Eric Chuah: Empowering Individuals with Disabilities

Eric Chuah was the youngest child growing up in a middle-income family in the small mining town of Ipoh, Malaysia. Although Asian societies typically avoid and exclude people with disabilities, Eric’s mother always demonstrated kindness towards them. He recalls her wisdom towards the physically challenged, “No one ever wants to be born with a disability and to be excluded from society. We must do what we can to show kindness and help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.” This pearl of wisdom has been a core driver for Eric to run ‘The Cookie Project’. The Cookie Project is a certified social enterprise that employs people with disabilities to make cookies that spark joy.

“I firmly believe it is our duty as humans to apply our skills and share our resources to help those who are disadvantaged and discriminated by our society, so that we can collectively create a more cohesive and inclusive community where everyone has a sense of whanaungatanga (Māori word for belonging),” says, Eric.

Eric Chuah
Eric Chuah, Founder and Chief, Cookie Project

Story of ‘The Cookie Project’

The ardent entrepreneur has been a banker for more than 15 years until he discovered his ikigai (a reason for being) and wanted to apply his skills and experience to help less fortunate people. Eric quit his job in 2017 and found his new tribe at the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) held in Christchurch. After returning to Auckland, Eric gave a string of speaking engagements about social enterprise. And in one of the sessions, an audience member asked Eric, how he could build a social enterprise for him and his family. Soon, Eric found out that the man was the most kind-hearted in New Zealand, and had adopted four children from a struggling Māori family in which three of them had a cocktail of disabilities.

“I didn’t know how to help him until he gave me his homemade butter cookies. I tasted them and thought, “Wow, these are good, but let’s make them better!” by using the best butter in New Zealand, which is Lewis Road Creamery butter,” recalls Eric. He followed Eric’s suggestion and prepared a new version of butter cookies. When Eric tasted it, he asked the man to take a chance and join him on a journey as his co-founder and Chief of Cookies – Mr. Graeme Haddon.

They took six months to refine the recipe as they focused on quality over sympathy. The cookies were tested across a wide range of taste buds to make sure it had the right size, shape, color, texture, and sweetness. The Cookie Project was launched in June 2018 at the ANZ Migrant Expo and sold over 5,000 pieces in the first two weeks – and the rest is history.

Inception of the Company

When the company first started, 9 out of 10 people were negative and said the company would not be successful due to the nature of the bakers, who had a wide range of disabilities. In New Zealand, over one million Kiwis have a disability, their employment rate is only 22% and some are getting paid legally as low as NZ$1.75 an hour. But Eric advertised that the vacancy paid NZ$16.50 an hour back in 2018 and people thought it was a scam. He says, “No one took us seriously for over one month until our first baker joined us and it just snowballed from there.”

At the peak of recruitment in March 2020, the company had over 30 bakers on the roster and over 40 candidates on the waiting list. By March 2021, it had generated over 3,000 meaningful employment hours and received 12 awards and recognitions, including the recipient of the 2019 Attitude ACC Employer Award.

Financially, The Cookie Project became profitable by the 17th month. However, due to COVID-19, its revenue dropped by 94% and they lost access to a safe kitchen. Regardless, with its new home at New Zealand’s national stadium, Eden Park, it is in post-COVID recovery mode by pivoting with new products and unique baking experiences.

Making Special Cookies with a Special Team

The Cookie Project focuses on quality, simple ingredients, and amazing flavors. It is very strict on its ingredient partners and chose to work with only the best in the category. It uses the most premium and expensive butter by Lewis Road Creamery across all the products. “We are also very fortunate to work with Pic’s Peanut Butter for our peanut butter range (the founder himself is legally blind), Trade Aid for their organic and fair-traded chocolate, and Champion Flour which has been serving Kiwis for over 160 years.”

From a commercial perspective, The Cookie Project is on the journey to transform its production site from being a cost center to a revenue generator, which provides even more income opportunities for bakers with world-class attitude and passion to step up and become the hosts of the baking experiences.

“We’re always on the lookout for potential international partners to share our business model beyond New Zealand so that we can leverage today’s technology and global citizen mindset to deliver SDG #8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG #10 (Reduced Inequalities),” proclaims Eric.

The company has a very open and jovial culture where friendships are formed and laughter is the daily language. It is very proud of its employment framework: NO resume, NO interviews, Pan-disability, and guaranteed at least the minimum wage of NZ$18.90 an hour (will increase to NZ$20 an hour from 1 April 2021), and unlimited free cookies for all the employees.

Eric says that there is no greater motivation than the smiles of the bakers. Although he is not earning anywhere close to the salary of his banking days, he is much happier to know that his skills are making a real difference in people’s lives. He says, “I’m also very proud to have created a workplace where many of our bakers just want to stay at our kitchen for as late as the last bus allows because they feel so appreciated, respected, and valued at work. That’s what makes The Cookie Project so special – a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging.”

Soon, the company aspires to continue expanding through awareness, using its first-person traceable QR code packaging. Based in Eden Park, The Cookie Project has open days for the public to experience first-hand what it’s like in the kitchen with its bakers. 8 out of 10 visitors say they’ve never worked with people with disabilities and it changed their perception after visiting The Cookie Project.