You are here:

The Way The Cookie Crumbles

Editor's Note: Brenda Cooke has retired from the mainstream workforce due to health concerns. She spends her time doing volunteer work in the fields of disability and poverty.

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would own and operate my own business, I would have told them they were crazy. I wanted to be a lead singer in a band, a teacher, social worker or psychologist, and I saw no reason why I couldn't do anything I wanted to earn a living. Since making ends meet as a singer was purported to be a long shot, off to university I went to become an elementary school teacher.

By the third year I discovered there were numerous barriers, mostly attitudinal. I was told I wouldn't pass my internship because I seemed to have trouble controlling the class, but once I gave the students more to do to keep them busy, my classroom changed overnight. While I did pass my internship, I was cautioned that it would be difficult for me to work in regular schools because I would not be able to supervise the playground, and I would have to coach sports to get a job in a small town. It soon became painfully obvious to me that I could get a degree, but the chances of me getting hired as a teacher in Saskatchewan were slim to none. Eventually, I lost the strength to prove that I could overcome those barriers and be competitive in the teaching field.

During and after university, I travelled, worked at several short-term projects, and took a variety of other courses. I spent much of my time unemployed and living below the poverty line. Every six months I was either on Social Assistance or Unemployment Insurance, or looking for another short-term contract. It was an extremely stressful way to live, constantly looking for work, applying to government for income assistance, and being assumed lazy by department workers, not to mention facing the constant rejection of not being hired for job after job. Finally, at 45 years of age, I came up with the idea of owning my own business.

It just kind of fell into my lap. When my sister told me the school where her kids were enrolled was selling frozen cookie dough as a fundraiser, I was sure that running a wholesale cookie dough business was for me. I would be in charge. Things would be organized by and for me, and I would no longer be a square peg trying to fit into the round whole of some employer. Plus, I would be doing something I felt good about--providing a product to non-profit groups for fundraising. Within six months, I entered the business world, confident that this was the answer.

My sister gave me some good recipes for five different flavours of cookie dough, and I signed up for a self-employment course to develop a business plan. This took me a little longer than others in the class, as I have ten percent vision, which presented barriers to conducting research, securing transportation etc. After being out of the workforce for close to six years, I also had difficulty organizing myself. Luckily, I had a career counsellor who trusted I was doing the best I could, and saw to it that I got financial assistance, precluding any worry on my part about paying rent.

Jumping through the hoops to get a start-up loan wore me down quickly. It seemed too much like job interviews with potential employers. I decided that, in slower times, I would just put business expenses on my personal credit card, and then pay them off in more profitable periods. Since I had no start-up money, I could not hire any experts to assist me with marketing, bookkeeping or pricing, so I had to learn it all myself by trial and error. I became familiar with operating in a food manufacturing facility with industrial equipment, keeping track of inventory, maintaining records and files, creating my own advertising, and completing government-related paperwork, not to mention networking and hiring, training and releasing workers. A large computer monitor and a screen magnification program--granted to me from government--enabled me to perform most reading and writing tasks.

Personal, hands-on contact from the manufacturing to delivery stage of my product was very important to me, not only because I enjoyed it but also because I could not afford to pay anyone else to oversee any part of the process. I took the bus from a kitchen in one part of the city to a storage area in another, as I didn't have the financial resources for one facility of my own in one location. I also bussed it to the storage area to assemble and load orders when customers were making pick-ups there. The busiest part of the year was from mid November to late April, and it was the coldest time to be taking public transit, but I couldn't afford a driver or taxi fare. Meeting the customers was most enjoyable for me. I did have to hire a delivery person, however, since I didn't drive or own a truck big enough to handle up to 400 pails of cookie dough at a time!

Five years into my business, I developed arthritis in my fingers from spending too long in walk-in freezers and carpel tunnel syndrome in my wrist from scooping dough. At times, I was sure I wasn't being taken seriously by workers, suppliers and others. While I've heard that females have a hard time in the business world, I believe I had a double whammy--as a woman with a disability. People in the business world are even less experienced, let alone comfortable, with a woman who has difficulty making eye contact and doesn't drive, yet is assertive.

I closed my business after six years due to too much debt, too many new cookie dough companies saturating the market, and not enough money to aggressively hold onto my market share, if not win more. Should I have gone ahead with my dream of singing in a band? Was I just too much of a wimp to do what was necessary to be hired as a teacher? Had I been out of the workforce too long to really know what it took to work hard? Did I give up too quickly on getting a loan and make a big mistake by going into personal debt? Would my money have been better spent hiring a marketing or food production company? Maybe I ate too much cookie dough?

I could analyze the mistakes I made and how I would do things differently now, but I really do believe that lack of start-up money was the reason I had difficulty operating the business and maximizing the opportunity to design things in such a way to accommodate my vision impairment. Despite everything, though, running my own business was the best job I ever had. Up until a year ago, when I realized I no longer had the stamina, I would have jumped at the chance to do it all over again, with more money of coarse, and the experience I now have under my belt.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.