Zoe Bruyn's younger cousin Wyatt has Down syndrome. As a child, he's fun, engaging and likes to bake, saying, "stir it up, stir it up." As an adult, research shows he'll be an important asset to a business or company by being one of the most loyal employees an employer could ask for. Wyatt, however, will struggle to find employment.
Despite abilities, skills, talents and characteristic loyalty to their employers, individuals with special needs face a 65 to 70 percent unemployment rate.
Bruyn, a student at Grand Valley State University, decided to change those statistics.
By starting a bakery.
Stir It Up is a one-of-a-kind bakery, producing and selling high-quality goods created by the talents of individuals with special needs in the West Michigan community. Stir It Up provides a safe environment where individuals can obtain skills, increase their confidence, and gain a sense of accountability while showcasing their abilities, skills and talents.
"There's a stereotype around individuals with special needs and what they're capable of," Bruyn said. "See the able. Not the label."
Bruyn has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. During middle and high school, she had an eBay store and thought she might like to own a store one day. When she got the idea for Stir It Up in February 2016, she dove into market research and—discovering a need—hired a baker from Grand Rapids Community College's culinary program to create recipes. The result? Orange citrus cookies, gluten-free monster cookies, snickerdoodle sandwiches and more.
The next month, Bruyn sent out an e-mail for a pilot test, with a sales goal in mind.
She reached that goal within 12 hours—and then far exceeded it.
Bruyn hired Kyle and Jessie—two individuals she met through her leadership role at Young Life Capernaum, Young Life's special needs ministry—and got to work.
For months, Stir It Up operated out of a residential kitchen with one oven. Through pitch competitions and a partnership with Trinity United Methodist Church, Stir It Up recently moved into a commercial kitchen, where the bakery will be able to produce in a larger capacity and more efficiently.
The next goal? Get Stir It Up into its own brick and mortar building by June 2017.
Bruyn is in her final semester at GVSU, studying management and marketing with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.
"Entrepreneurship isn't about making extra money," Bruyn said. "It's about making a difference."
Stir It Up is different for Bruyn than her other start-up attempts, because the impact on her employees is tangible: Through their responsibilities baking and interacting with customers, Kyle and Jessie have exuded confidence in their abilities and taken more initiative in the workplace. A few months ago, they both stood in front of a room of 40 people and explained the mission of Stir It Up.
"Never stop exploring and continue to ask the question why," Bruyn said. "If something doesn't seem right, question it."
Learn more about Stir It Up and place your order today by visiting stiritupbakery.com.
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman magazine.
Photo courtesy of Alicia Magnuson Photography.