Blue Ocean Life Nation Interview Series: Claire Sumadiwirya

Claire Sumadiwirya is the founder and owner of Bellden Cafe, a community-centric coffee shop in Bellevue, WA that offers nourishing beverages and healthy eats. Bellden’s motto is “We Are Stronger Together.” Claire partners with over ten local non-profits to ensure that the needs of her neighbors are met outside of the cafe. She blends her passion for coffee and community through high-quality excellent customer service, authentic community involvement, and charity efforts that give back to those in need. 

Claire Sumadiwirya Blue Ocean Life interview

Utilizing her MBA in Accounting and Marketing, as well as a decade of professional experience in global entrepreneurship, Claire shares her expertise as a female, Asian entrepreneur and her purpose-driven business model to inspire others to launch their own enterprises that promote community development. 

The commitment she has for others and coffee has earned Bellden Cafe, “The Nicest Place in Washington,” by Reader’s Digest, as well as features in Good Morning America, The Seattle Times, and Eater Seattle.

Thank you for sharing your story with us. What is your professional background? How did you end up with this career?

My passion for community and coffee all started right here in Bellevue, WA. Growing up in Seattle, the coffee capital of the world, I was always nurtured by the community I encountered in local coffee shops. Passionate about business, I pursued my MBA in Accounting and Marketing and opened my own consulting firm for marketing and PR. 

Years later, when I was working on an overseas assignment in Shanghai, I launched one of  the first uniquely designed hospital cafes in the country after a long stay with my ill son. I noticed the need for nourishment and effortless accessibility for hospital patients and their families, so felt inspired to create a space that offered coffee and snacks.

When my family, including three children, returned home to Bellevue, I felt inspired to use my experience overseas to gather community support for my beloved home city through comforting coffee and filling food, so I founded Bellden Cafe on Main St. I made my young son’s silhouette the inspiration for my logo to always remind me why I started.

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What is your self-care routine and how do you find time to integrate it into your daily life?

I enjoy reading magazines like the Harvard Review to keep up with business news, as well as books. My interest in spirituality keeps me connected to a community of others who share similar values. I stay grounded through spending time with friends and exercising.

Finding time to care for myself can be challenging as a single mother and cafe owner, but I try to sneak it in throughout the week to make sure that I’m able to serve others from a full cup of energy.

Putting yourself first is important to your overall wellness. Given this, what are your best holistic wellness tips?

Recently, I started seeing a therapist to dive deeper into tools to help me improve my self-awareness. Not only has she been my extra support in self-growth, but she’s also served as an important coach to keep me accountable around self-care. Together, we have focused on shifting my attention from business growth to personal development by reading books that are purely good for my soul. We all need someone to advocate for us in supportive and non-judgemental ways. 

Other things I do to keep myself well is eating wholesome food like the food we offer at Bellden Cafe. At home, we try our best to eliminate all processed food and cook healthy meals together so that my kids and I can bond. 

What was the toughest challenge you faced during your career?

As a female, Chinese-immigrant, I have often experienced sexist and xenophobic behaviors throughout my time building and managing my brick-and-mortor business. When I first tried to secure a commercial space for the cafe, commercial brokers doubted my business model would succeed and were not willing to offer their service. Many male-centric coffee roasters refused to take me seriously when deciding which beans to serve in my cafe. Unhappy customers have sent me verbal attacks through email expressing their discontent through hate speech. All of these experiences have been really challenging to navigate and overcome.

Daily, I have to balance all the responsibilities as a mother, a daughter, a business owner, a friend, and an employee, all while focusing on taking care of my own needs. Self-care is so important to me so that I feel full and have the capacity to support and love the people around me. 

How did you get through that period? What advice for people dealing with similar difficulties?

In order to get through these challenging times, I have remembered that my dreams are bigger than bias and prejudice. My community has supported me by reminding me who I am and what I have to give regardless of how others were treating me. They teach me to care for myself first. Eventually, I found a great space for the cafe and a wonderful roaster whose beans I now serve. For the most part, customers treat my team and me well. 

Mental health and feeling good are crucial to maximizing performance. How do you prioritize your mental health?

I have a therapist to help support my mental health needs. Validation and achievement are important to my mental well-being, so I surround myself with people and professional opportunities that value my presence and my work. Furthermore, when I feel I drained, I pause and reflect on what I need at that moment. Do I need to detox mentally by being alone or do I need to ask for the biggest hug from someone I fully trust? My needs shift depending on the day.

Before the pandemic hit, you may have worked in an office or corporate setting, but what do you foresee happening now? How do you see companies allowing employees to work post-pandemic?

Bellden Cafe remained open for our guests throughout the entire pandemic. The first COVID-19 cases in the United States were just a few miles north of Bellevue, so we quickly transitioned to a walk-in/take-out and touchless curbside pickup business model. 

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Pandemic protocols required most of our customers to work from home, so Bellden became their daily break from their quarantine routine. My baristas served not just coffee and healthy food, but also a listening ear to hear about the challenges of isolation. 

Personally, I hope that companies ask employees what’s best for them moving forward. Remote work can really benefit people with disabilities, mental health conditions or those with more introverted personalities. Others need more in-person social time to stay disciplined, excited and motivated. A hybrid model that gives employees agency over what’s best for them and their families will encourage a more committed work culture. 

If you could have lunch with one person in the world, who would it be and why?

It would be my grandparents. They are currently in Shanghai and are too old to travel here to visit me and my children. Growing up they were my main caregivers because my parents were very busy with building a life for the family. They showed me that treating others with love, kindness, and genuine care leads to a joyous and meaningful life. 

If you could inspire a movement, what would it be and why?

I’m actively working to convince small-businesses to adopt a purpose-driven business model that support community development. I believe that enterprises of all sizes have the capacity to do that. As a society, we must show how much we care about each other care. Unique products and services, as well community support, helps brands to be imprinted on the hearts of consumers. Through this model, consumers feel good when spending their hard-earned money. 

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