Business fair helps entrepreneurs with special needs sell their products
Laura Bache dished out samples of her limoncello and chocolate chip with pecans cookies for visitors at the Poway Library.
The Poway resident was showcasing her business, Oli’s Cookies, for The Special Entrepreneurs Business Fair. The plant-based cookies, without dairy products or eggs, were mixed and packaged with the help of Bache’s 8-year-old, Oliver “Oli,” who has autism.
Bache was one of the participants providing inspirational stories of how a home-based business can incorporate the labor of people with different abilities. The Aug. 6 event was organized by Vidhi Kulkarni, a Del Norte High School senior who created The Special Entrepreneurs website, which has a shopping portal where people with special needs can sell their products.
“I eventually hope to grow out of the kitchen and into a factory and create jobs for people with disabilities,” said Bache, who started Oli’s Cookies from her home in November 2022. “I think that could happen in three to five years down the road. I’m a single mom so I’m taking my time trying to grow the business and not force anything.”
Equipped with a Class B cottage food license, Bache bakes everything in her home kitchen. Sometimes Oli helps roll the dough and sometimes he taste-tests the final product. The package of Maui Mac-Nut cookies made with macadamia nuts has a picture Oli drew of a man surfing.
“Oliver is really good at doing things in repetition and I feel baking is very scientific and repetitive,” Bache said of Oli, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was 3 years old.
Bache has been a chef at several steakhouses in San Diego and most recently worked as a chef at a nursing facility in Encinitas before she decided to launch Oli’s Cookies to support her son and spreading autism awareness.
Although Bache doesn’t have employees yet, she envisions creating jobs for people with special needs in the areas of baking, packaging, accounting and marketing. Her goal is to one day hire people on the autism spectrum.
“My son is capable of doing so many things that I never imagined,” she said. “I have recipes written out with exact measurements. There’s a process of how to mix the ingredients. That’s the hardest part of making a cookie but I believe it’s very teachable. And the packaging is homemade so people can put the packaging together.”
A variety of nut-free and gluten-free cookies from oatmeal to chocolate chip are available for purchase online at oliscookiescompany.com. Some of them were made using coconut oil instead of butter and almond milk, oat milk or coconut milk instead of regular milk. Oli’s Cookies are also available at the Corner Mercantile & Eatery store in La Jolla.
Prices vary from $15 to $19 per dozen. Bache said she sold close to 100 bags last holiday season and hopes to double that amount during the upcoming holidays.
Kulkarni said she reached out to local businesses she found online and invited them to the fair. Several participants showed up and several more said they have an interest in attending a future fair, she said.
The common thread is that the businesses are owned by people with disabilities, Kulkarni said.
“My goal with this fair is to expose the public to some of these businesses and business owners,” said Kulkarni, who lives in 4S Ranch. “They’re all talented with unique products. The mission of The Special Entrepreneurs is to focus on what people can do versus what they cannot do.”
Some of the business fair participants are already selling their products through The Special Entrepreneurs’ website, thespecialpreneurs.org.
One business fair participant, Poli’s Woodcraft, was named after a special needs entrepreneur, Policarpo “Poli” Despaigne.
Despaigne, 23, has been making pens for the last 10 years. He brings out the beauty of wood — Indian rosewood, marblewood, zebrawood, padauk and olive — by sanding and polishing the pieces.
“I enjoy the way I polish and sand it,” said Despaigne, who is on the autism spectrum.
The Escondido resident learned woodworking by participating in a “Kids Making It” program when he was living in North Carolina, said his mom, Jamaye Despaigne. The after-school program paired retired craftsmen with children of all abilities. He progressed from making cutting boards and birdhouses to furniture, but his favorite activity is making pens.
“His skill level is such that he can make furniture, but making pens is what he loves,” his mother said. “It’s important to know that individuals have capabilities beyond what you are looking at.”
Poli Despaigne has a part-time job as a courtesy clerk at the Sprouts store in San Marcos, but his mother said he is focused on developing more skills in his areas of interest and expertise. One avenue they are pursuing is getting tools to set up a workshop through the San Diego Regional Center’s Self-Determination Program, she said. Another is finding woodworking mentors, such as members of the San Diego Woodturners Club, to help him hone his craft.
Poli’s Woodcraft sells items through the Blissful Seeds autism employment agency in Poway and through the Etsy e-commerce site as well as at crafts fairs. The business has a website, poliswoodcraft.com, and is on Instagram and Facebook.
Jamaye Despaigne said her son is an example of someone with a can-do attitude. He has also participated in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and Taekwondo in the past, she said.
“If you do a job very well and do it to a particular standard, people will be willing to spend money on it,” Despaigne said.
For more information visit thespecialpreneurs.org website or email [email protected].