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.