Entrepreneur Spotlight: Zoe Bruyn

Being in the Entrepreneurial world means a lot of networking and event-going.  It’s nice to get out of the office, though sometimes it can be disruptive.  When I heard about Dolphin Tank, a Shark Tank type event put on by the Michigan Women’s Foundation, I knew it would be the place to be in the Grand Rapids Entrepreneur World.  That it was held at my Alma Matter, Grand Valley State University, was even better.

I had no idea how many amazing ideas I would encounter that day.  In fact, there were two categories of presentations, with eight Entrepreneurs presenting in each.  Yet it didn’t seem like a long day.  I heard about a new nut butter not carried in America, beautiful custom digitally printed clothing, and an awesome children’s book company for teachers (being a writer, I’m a sucker for books).

One of the presentations in particular stood out.  I’m a sucker for causes, probably because my career started in the nonprofit sector, and this was a cause.

Zoe Bruyn is the founder of Stir It Up, a bakery that specifically employs people with disabilities — and she’s only 22.  Zoe grew up with three disabled cousins.  Two are Autistic and one with Down Syndrome.  She also spent much of her youth volunteering with YoungLife Capernaum, a branch of the nonprofit Christian youth organization that caters to those with Special Needs.  In all of this experience she noticed one very important issue — it is extremely difficult for a person with Special Needs to find gainful employment after school.

Like any Entrepreneur worth her salt, Zoe decided to take things into her own hands.  She piloted the idea by selling cookies made in her own home with the help of two employees.  They sold over 1500 cookies for Downs Month in March 2016, and another massive batch at the May / June West Michigan Miracle League games.  Such sizable production was unsustainable in her small home kitchen.  With the proof of concept a wild success, she began the search for a commercial kitchen.

Today she and her employees bake out of the Trinity United Methodist Church in East Hills.  They are already outgrowing that space, and she hopes to raise the money for a dedicated Stir It Up space in 2017.  Not only that, but Zoe has teamed with a local development firm to create software to walk anyone through the baking process.  With branded software and ease of training for people of all needs, Stir It Up may someday become a state-wide (or even nation-wide) brand.

I asked Zoe for advice she’d give new Entrepreneurs before we parted after catching up over coffee.  Much of what she said reflects my own experience.  Don’t be afraid to fail — that failure teaches you.  Personally, I misconstrued failure with a sort of death or stopping.  But to an Entrepreneur, failure is the lesson that shows you when to pivot and make a change.  We always carry on.

Try in baby steps.  You don’t need to have everything in place all at once.  The website doesn’t need to be up for you to make a phone call to a potential partner and talk to colleagues.  The logo doesn’t need to be done.  You don’t have to have five employees to have an idea.

Finally, Zoe hopes to mentor other Entrepreneurs so she might pass on the lessons she’s earned over the past year.  I certainly think she has a lot to offer.

Find out more on the Stir It Up website.

Entrepreneur Spotlight: Gwen Jimmere

I live close to Detroit.  Close enough that its entrepreneurial scene affects my work.  I’m a city girl who is a grump about driving, but 2.5 hours is actually not far.  So I get updates about the cool things happening in the Big D from time to time.

Last year, I read about the amazing work of Gwen Jimmere.  I can’t remember where I read it (probably in Entrepreneur magazine), but I do remember being struck by the work she was doing.  You see, not only is she the first Black woman to hold a U.S. Patent for her natural beauty line Naturalicious, she gives back in BIG way, and that’s what caught my attention.  She partnered her company with the STEP Program to hire people with special needs, plus she donates all mislabeled product to Dress for Success!

Ok, so I already thought Gwen was pretty cool, and wished I had a physical product so I could donate goods like she does.  As things tend to go, once I set the article down, I didn’t think of her again.  Until yesterday.

I admit I am sometimes oblivious about the events I go to.  I decide to attend, get my tickets settled, and then put it away until the day of.  This means I sometimes end up pleasantly surprised at the experience.

So it was with the Seeds of Growth Luncheon.  It’s a yearly fundraising event in support of GROW (Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women).  I spoke at the 2015 event, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was walking into.  Even so, I hadn’t given the roster much more than a glance.

Let me take a moment to say that if you’re in the Grand Rapids Area and need some technical help in starting your business (like finances, incorporating, or loans), GROW is the place for you.  It’s where I got my start five years ago when I was stumbling through managing my nonprofit organization after it gained 501(c)3 status (the application of which I figured out alone – don’t do that).  I chose GROW because they are also a nonprofit, which means their classes are affordable.  But I digress.

It should come as no surprise at this point that the keynote speaker for yesterday’s luncheon was Gwen Jimmere.  Boy, did she bring it.  She started with the feeling we all have — that entrepreneurship can be scary and lonely.  Actually, one of my favorite things she said was:

So.  Damn.  True.

She didn’t stop there.  She proceeded to offer five tenants to live by as an entrepreneur.  I wrote them down as fast as she said them so I could bring them to you.  Check this excellence out.

  1. Start where you are — that is enough.
    This is extremely important.  So many of us think that we need to have x, y, and z to start a business.  Where’s that MBA?  The $100k seed fund?  You don’t need it.  Gwen started her business with $35 to her name, and figured out how to apply for a patent on her own.  No excuses.  It’s time to start.
  2. Waiting is not a wealth strategy.
    This is something that Fizzle often mentions in its podcast.  So many entrepreneurs fail because they don’t even start.  They think they must wait for the stars to align (see tenant #1).  Even more, entrepreneurs get stuck when it’s time to pivot the business because they think they don’t have enough of _____.  Your business won’t grow if you sit on it like a nest egg, and it won’t become a nest egg, either.
  3. Ignore imposter syndrome.  If you weren’t supposed to be there, you wouldn’t be there.
    Lordy, who hasn’t dealt with this!?  Four years after I started my business I still have to tell myself that I know my shit and I’m doing the right thing.  We live in a society that tells us very specific steps for life, and when one deviates from those steps, all bets are off.  But that’s the beauty of it, right?  We can do anything once we walk away from convention!  That you had the ovaries to do it is confirmation you’re on the right path.
  4. Allow your business to tell you when it’s time to grow.
    Don’t get ahead of yourself.  A lot of people go into debt to grow their business before it’s ready.  Conversely, your fear may stop you when the business is begging for growth.  If the business is ready to grow, let it and believe in it.  Until then, keep planning.
  5. Work on the business, not in the business.
    Yikes.  Delegation?  Employees?  But it’s my baby!  Well, at some point you’ll need to learn how to teach others what you know so they can carry out its mission, and know that teaching is just as important as doing it yourself.  If you keep trying to do everything, including the client / customer work, you will go crazy and the business won’t grow.  I have trouble wit this, too.  Don’t worry.  Your business will kick you in the ass if you forget.

Finally, Gwen wrapped up with three book recommendations for all entrepreneurs.  I’d heard of two of these, but the third was new to me and I can’t wait to read it.  If you are thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, are in the first stage, or have been going at it for years, these books will help you develop further.  Check them out.

  1. Start With Why by Simon Sinek (People care more about why your business exists than what it is.)
  2. Purple Cow by Seth Godin (Being different is good, interesting, and will get you talked about.)
  3. Become Your Own Boss In 12 Months by Melinda F. Emerson (Even if you are your own boss already, this book offers some excellent tips — I’ll be reading it!)

I want to highlight amazing women entrepreneurs who both inspire you and do great work.
Know a Woman Entrepreneur that deserves the Spotlight?  Recommend them here!