Horizon Bank’s order for 30 dozen cookies had to be delivered within hours, and the kitchen team was a bit behind schedule at Grand Rapids’ Stir It Up bakery. One employee’s shift was about to end. But instead of clocking out, she grabbed her phone, postponed her ride home from work, and stayed three extra hours to make sure the job got done and got done well.
Moments like that confirm for Stir It Up’s founder Zoe Bruyn that her start-up bakery is making things better for her three employees.
“Every time they come to work, they are grateful,” Zoe says. “They thank me every time for the opportunity to work. They work hard, with a smile. They want to be there.”
Each of Zoe’s three part-time co-workers has a cognitive or developmental disability. Their steady jobs mean they’ve beat the odds: nationally, Zoe reports, nearly 70 percent of individuals with special needs are unemployed. Those who do find jobs often do repetitive, solitary tasks. At Stir It Up, each staff member handles multiple roles—scooping dough, bagging products, sales. “Because they’re in on all aspects, often they help each other and do the tasks together. They interact, laugh, and have fun. There’s a sense of ‘We’ve got this,’” Zoe says.
Zoe thinks big. Her ultimate goal is to lower that unemployment rate and make things better coast to coast for individuals with special needs. That’s why she started a business, not a nonprofit organization. (Resolutely on track to make this start-up profitable, she projects she can be in the black roughly two years after Stir It Up starts full-time operation in a brick-and-mortar store, a move she expects to pull off by late 2017.)
“Individuals with special needs and disabilities are fully capable of work. I wanted to take the charity out of the equation,” Zoe says. “I hope that through Stir It Up, other businesses will say, ‘They’re a business, and they can employ people with special needs and make money. Maybe I could, too.’ Any conventional business can make it work.”
Zoe drafted her business plan as an undergrad with the support of several professors. “It was always my goal for it to be spread,” she says. It’s replicable and scalable. She fields calls regularly from other states where folks have read about Stir It Up and, like Zoe, are eager to offer meaningful employment to workers with special needs in which they can build confidence and showcase their abilities and talents.
Passionate commitment to “niche” issues sometimes stems from personal experience, and that’s Zoe’s story. Three of her cousins have cognitive disabilities. Even as a kid she perceived the gap between her blue skies and their limited opportunities. “It seemed really selfish not to do something about it,” she says.
In college she volunteered with a Young Life group for adults with disabilities. As a marketing and management major she was active in a group focused on student entrepreneurs. She blended elements of both in Stir It Up.
You can google ample media coverage for details of her start-up funding, business plan, and business launch in 2016—all while still a student. She’s teamed with her employees at the ovens and pop-up sales ever since, baking five kinds of cookies and four of cupcakes—first at home, and now in a rented commercial kitchen in a Grand Rapids church. The team works there every Wednesday, and on a flexible schedule several other days in some weeks, to fill special orders and sell baked goods at sports events and community gatherings.
Zoe’s all in for the long haul, but the nature of her involvement is shifting. This spring she graduated from Grand Valley, won three more entrepreneurial grants, and scouted out potential storefront locations for Stir It Up. Just weeks after graduating she also landed a project management job at Amway. Now that she’ll be working fulltime elsewhere, she’ll continue handling business strategy but is looking to hire an operations manager and a baker to work with her employees on a day-to-day basis.