by Elyse Wild • photography by Alicia Magnuson
Stir It Up Bakery owner Zoe Bruyn always knew that owning a business was in her future, she just never thought that it would involve cupcakes.
“I was always entrepreneurial, but never in a million years would I have thought that I would start a bakery,” Bruyn said.
Last year, she earned nearly $20,000 on the business competition circuit to get her bakery off the ground, pitching at events like Start Garden’s 5×5 Night and the Michigan Women’s Foundation Dolphin Tank Business Plan and Pitch Competition.
Stir It Up isn’t your average confectionery; Bruyn employs adults with specials needs and aims to give them a safe environment to learn new skills and gain confidence in the work force.
The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) cites lack of job coaching as one of the top reasons for unemployment among adults with physical and mental disabilities. This strikes close to home for Bruyn, who currently studies marketing and management at Grand Valley State University.
“I have three family members with special needs, and I also volunteer as a Young Life Capernaum leader,” Bruyn said.
Young Life Capernaum is a youth group for adults with disabilities. In the four years that Bruyn has been volunteering for the organization, she has seen many individuals in her group encounter barriers when looking for employment.
“They would just kind of go from school to hanging out at home with nothing to do,” Bruyn said. “They might volunteer for a half day a week, but a lot of them struggle to find jobs…I just kind of saw the need.”
Bruyn ran a pilot test in the spring to see if the idea for the bakery was viable, selling boxes of cookies for $5 each. She expected to reach $150 in sales, and instead exceeded $1500.
“People were really kind and supportive,” Bruyn said, “That allowed me to figure out that this is something that I should run with.”
Stir It Up currently has two employees with special needs who make baked goods and sell them at events around West Michigan. Ed Bueche’s 17-year old son, Kyle, works for Bruyn.
“I don’t think a lot of employers want to take a risk on someone who has special challenges,” said Bueche. “To be a productive member of society, you need to have a job and be able to do things. That is important no matter who you are.”
Kyle is a member of Bruyn’s Young Life Capernaum group, and Bueche was one of the parents she initially consulted about the idea. Bueche facilitates a bi-monthly networking group for individuals with special needs and saw a lot of potential in Stir It Up.
“When Zoe was talking about this, I said, ‘Awesome idea. What can I do to help?’” Bueche said. “As a parent, I am pushing Kyle to excel and not settling because individual challenges that he has. Everybody has challenges, some are just more obvious than others.”
At the bakery, Kyle isn’t limited to one task; he bakes, packages goods and makes sales. His favorite part? Well, all of it.
“What I like best is doing everything,” Kyle said. “I help box, I help bake… and I really like the people interaction.”
Bruyn says Kyle’s enthusiasm for the work is inspiring.
“He often says, ‘When are we going to bake more? I want to work more.’ That is just great.”
Stir It Up currently operates out of a commercial kitchen at Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids. Bruyn is planning on utilizing her competition winnings to open a brick and mortar location this year. This will allow her to hold regular business hours and hire more employees, but more importantly, will make her mission visible to the community.
“I want people to be able to walk in, hang out in our space and meet our employees” Bruyn said.
Bruyn is also developing an online training program and forming an advisory team. The team will be comprised of her employees and their parents in order to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met.
“The advisory board will give us a clear idea of what employment looks likes for individuals with special needs,” Bruyn said. “With [current employees] Kyle and Jesse and some of our future employees on it, it will be able to show what they like about it, what they don’t like, what needs to change and what they need help with.”
Her vision doesn’t end with the bakery; Bruyn is hoping to create a lasting impact by developing a model that other companies could potentially use to employ and support individuals with special needs.
“Zoe is a phenomenal young lady, both with a passion in the entrepreneurial community and to also make an impact on young adults that have challenges,” Bueche said. “I give her a lot of credit for stepping out into an area that has a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of challenges.”
Bruyn’s journey with Stir It Up speaks not only to her personal drive, but also to the power of sharing ideas and people’s willingness to support someone taking a chance. Aside from a raising a significant amount of capital, Bruyn has gained enormous community support from participating in idea pitch competitions.
“At 5×5 Night, I had a lot of people come up to me from the crowd and offer me their services, whether it be photography or to help with creating a process,” Bruyn said. “At Dolphin Tank, I just had a flow of people coming up to me, saying ‘I like what you are doing, my brother has a disability,’ or ‘I work with this type of organization, can I connect with you?’ A lot of people are willing to help if you are willing to share your idea.”
To learn more about Stir It Up, please visit www.StirItUpBakery.com