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.
For ten years the Teen Entrepreneur Summer Academy (TESA) has given high school students the tools and knowledge to start their own business through a weeklong crash course in entrepreneurship. During the five-day program, students work with college faculty and current GVSU students to solve a real-world problem through entrepreneurship. The program provides students with fundamental business concepts and essential entrepreneurship skills through hands-on, creative workshops. On the last day, the teams present their five-minute business idea pitch to a panel of judges from the local community for cash prizes. During the first week of August, GVSU expanded the impact of TESA by taking the program to Detroit for the first time. TESA Detroit was made possible through sponsorship from The Skillman Foundation, Beaumont, Ernst & Young, 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit, Inc., and the Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office.
Noël Cuellar – Primera Plastics Inc.
The story of a $20 million business–started by a man who had labored as a migrant worker and been placed in a special education program because of language difficulties–is testimony to the tenacity, vision, and passion of entrepreneur Noël Cuellar, President and CEO of Primera Plastics, a plastic injection-modeling supplier based in Zeeland.
Cuellar’s success is especially notable in a business environment where Hispanic entrepreneurs are in a definite minority. In 2007, the U.S. Census reported that only 1.1 percent of the 817,000 firms in Michigan were Hispanic-owned (about 4.4 percent of Michigan residents are Hispanic, according to the 2010 census).
Amy Engelsman – Proos Manufacturing
As Amy Engelsman transitioned into the her role as CEO of Proos Manufacturing, she faced significant challenges: securing company financials; obtaining funding for purchase of the business; proving her leadership capacity to the lender; earning the trust and respect of employees despite having worked for Proos for more than 20 years.
As a female entrepreneur and business owner, Engelsman now experiences the challenges of running a business while also dealing with the traditional challenges that women face in the workplace, including those in executive positions. She believes her biggest achievement has been gaining the acceptance and acknowledgement of her peers in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
“I didn’t really take a traditional educational route in regards to starting a business.”
Like so many successful entrepreneurs before him, Jason Mascari came up with his big idea while brainstorming with a friend. “We were constantly throwing ideas around for years,” says Jason of his friend and co-founder, Ryan Golden. The two young entrepreneurs first thought of Moasis Global in 2008. In three years, the business has developed from idea to fully patented prototype.
Moasis Global is a web-based advertising platform that allows businesses to target specific geographic areas of interest. The company’s technology enables Moasis to outline an entire city with its patented grid technology and distinguish specific markets. Businesses can then choose to target sections of the grid more heavily with their advertising dollars or decrease spending in others. Users see where competing businesses spend their money and where the greatest market opportunity lies. “Businesses currently overspend in markets that they shouldn’t be targeting,” Mascari explains. Moasis is designed to help change that.
The future of downtown Grand Rapids is bright, just ask the forty-two Michigan high school students who took to the streets this afternoon, looking for ways to contribute to the city’s urban development. Having spent seven hours with this year’s class of new entrepreneurs, I am excited, and I’ll tell you why.
Today’s teens are grossly overlooked when it comes to forming new enterprises. We sometimes fail to understand that developing entrepreneurial talent should begin far before they even reach the collegiate level. West Michigan may be experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years, but the sustainability of this development will come to fall on the region’s talent pipeline. And regardless of how many business plans that venture capital firms in Michigan review, we can always do better at stirring up the creative juices in our youth.
“College is the perfect time to start a business. You have access to tons of resources, and it never gets easier to try something new.”
Ryan Vaughn (@RyanHVaughn) is the Co-Founder of Varsity News Network (VNN), an online high school sports media network, empowering high school journalists to gain relevant experience while ensuring that athletes from every sport receive the coverage they deserve. He earned his Master of Communication from Grand Valley State University in 2010.