Creating the space to empower women
4 October 2021 at 4:32 pm
Amy Nguyen is the founder of the Zen Tea Lounge Foundation, a charity-cafe dedicated to empowering women. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
After spending a number of years working in government social services, Amy Nguyen knew that she needed a change.
Feeling as though her work across drug and alcohol rehabilitation and welfare was only providing band-aid solutions to complex problems, she opened the Zen Tea Lounge as a social enterprise that could employ women facing domestic violence and social isolation.
But she soon realised that providing employment on its own wasn’t enough.
The foundation was set up to empower women emotionally and financially, offering mental health support, training workshops and employment via the restaurant
The workshops and events focus on everything from self defence to building emotional resilience, mindfulness techniques and meditation, arming vulnerable women with the skills to get their lives back on track.
The organisation works in collaboration with safe houses, refuge operators and law enforcement to ensure the women are fully supported while receiving help from the foundation. Zen Tea Lounge also receives help from trained counsellors and health practitioners to guide their workshops.
In this week’s Changemaker, Nguyen discusses the challenges of starting an organisation from scratch, the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people, and staying centred.
What led you to starting the Zen Tea Lounge Foundation?
So I have been working in social services since I was 18. I’ve worked in drug and alcohol, youth, and family services. When I had my kids, I took three years off work, and during that time I was really isolated, which I guess all mums go through, that feeling of being a bit disconnected from the world. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to work because I wasn’t really making a difference. I just felt that every single job that I’d had in the past few years was all about putting a bandage over the wound instead of curing the disease.
We move people around from service to service and we are all exhausted. Our system was definitely not built on trust, it’s based on fear. I really wanted to create something that dealt with these complex issues differently.
During this time, I had an idea as a bit of a side hustle to open an online tea business, and one of the ladies that was helping me was in this really awful situation where she was being paid $6 at her job, and she was in an abusive relationship. I created a job for her in the tea business, but I felt that it wasn’t enough, so I opened a cafe in Sydney as a social enterprise type model. We realised that just employing vulnerable people wasn’t enough though, and so we decided to create a proper foundation that focused on mental health support, running workshops on developing emotional intelligence and self-defence – things that empowered women emotionally and financially.
Starting an organisation like this is never easy. What have some of the challenges been?
Finding people that are passionate about the mission as well as securing funds to keep the organisation ticking over have been a constant challenge. Over the past four years we’ve had a great team of volunteers. But then when the first lockdown happened, we lost 80 per cent of those volunteers. When the second lockdown happened, we lost them all again. So it’s been hard, but people keep coming back because they are so passionate about the cause and helping us achieve our mission.
What advice do you have for other people out there wanting to make a change in the world like you did?
Understanding that the magic is not about identifying who’s at fault, the magic is understanding that where you are and how you feel about yourself is the most important thing.
We have this metaphor in Vietnamese that we use a lot; that where you are, on the cloud level, that is the same level as the wind. It doesn’t really make sense in English, but what it basically means is that you have a choice over what level you’re living at, and if it’s a good level, then your partner, your environment, your values, your family will be on that same level. If you want to be richer, stronger and more motivated, you surround yourself with that level and things will come to you. When you allow people to manipulate you, harass you, abuse you, you will stay the same and nothing will change. The only way out is to raise your rank and have high expectations for yourself. You deserve to be happy, to be loved and to find that trusted environment.
A lot of the country is in lockdown at the moment. What are some book, movie or podcast recommendations that have kept you sane?
I’ve been listening to a lot of audio-books, all around developing emotional intelligence, self-help and motivation, they’ve really helped focus me.