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Business major wins $20,000 in national competition

  • Zoe Bruyn won third place at a national business competition for her idea for a bakery that employs individuals with special needs.
  • Zoe Bruyn started a bakery called, Stir It Up, which employs individuals with special needs.

Posted on April 27, 2017


Zoe Bruyn won $10,000 in cash and $10,000 of in-kind services at the 2017 Values and Ventures® Competition held April 21-22 at the TCU Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University.

Bruyn competed against students from 51 universities and took third place for her start-up idea for a bakery, called Stir It Up, that employs individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In the same week, Bruyn's idea also won the Northwestern Mutual Master Track Grand Prize of $5,000 at the MWest Challenge held at Grand Valley's Pew Grand Rapids Campus.

The management and marketing major will graduate in April 2017 and has spent the last four years working on various start-ups, trying to find that one invention that "feels right." 

She collaborated with fellow students on inventing a shoe with an adjustable heel, and worked with classmates on a urinary catheter device. But, it's this latest start-up, an idea that she thought of on her own, that is really causing a stir. 

She said the idea for the bakery came to her in March 2016 while she was serving as a leader with Young Life Capernaum Ministries, an organization for young adults with disabilities.

"I noticed these individuals would struggle to find employment after aging out of school at 26. Many would ask me to help them find jobs," she said.

The Rockford native said she has three young cousins with special needs, two have autism and one has Down syndrome. She said she has often wondered about their future opportunities.

"I started researching employment statistics and found that nearly 70 percent of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed," said Bruyn. "However, when you employ them, they are some of the most loyal and dedicated employees."

Bruyn said that's when it clicked. She chose to start a bakery because she could test the market fairly quickly and at minimal cost. She started baking cookies in her parent's Rockford home and her $5 boxes of cookies sold quickly. She decided to start pitching her idea at various business competitions.

During the past year, Bruyn has won $5,000 at a 5x5 competition, another $5,000 at Accelerate Michigan in Detroit and $11,000 at the Michigan Women's Foundation Dolphin Tank Competition held at Grand Valley, where she took first place and won the People's Choice award.

Bruyn used a portion of her winnings to purchase equipment and is saving the rest to buy a store-front location. She currently employs three people with special needs, and in order to operate her business, she is using a commercial kitchen at Trinity United Methodist Church in Eastown near downtown Grand Rapids.

"My employees are excited about their new responsibilities," she said. "They are in a safe environment that gives them the confidence to learn new skills and be part of the work force."

Bruyn has been involved with Grand Valley's Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) in the Seidman College of Business since her freshman year. She said Shorouq Almallah, director of CEI, and Kevin McCurren, affiliate professor, are her mentors.

"They have helped me in every step of the entrepreneurial process and helped prepare me for competitions," she said. "I chose to attend Grand Valley because of the strong reputation of the Seidman College of Business and its location and connections to businesses in Grand Rapids."

Bruyn said she hopes to hire more employees and open a location for the bakery this year. For more information, visit