At age 26, Collete DiVitto had just graduated from Clemson University. She moved to Boston in hopes of working and living on her own — but hiring managers kept saying she "wasn't a good fit."
"I was ready to be independent," DiVitto, now 31, tells CNBC Make It. "[But] it was hard to find jobs."
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, DiVitto — who was born with the genetic disorder Down syndrome — had quiet aspirations to turn her baking hobby into her own business. The process felt daunting, so her mother, Rosemary Alfredo, decided to teach her the basics of getting a small business up and running.
Today, DiVitto is the CEO and COO of 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. The Charlestown, Massachusetts-based company has made $1.2 million in lifetime revenue since launching in December 2016, according to a CNBC Make It estimate, which the company confirmed.
Collettey's Cookies is also profitable, the company says — no small feat in a daunting food industry.
The company has 15 employees, many of whom also have disabilities, which DiVitto says is intentional: A challenging job market is an unfortunate reality for the majority of adults with disabilities in the United States. In 2020, only 17.9 percent of people with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
DiVitto says she makes a point to personally train her employees with disabilities, one-on-one. "Creating more jobs for people who are disabled," she says. "That's my whole mission."
Entrepreneurship runs in DiVitto's family.
Her maternal grandfather owned a small landscaping business. Today, Alfredo and her siblings each own several businesses. "We're all kind of sassy and stubborn," Alfredo says, citing both as valuable qualities when you're working for yourself and tasked with regularly making big decisions.
Alfredo's first step to teaching entrepreneurship: walking DiVitto through the logistical steps of determining a legal structure, registering the business, designing a logo and creating a website. Then, DiVitto — who has been baking since age 4 — brought samples of her chocolate chip cinnamon cookies to a local Boston shop called Golden Goose Market.
Perhaps she got lucky, or the desserts were really tasty, or both: The market's owner, intrigued, ordered 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 recalls.
"I was so scared at the very beginning," DiVitto adds. But landing the deal, she says, made her feel "amazing and confident. I never, ever felt that way in my entire life."
The following week, the pair secured space in a commercial kitchen, giving DiVitto more cookie-making space. Altogether, Alfredo says, it cost "less than $20,000" in out-of-pocket expenses to get the business off the ground — with most of that going to kitchen rent.
And then, as Alfredo puts it, DiVitto's story "went viral."
DiVitto says she sold 4,000 cookies in her first three months of business, and more than 550,000 since launching. As of Monday, Collettey's Cookies has more than 40,000 followers on Facebook, and another 28,000-plus on Instagram.
According to the company: DiVitto's chocolate chip cinnamon cookie — called "The Amazing Cookie" — remains the most popular of the company's five flavor options.
When it comes to developing recipes and baking the cookies, DiVitto is the expert and authority. "My mom and also her family, they don't know anything about baking," she says. She's in the commercial kitchen six days per week, often starting work at 4 a.m.
She's also born much of the weight of growing the company. Alfredo says Collettey's Cookies has never received outside funding, though not for lack of trying: "That was our biggest challenge, people questioning [DiVitto's] abilities and the potential success of the company with her as the CEO and COO."
Nadya Rousseau, the founder and CEO of marketing and PR firm Alter New Media, credits DiVitto's success to a mix of ambition and direct candor — the same factors, she says, that drew her to work with Collettey's Cookies pro bono earlier this year.
"I just was struck with how authentic she was, and straightforward," Rousseau says. "So many people have layer upon layer in front of them and they can't just speak their truth. She's always speaking her truth."
That extends beyond cookies: In 2018, DiVitto and Alfredo launched a nonprofit called Collettey's Leadership Programs, which provides workshops and offers mentorship services for people with and without disabilities.
In August 2021, DiVitto appeared in the Peacock reality TV series about entrepreneurs with disabilities, "Born for Business." She's also the author of a children's book based on her own life, "Collette in Kindergarten," which published last year.
Looking ahead, DiVitto says, she wants to help create more jobs and get "people with disabilities to feel good about themselves, and make money to live independently."
"No matter who you are, you can make a difference in this world," she says.