'There are 85 percent of people with disabilities who are unemployed and cannot find jobs. I know the struggle because I was one of them.'
A 31-year-old woman with Down syndrome is changing the world, one cookie at a time. When Collette Divitto graduated from Clemson University at the age of 26, she had big dreams of working and living on her own in Boston. However, in every interview she attended, she received the same answer from hiring managers: she wasn't a good fit. "I was ready to be independent," Divitto told CNBC Make It. "[But] it was hard to find jobs." However, she refused to give up. Divitto, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, decided to make her own company and hire herself.
In 2016, she launched Collettey's Cookies, a fast-growing bakery start-up that sells cookies online, at 7-Eleven convenience stores and at the TD Garden sports arena in Boston. Although the process felt daunting, Divitto's mother, Rosemary Alfredo, helped her through it by teaching her the basics of getting a small business up and running. Alfredo walked her daughter through the logistical steps of determining a legal structure, registering the business, designing a logo and creating a website. Then, it was time for Divitto—who has been baking since the age of four—to prove to the world how good her baking skills were. "I am really good at baking. It makes me feel happy," she told PEOPLE.
She tested the waters by taking samples of her chocolate chip cinnamon cookies to a local Boston shop called Golden Goose Market. The market's owner was so impressed by Divitto and her cookies that they placed an order for 100 12-packs of cookies. "We're buying 40-pound bags of flour, bringing them into our apartment, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know what's gonna happen,'" Alfredo recalled of the frantic race to fulfill the order. "I was so scared at the very beginning," Divitto admitted. However, landing the deal made her feel "amazing and confident. I never, ever felt that way in my entire life."
The mother-daughter duo eventually secured space in a commercial kitchen to give Divitto more cookie-making space. Altogether, Alfredo says, it cost "less than $20,000"—most of which went to kitchen rent—in out-of-pocket expenses to get Collettey's Cookies off the ground. Not long after, Divitto's inspiring story "went viral." According to the young CEO, the company sold 4,000 cookies in its first three months of business, and over 550,000 since launching six years ago. Today, the cookie company has more than 43k followers on Facebook, and almost 30k on Instagram.
In addition to bearing much of the weight of growing the company, Divitto focuses much of her time and energy toward creating more opportunities for people with disabilities. The company has 15 employees, about half of whom also have disabilities—an intentional choice, she explained. Divitto revealed that she makes a point to personally train her disabled employees, one-on-one. "Creating more jobs for people who are disabled. That's my whole mission," she said.
"I really want to help these people who have a disability who can't find jobs," Divitto explained. "There are 85 percent of people with disabilities who are unemployed and cannot find jobs. I know exactly the struggle because I was actually one of them who could not find jobs." In 2018, Divitto and her mother launched a nonprofit called Collettey’s Leadership Programs that offers workshops and mentorship services for people with and without disabilities. "It makes me feel so inspired. Helping other people—it's amazing," she said. "No matter who you are, you can make a difference in this world."