2017-04-21 / Business
Company to help ‘less than perfect’
Black Sheep Foods to launch late 2017
Her 5-year-old daughter, Sammy, has Down syndrome and attends 20 to 25 hours of therapy each week. The Newbury Park resident told the audience during her speech at TEDxCamarillo last month the day-to-day schedule is grueling, but fighting inequality is by far the hardest part.
“It’s an exhaustion you feel in your bones and it engulfs your mind and sometimes it makes your heart ache,” she said.
Individuals with disabilities are still fighting for their basic civil rights, she said, among them the right to be educated with everyone else and the right to fair employment.
When Liu and her husband wondered what the future held for their precious baby girl, they questioned if a job as a grocery bagger was the best she could do.
“It was a sad statement of the low expectations we have for individuals with disabilities,” she said. “There’s a complete lack of imagination to think that this is good enough.”
Liu wanted her daughter to have a job that didn’t devalue her because of her condition. So in 2013 she started her own company, Black Sheep Foods, with the motto: “Different. As nature intended.”
With a background in corporate brand management—she’d worked for companies including Disney, Activision and Munchkin— Liu set out with a deeper purpose than profits.
When she heard the teachings of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, who encourages for-profit companies to address social needs, Liu, who describes her cooking skills as semiprofessional, started brainstorming food-related business ideas that could accommodate disabled employees.
She went through several iterations, like a catering company and a restaurant, then landed on an idea for a packaged-food company.
The beauty of the idea, she said, is that it addresses two important social issues at once: unemployment among individuals with disabilities and food waste.
“Look at food culture. Perfectly good fruit rots because there’s a bruise,” she said. “There’s the same misunderstanding when it comes to people. People are natural and wonderful, even if they’re a little different, because they’re only as different as nature intended.”
The company is in the product development stage and Liu is busy perfecting recipes for jams and jellies made from imperfect fruit that farmers can’t take to market.
She is working with a group of parents of children with disabilities to make sure her social enterprise company could offer job training and employment opportunities with appropriate support for people with disabilities.
“You could say it’s driven by nepotism,” she said.
Black Sheep Foods is actively searching for partnerships that could give the company access to an industrial kitchen and surplus food, among other things.
Maria Ballesteros-Sola teaches social business at Cal State Channel Islands. She won the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship 2017 Conference Outstanding Teaching Case Award for her research on Liu’s company.
When Black Sheep Foods incorporates, she said, it will seek a B-corporation certification, which requires for-profit companies to meet social sustainability and environmental performance standards.
“These parents are making sure their children have a future,” Ballesteros-Sola said.
One such parent who works with Liu is Cindy Idell. Her son, David, is a 23-year-old with autism. He has limited verbal communication but is very smart.
“Despite all of David’s developmental as well as some medical issues, he is a blessing and has added much to our lives,” Idell said. “David has made me, my husband and older son, Philip, better people.”
Idell said Liu is working to change the perception of people who do not see value in the lives of those who are less than perfect.
“Whether or not my own son participates in Black Sheep Foods doesn’t matter,” she said. “Black Sheep is bigger than us.”
Westlake Village resident Andrea Goetz has a 9-year-old daughter with Down syndrome who loves to cook. She wants her daughter to have options to find meaningful work doing something she enjoys in an environment that can “support her quirks.”
“Cindy is looking at (Black Sheep Foods) not only for her own child but the whole community,” Goetz said.
Liu plans to launch her company in late 2017 and is a community partner with the California Institute for Social Business (CISB) at CSUCI. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/BlackSheepFoodCo.