It’s no secret that there are limited employment opportunities for individuals with special needs.
In a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), 57 percent of respondents with Down syndrome reported working paid jobs in some capacity, and only 3 percent of those reported working full time. Among the reasons cited for unemployment included lack of job-skill teaching programs and lack of job coaching.
Zoe Bruyn is doing something to change that.
“People with special needs have always been pretty close to my heart,” Bruyn said.
Bruyn, a senior at Grand Valley State University, is the owner of Stir It Up, a bakery that employs individuals with special needs and seeks to provide them with an environment where they can develop valuable job skills while gaining a sense of accomplishment.
In addition to being a leader for Young Life Capernaum (a youth group for young people with disabilities), Bruyn has three family members with special needs. She was inspired to start Stir It Up by her five-year-old cousin Wyatt, who has Down syndrome and loves to bake, or “Stir it up,” as he calls it.
“He is five years old, but his future kind of remains unknown as far as what he is going to do after school,” Bruyn said. “I wanted to create something essentially for him where he can go and have a job and have valuable work.”
Bruyn currently has two employees with special needs who are paid minimum wage to bake a variety of cookies and sell them with her at various events around West Michigan. They recently sold at the West Michigan Miracle League in Rockford, an organization that provides customized sports fields for children with physical disabilities.
“I have had other jobs, but nothing like this,” says Jessie Cutter, one of Bruyn’s employees. Cutter, 26, has Cerebral Palsy and previously worked in a cafeteria, an experience she says was often stressful.
At Stir It Up, Cutter not only enjoys making cookies, but selling them as well.
“(I like) seeing people, and (hearing) them say how good they are,” Cutter said.
Stir It Up currently operates out of Bruyn’s home under the Michigan Cottage Food Law. In July, she won Start Garden’s 5×5 Night and was awarded $5,000 to put towards growing her operation.
“It is very inefficient from my home,” she said. “The money will help us get into a commercial kitchen so that we can obtain our food license and bring it to the next level.”
Being in a commercial kitchen will enable the bakery to produce goods on a continuing basis and meet the demand for individual orders, as opposed to selling exclusively at events.
“I would like to open it up more to the public and be able to take (individual) orders,” Bruyn said.
For the future, Bruyn is working on developing an orientation for employees, along with a system for them to track their own progress. Someday, she hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location where customers can purchase goods, meet the workers and learn about the company’s mission.
Bruyn has found her passion in Stir It Up, and says the most rewarding part is working with her employees.
“It is super fun,” she said. “And to hear what they are doing with their money and why they like the job is something I really enjoy.”
Stir It Up is a culmination of Bruyn’s entrepreneurial experiences; as the president of the GVSU CEO Club, she has been involved in several startups and has pitched at numerous competitions, including the TCU Richard Barrentine Values and Ventures Competition, an invite only pitch competition for undergraduate students in which she was selected as a finalist. She has also taken every entrepreneurship class GVSU offers.
Dr. Tim Syfert of the Siedman College of Business has taught Bruyn in several classes and coached her for the TCU competition. Dr. Syfert expressed confidence in Bruyn’s ability to make Stir It Up a success.
“I have known Zoe for over 3 years, watching her grow as a businesswoman and entrepreneur,” Dr. Syfert said. “She has proven herself to be a competent, capable and passionate business owner testing her baking concepts and then moving forward to actually creating a business around the product. Not only are her baked goods a fascinating idea, they really taste good!”
Bruyn is grateful for all of the lessons she is able to apply to Stir It Up.
“One of the biggest things I have learned is to not be afraid to talk to people and share your idea,” Bruyn said. “The more you talk about your idea to other people, the more you get so many other ideas that you haven’t thought about it. People are willing to help.”