bakery skills. We offer English language classes through Stepping Stones
, and also a life skills curriculum developed by East China Normal University
. The program transcends the hard skills to get toward more philosophical issues for these youths: What do I want to do? How can I communicate with people? Where is my sense of responsibility? It’s about integrating into society with these ideas in mind, and that’s what SYB hopes to contribute to these kids who started out at such a disadvantage.
But even with these societal challenges, Shanghai is a great place. French-style bakeries are popular all over China now, but the interest truly started in Shanghai. There’s a curiosity in Shanghainese people, and there’s a strong consumer culture here, and there’s a welcoming spirit toward foreign things. What drives this demand for French baked goods is the local upper class, and that trickles down into the middle class as well. It’s the Shanghainese demand that fuels Shanghai Young Bakers and makes it possible for us to thrive.
People ask us all the time, ‘How do you place your students?’ And the answer is that we don’t have to. Hotels, restaurants, bakeries: they all call us weekly wanting to hire our students. Every year we host a career fair, and companies like Marriot Hotel
, and Pain Chaud
all come to pitch themselves to our students. The bakery at Bread Etc
was actually managed by one of our graduates. Many of our students decide to stay in Shanghai at the end of the yearlong program, because they’ve kind of become like a family to each other, and they’ve built up a network, and they see how full of opportunity this city is.
I’m so proud of our graduates. It can be hard for a 17-year old rebel to fit in with the very strict discipline of our program, but it’s always worth it when we see them flourish later. There was one boy who actually had to leave a bakery, and we thought he was gone forever, but then years later we went to the Ritz-Carlton
to discuss intern placements, and there in the kitchen was our lost baker! He was the sous chef. So, it's stories like this that make the difficulties worth it.
In the future, SYB is planning to increase our social impact by helping other NGO’s develop their own social bakery programs. We started that already with Braille Without Borders
, a school for the blind in Tibet. For people who want to get involved, we’re always looking for new corporate sponsors. We have a volunteer meeting every month, where anybody can come and learn more about our programs. And we organize public classes where people learn how to make cakes and breads with our teachers and our graduates. The next ones coming up are March 16th
and April 27th
, and the fees for these classes go directly back into sustaining our training program.
Shanghai Young Bakers is only possible because of contributions. The very first company in Shanghai that I worked at, Saint-Gobain
, donated the construction materials for our current baking facility. Luckily for us, people in China are becoming more and more interested in giving back and contributing to society. In the older times, people had to focus on their own immediate problems, on making sure that the family was safe and financially secure. But that is definitely changing nowadays. More Chinese people are feeling like their children are safe now, their education is secured, and now they want to give back.
There are so many amazing initiatives in Shanghai happening with charity, social entrepreneurship or activism, whether it’s talking about pollution or social inclusion. These initiatives just lack exposure. And the people have to switch their mode of thinking. There needs to be more people who see a problem and think ‘I want to do something about it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to fix this problem, so let’s get together and actually do it.’