Grand Valley grad stirs up startup
Bakery employs individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to bake cookies, cupcakes.
Zoe Bruyn wasn’t your typical lemonade stand kid growing up; she launched a salon in her house at the age of 5.
She also grew up with three cousins who have disabilities. Last year, when an idea dawned on her for a business that would empower workers with special needs, she knew it was time to act.
Bruyn, a 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University who studied business administration, is founder and CEO of Stir It Up Bakery, launched in January.
The business employs three bakers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as a manager who does not have a disability.
The bakery mostly fills orders for businesses — such as Lake Michigan Credit Union and United Way — and corporate events and weddings. But it also sells to customers at the Pop Up Shop GR, a retail space for startups that launched in December at 315 S. Division Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids.
For now, Stir It Up’s menu is simple.
“(We’re making) cookies and cupcakes — almond, chocolate and carrot, with buttercream frosting — and cookies — our top seller is the monster cookie,” Bruyn said. “But one of our employees last month had an idea to create an almond raspberry shortbread cookie. Megan had an idea for that, so we worked with her in creating it.”
Bruyn’s experience working with individuals with disabilities dates back a few years. In 2013, she started volunteering at the Christian nonprofit Young Life and worked in its Capernaum ministry for those with special needs.
“A lot of my friends at Capernaum would come to me and say, ‘Zoe I’m looking for a job, do you know who’s hiring?’ And I didn’t know where to point them,” Bruyn said.
“Individuals with intellectual disabilities in the state of Michigan are allowed to go to school until age 26, then they are supposed to go into the workforce. But they can’t always find jobs.
“I wanted to create an opportunity for them to start working.”
In March 2016, Bruyn hit upon the idea for a bakery after conversations at Capernaum. For several months, she worked on testing products in her parents’ kitchen, operating under Michigan cottage law.
In January, she made the switch to renting commercial kitchen space at Trinity United Methodist Church in Eastown.
Bruyn said Stir It Up is far from her first experience testing ideas.
“I’ve always been fairly entrepreneurial,” she said. “My first business, I was 5 years old and I had a fake salon with my cousin. We sold pedicures, manicures and massages to our family. My dad is a builder, and he built a fake salon in the house where people could come up, and I had a cash register.
“In high school, I had my own eBay store, where I sold clothing.”
Bruyn chose to attend GVSU because she was impressed by the school’s Seidman College of Business and the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
“I realized, ‘OK, this is something I want to do. I want my own business.’ So that’s what I went into Grand Valley with the mindset of. They are really known for their entrepreneurial ecosystem and resources. I worked in their entrepreneurial ecosystem and worked on various projects, some that failed and some not.”
For three years, she and a fellow student worked on building an adjustable high-heeled shoe before running into problems with the expense and hassle of outsourcing engineering.
She also worked with classmates on developing an external catheter with Spectrum Health but bowed out of that project to focus on Stir It Up.
“Stir It Up would not be where it is today if I didn’t do (those projects) and have that experience,” she said. “It taught me public speaking, how to create a business plan, how to enter pitch competitions.”
Bruyn has funded the bakery through her savings but also by winning several competitions.
She won $5,000 at a Start Garden 5x5 Night in July 2016 and, in November 2016, won $11,000 from the Michigan Women’s Foundation Dolphin Tank competition and $5,000 from Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.
In April, she won $10,000 in cash and $10,000 in in-kind services at the 2017 Values and Ventures Competition at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University — the same week she won Northwestern Mutual Master Track Grand Prize of $5,000 at the MWest Challenge held at GVSU.
She said she has appreciated having access to so many startup resources, and she is using the funds to cover overhead as well as to plan for the future.
“Our next step is to get our own space, and then we’ll truly be able to expand our team,” she said. “But my (long-term) goal is also to figure out a way to scale the business. I didn’t want to start one bakery and call it good. I want to scale the business and have a larger impact on the disability population in the workforce.”
Bruyn said she is motivated by statistics like the national labor force participation rate for individuals with disabilities, which is currently at 20 percent, versus 68.5 percent for individuals with no disability.
She said special needs adults are often some of the most loyal and dedicated employees, and working with her crew is a joy to her.
“Everyone has their own personalities and brings something different to the table,” she said. “They make it worthwhile.”