Journey of the Senses Does Social Entrepreneurship Differently

Congratulations to Journey of the Senses for taking the second place at STARTUP WORLD CUP VIETNAM REGIONAL, TechFest 2019. YellowBlocks was proud to be the sponsor for the top 10 and top 3 best startups in the final round.

Journey of the Senses is a group of premium restaurants and creative services that provide the unique experience of being served by and interacting with the disability. Their services include Noir: Dining in the Dark, a restaurant serving secret menus in dark rooms; Noir Spa, the relaxation version of the restaurant; and Blanc, a restaurant where guests order in sign language with the help of QR code and videos. Website:

Let’s have a deep dive about their project through the article below.

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In Vietnam, statistics say the unemployment rate among people with hearing loss hovers around 67%, while that of visually impaired people remains a staggering 90%. Experts say this happens due to the prevailing social prejudices against the demographics and their capabilities.

And so they have no other choice but to walk street to street, selling lottery tickets or toothpicks, while making minimum to support themselves and their families.

That saddening reality pushed young people to act. TechFest 2019 witnessed numerous solutions targeting the disadvantaged population – among those initiatives, Journey of the Senses.

Journey of the Senses is a hospitality company branching into various business models, all staffing people with disabilities. Though defined as a non-tech enterprise, technology is ingrained in their operations. 

Their services include Noir: Dining in the Dark, a restaurant serving secret menus in dark rooms; Noir Spa, the relaxation version of the restaurant; and Blanc, a restaurant where guests order in sign language with the help of QR code and videos.

Vu Anh Tu and Germ Doornbos co-founded the initiative in 2014 with the Noir restaurant. Despite the business’s undeniable social impact, the founders prefer not labelling it as social entrepreneurship.

We recently talked to Vu and Doornbos about their sail on Journey of the Senses. 

## What brought you to the lives of people with disabilities?

We were so bothered by their unemployment rate that we needed to do something about it. These statistics are the numeral embodiment of years of prejudices and apathy.

Discriminations against people with disabilities are holding our society back. This population has come up with some mind-blowing innovation, most of which ignored by the rest of us. Our team wants to make their voices heard this time.

One of our solutions was to raise public awareness through interactions with our staff. We play to our strengths, and employing people with disabilities is one of them.

In reality, though prejudiced against people like our staff, the public is still drawn towards experiences involving them. Maybe deep down inside, the public is still curious and willing to reach out to understand disabilities better.

We pride ourselves on employing people with disabilities and on getting them back on their feet. We believe they are more than capable of winning customers’ hearts just by looking at how loving and dedicating they are in everything that they do. That is why we want to help them take ownership of the challenges life gave them.

## Could you share with us a fond memory you had with your staff?

In summer 2014, we had our first staff interviews for Noir. 

Normally, we would be the ones to ask most of the questions. 

But one day, a 19-year-old candidate with vision loss asked us, “I appreciate your efforts to help our community. But I’m not sure the public would be open to try something as unconventional as this [Noir]. If your business doesn’t turn out well, what can you do for the blind staff you’ve employed?”

That question left a mark on us. And since then, we’ve always reminded ourselves that we are not allowed to fail. Five years later, here we are, thriving with Journey of the Senses.

## Tell us about your staff. How do you keep them motivated?

Our staff is thoroughly trained in all the skills necessary for their jobs. They are much more capable than most people would assume. They are also exceptionally motivated themselves – we as leaders don’t have to do much about it.

Imagine being unemployed for decades, constantly hearing hurtful things from people around you, and one day being offered a job that pays as well as theirs. Anyone would be relieved and excited enough to put their best into it.

To my staff, having a job is not just about money. It is self-actualization. And we’ve seen it transform lives.

## What’s your take on the markets that currently employ and/or serve people with disabilities?

I’ve been impressed by how much technologies make a difference in their lives. 

Technologies play a key role in aiding this population, allowing them to become independent from their caregivers. People with vision loss used to need help transporting. Now they can book a Grab themselves.

And you would think people with hearing loss who still can see can never make calls. But that has just changed – now those people make video calls and communicate in sign language.

I’m really looking forward to more innovations in aiding technologies. Our community would be the first to pick up if something cool comes out.

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