Thai professor and ex-senator Wiriya Namsiripongpon is defying the odds and changing lives one cup of coffee at a time by inviting customers to drink for a cause. Discover his inspiring story here.
Bangkok is a city packed with photogenic cafes, but one coffee shop in the old town of Bangkok Noi stands out, brewing up new opportunities for people with disabilities as quickly as it serves up cappuccinos. Founded by Wiriya Namsiripongpon, whose own story is rooted in a childhood accident that left him blind at 15, the inspirational Harvard Graduate and Professor of Law was determined to provide better opportunities to those facing disabilities just like him with his coffee shop, Yimsoo Cafe. He sat down with Hive Life to tell us why.
With a name that draws on two Thai words, ‘Yim’ meaning ‘to smile,’ and ‘Soo’ meaning ‘to keep fighting,’ or ‘to empower,’ Yimsoo Cafe is as big on message as it is on coffee. At its two locations, one in Bangkok Noi and the other at Thammasat University, the small, cosy space is staffed entirely by deaf people. Enter, and you’ll be greeted by smiling and welcoming staff with a sign on the counter that reads, “I am deaf but happy to take care of you. Please point to the menu to order.” To assist the staff in taking those orders, they also use a TTRS (Thailand’s Telecommunication Relay Services,) machine which provides real-time sign language translation services.
Initiatives to inspire as much as they are great places for lunch, the Yimsoo cafes have their roots in a very personal story. At the age of fifteen, Professor Wiriya was left completely blind after an accident caused by an unexploded bomb. That tragedy turned his world upside down, shattering his dream of becoming a doctor. It also took him to the door of Miss Genevieve Caulfield, the founder of The Bangkok School for the Blind, who gave him the opportunity to study while many other schools refused to give him the chance. “She believed in me and told me to always repeat to myself that blind people can do and achieve anything,” he says of the encounter that changed his life.
Professor Wiriya, now 66, went on to graduate from Harvard with a masters degree, writing a book about his extraordinary journey, ‘Fight on in Life-Creating Opportunity in Adversity.’ Today, he teaches in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University and sits at the head of the Foundation for Persons with Disabilities, an initiative he founded in 1999 to help those facing disabilities find better prospects in life. “When people talk about professional training for people with disabilities, the jobs that come to mind are related to agriculture or handicraft-making. We start from the beginning, training 360 degrees from ingredients to processing to SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and selling online.”
Through both his foundation and its affiliate cafes, Professor Wiriya hopes to effect real change. “In the West, they believe that disabled people can have the same capability as others. But, the Thai education system encourages people to fight for places. We cannot improve society in the right direction if there is too much competition.” In the Yimsoo Cafes, he is showing how Thailand might do that, offering his employees the opportunity to learn so much more than how to make a cup of coffee. Changing customers’ perceptions, as well as his workers’ possibilities, with each and every service, it’s a mission that could radically review the chances people like him have in life.