Q&A: The Cookie Project

Erich Chuah, Co-Founder of The Cookie Project, talks to Tribe about how he built the social enterprise which helps people with disabilities find work

The Cookie Project is a social enterprise that provides paid work experience for people with disabilities. They have only been in operation for a year, but in that time, they have already made a name for themselves in the New Zealand market - we literally bump into them everywhere! Tribe were lucky enough to sit down with Eric Chuah, one of The Cookie Project's Co-Founders, to hear their story and find out why only 22% of people with disabilities are employed.

Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about The Cookie Project

Kia Ora everyone, my name is Eric Chuah, I am the co-founder of The Cookie Project. The Cookie Project is a social enterprise that employs people with disabilities to make cookies.
Here at The Cookie Project we see ourselves as a platform to up-skill our bakers and provide employment pathways to mainstream employment, whether that is in a hotel business or restaurants and cafes. We are very excited to be starting off with two cafes already in Auckland where we can actually exchange staff and provide work experience for our guys to work in mainstream employment.

Where did the idea for a social enterprise come from?

It started off with some cookies!
I am very passionate about social enterprise and I believe that social enterprise is the way to transform New Zealand’s economy, but also at the same time tackle some of the really urgent social issues.
In one of my speaking engagements, one of the audience members came up to me and told me about his situation. His name is Graeme, who is now my business partner, and I was absolutely amazed by his compassion for the disadvantaged and the disabled community. He actually adopted four children, of which all of them have a disability, three of them in particular have a cocktail of mental disabilities such as fetal alcohol, ADHD, Epilepsy and some other medical terms I can’t even pronounce. When I came across his story I though wow, we really need to help this man. He gave me some of his cookies two Christmases ago and I fell in love with the cookies. I thought wow, we have the potential to create a future for his family and for the wider disability community as well.

Tell us about the different roles at The Cookie Project

What we try and do here is make the environment fun, so we have actually gamified the attendance for our bakers. So, every person with a disability that joins us comes on board as a Cookie Apprentice to start with, and then after five baking sessions, they move on to become a Cookie Cadet where they will earn their very first cap (which is a very nice merchandise cap). Then, after another five sessions they move onto become a Cookie Officer where they earn a t-shirt. Finally, after 15 sessions they move on to become Cookie Captain with their own personalised apron.

Tell us how far you’ve come in the last 12 months, and what the next 12 months has in store

We are coming close to our one-year anniversary now, and over the last 12 months we have had over 20 people with disabilities on our production roster, with another 40+ on the waiting list to join us. We are generating close to 400 hours of employment so far, and our bakers love coming here. They have given us a happiness level of 9 out of 10 and a sense of belonging score of 8.5 out of 10. We are very excited to measure all this impact.
We have been absolutely amazed by the level of interest and engagement we’ve had from some amazing Kiwi brands. First, we have Lisa King from Eat my Lunch, who donated their amazing kitchen for us to use. Then we have Lewis Creamery, Trade Aid, Pics Peanut Butter, and our new amazing online store which was generously donated by Quentosity based in Tauranga. They did an amazing job in terms of creating sales for us, but also for establishing credibility in the market as well. Last but not least, we are very grateful to be a partner of The Accessibility Tick, which is an initiative of The Blind Foundation, to help New Zealand become more accessible.

Do you have big plans for growth?

The demand for our cookies is really amazing. We always say that our winning strategy is to win by quality, not by sympathy, because customers can only give you so much sympathy. We are very excited to be working with one of New Zealand’s iconic retail partners, and our cookies are now available in 10 of the pilot stores across New Zealand. We also have some really exciting new packaging coming up as well, where the buyer can now find out who made their cookies. We’ve been told that this is the first of its kind packaging in New Zealand.

For the rest of 2019 we are looking to scale up and we are on track to establishing our own kitchen which we are very excited about. Once we have our own kitchen, we plan to establish what we call a satellite kitchen model where we will empower someone locally with a disability to become the very first cookie franchise manager. We will send the cookie dough to them remotely and they will work with a local commercial kitchen and employ people on the ground with disabilities to make the cookies. This is how we plan to scale up this year.

Is it difficult for people with disabilities to find a job in New Zealand?

People with disabilities in New Zealand face a huge employment challenge. A lot of people do not realise that one in four Kiwis have a disability, so that’s over one million Kiwis. The employment rate for those people is a shocking and unacceptable low of 22%.
If you compare that with other developed countries like Australia at 54%, the UK at 49%, Japan at 51%, and China 53%. New Zealand is way, way lower compared to everyone else. So that is the purpose of The Cookie Project, to generate employment for people with disabilities.

What challenges do people with disabilities face when they are looking for a job?

People with disabilities face so many challenges when they look for a job.
First and foremost, there is a social stigma against them because a lot of people have a misunderstanding about what people with disabilities can do. They focus on what people with disabilities can’t do instead of focusing on what they can do.
The second thing is that the employment and recruitment framework needs to change in New Zealand. Asking questions like ‘do you have a disability’ and ‘what are your medications’ is actually a roadblock. A lot of employers will actually cut off the candidate simply because they have a disability.

*There are however organisations out there - shout out to Sudima Hotels – who approach their recruitment differently. As soon as you mention you have a disability, you go straight through to interview, rather than being shortlisted. It’s really impressive.
The third thing that people with disabilities face is unconscious bias and it is very sad to see that a lot of the recruitment managers have this implicit bias about what people with disabilities can’t do instead of focusing on what they can do.
We are here to show everyone that people with disabilities can do amazing work. I encourage everyone to come to our kitchen, spend time with our bakers and be impressed, be amazed and be inspired.

Do you have any advice for employers about how to create an accessible workplace?

I think first and foremost you have to ask yourself what is the purpose of your business? These days, employing people with disabilities is not just good for business, but it is also the right thing to do. So, ask yourself, how is your business making New Zealand a better place today, and also in the long run? When you ask yourself that question deep down inside you will find a place in your heart to start thinking - hey maybe I should give the people with disabilities a chance to come to into the workplace, maybe I should give them a chance to shine and blossom in the workplace.

What practical things can businesses do?

I think be serious about creating an inclusive workforce. When you think about diversity and inclusion in the workplace a lot of times, we tend to focus a lot around gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but disability tends to drop off from the conversation.
The first step is for your senior leadership to revisit what your diversity policy actually means, and if accessibility is not part of your diversity conversation then you are really not serious about diversity.
I think the second step from there is just to have an open mind. There are some amazing organisations out there like The Accessibility Tick for example where you can actually go through an accreditation process to evaluate your business, your policies and processes to make sure that you are not blindsided by your unconscious bias.
And of course, the third step is to speak to employers who currently employ people with disabilities. You will be amazed by the business performance that people with disabilities can bring to your organisation.

What should people do if they want to volunteer?

We welcome people to drop by our kitchen. Volunteers that come to The Cookie Project are called Cookie Champions because they are champions for handmade cookies without any preservatives, additives or colouring, but most importantly, they are also champions for the disability community. If you guys want to come here for a team building exercise or a voluntary experience drop us an email and we would love to host you guys!

Check out more Q&As here:

Q&A with Tanya Colvin, Accessibility Tick lead

Q&A with CEO at Putti Apps Bruce Howe

Q&A with Chief Marketing Officer at ArchiPro Jo Bye

Q&A with GM at Red Bull Matt Clews

Q&A with CEO at Kantar New Zealand Jason Shoebridge

Q&A with Head of Financial Transactions at Auckland Council Russell Vaurasi

Q&A with Head of Business Support & Call Centre at Tribe, Lidya Paljk