Woman with Down Syndrome Grows Her Baking Hobby Into a Full-Fledged Business: 'Do Not Give Up'

"My favorite part of my company is creating more jobs for people with all types of disabilities," says Collette Divitto, owner of Collettey's cookies

Collette Divitto, the owner of Collettey's Cookies
Collette Divitto. Photo: Rosemary Alfredo

Collette Divitto is on a mission to change the world — one cookie at a time.

When Divitto was just 26, she transformed her baking hobby into a cookie business called Collettey's.

Completely inexperienced as a business owner at the time, Divitto, who was born with Down syndrome, tells PEOPLE she made the bold move after receiving a number of job interview rejections — often with the critique that she wasn't "a good fit" for their company.

"It was sad and it was hard," says Divitto, now 30. "To me, it felt like they didn't like me at all because of who I am. No one would hire me so I decided to open my own business."

Based in Boston, Collettey's is now a thriving business that ships thousands of cookies and dog treats each week to people and companies nationwide. That number often increases during the holidays, with Divitto noting she has produced 30,000 cookies in a two-week span alone.

"It's always been a fun hobby, but now it's about business," she explains. "My company has grown so much in the last four years."

Collette Divitto, the owner of Collettey's Cookies
Collette Divitto. Rosemary Alfredo

Though she's at the helm of a booming business now, Divitto's path to success wasn't always an easy one. Her mom, Rosemary Alfredo, says she never emphasized how her daughter was different from her peers while Divitto was growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

"I was always raised to acknowledge the person next to you and to know God created everyone differently for a reason," she explains. "I never felt the need to tell her she's different. To me, it was just a label and we all have strengths and weaknesses."

But that all changed in the fourth grade when Divitto came home after school one day and said a boy in her class started calling her "Down syndrome."

"She asked me what that was, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I never had this conversation with her,'" Alfredo recalls. "From that point forward, Collette's mission in life was to blend. I've never seen anyone work so hard to have what everyone else has and be accepted."

Collette Divitto, the owner of Collettey's Cookies
Collette Divitto. Rosemary Alfredo

After going through a "very dark period" in high school because she didn't have many friends, Divitto was accepted to Clemson University's LIFE program, which Alfredo says "changed her life."

"She was going to a regular college, she was going to football games," her mom explains. "Anything that anybody her age was doing, that world she was stepping into."

After finishing Clemson's three-year program a year early, Divitto graduated and moved to Boston, where she planned to get a job and live on her own. But when every interview turned out to be a bust, Divitto and her mom were crushed.

"To watch Collette thrive and blossom in college to then graduate early and be ready for the world, and have the world reject her, that was such a disappointment of the human race to me," Alfredo says. "I just thought to myself, people are seeing her as a labeled individual with disabilities and they're not giving her a chance."

Divitto refused to let it keep her down. Instead, she focused on her strengths, which included making a cinnamon chocolate chip cookie — now known as the "Amazing Cookie" — that her family and friends fell in love with.

"They could not stop giving me orders," Divitto says.

Adds Alfredo: "Anybody who tasted this cookie was like, 'You need to sell this. This is amazing.'"

Driven by her desire to make money so she could live on her own, Divitto decided to go to a local grocery store in 2016 to ask if they would sell her baked goods. After tasting some of her samples, they immediately agreed.

From there, Alfredo guided Divitto as she worked to open her very first business.

Collette Divitto, the owner of Collettey's Cookies
Collette Divitto with her mom, Rosemary Alfredo. Rosemary Alfredo

Today, Collettey's employs 15 people (including Alfredo) and two interns — a majority of whom have varying abilities, which was incredibly important to Divitto.

Her cookies are sold in stores in Massachusetts, California and Connecticut, and can also be ordered online.

"It was challenging for sure," admits Divitto, who runs every aspect of Collettey's, from hiring and managing employees to baking, packaging and shipping cookies.

"My favorite part of my company is creating more jobs for people with all types of disabilities," she adds, noting that she feels "confident" when reflecting on how far she's come since those job rejections.

In addition to her cookie company, Divitto also runs a nonprofit called Collette's Leadership, which was launched in 2018. The organization offers workshops on entrepreneurship and launching businesses.

"You have to really focus on your abilities and not the disadvantages," says Divitto, who hopes to partner with Ben & Jerry's one day and make an ice cream with her cookie in it. "Do not let people bring you down and do not give up on your careers and dreams because when one door closes, another door opens."

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Alfredo, who jokingly notes that she's been fired six times by her daughter, is equally as proud when she thinks back on Divitto's success, and ahead to her promising future.

"To watch her face so much rejection and so many challenges and it not defeat her, I don't know anybody that can go through that and still come out with a smile on her face and not... be mad at the world," her mom says. "She's perfection to me."

"I feel my heart start to pump when I think about her, it's beyond words," she continues. "She's got this drive and determination that you cannot change her mind, and she's not done yet. She's gonna do a lot more."

"What Collette wants to accomplish," adds Alfredo, "she's only a quarter of the way there."

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