EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Popcorn for the People, East Brunswick's local venture into "social entrepreneurship", officially opened yesterday at its new location on Hart's Lane. True to the goals of "Autism at Work," the staff was in the midst of preparing dozens of bags of fresh treats to be sold at the first Rutgers University football game, making sure to have a sufficient number of bags of the "cookies and cream" flavor which has earned them local fame.
Popcorn for the People, started by Dr. Steven Bier in 2015 at the original location at the Brunswick Square Mall, employs adults on the autism spectrum in a structured, supportive business environment. The company has grown to become a supplier of popcorn gift tins to local businesses and a constant presence at local events and venues including East Brunswick Day, the Monmouth and Middlesex County Fairs, and Rutgers Athletics. It's also easy to grab a bag or three weekly at the East Brunswick Transportation Center and the Woodbridge Mall.
Mayor Brad Cohen said of the growing venture, "It's not just the popcorn; it's the people. The people who work here and the people whom they serve. East Brunswick is proud to be the home of this great business." Cohen joined supporters of Popcorn for the People at the opening in their production facility. Will and Amy Schafer of Ashley furniture, who donated all office furniture to the business, we also there to support the opening.
Dr. Martin Markowitz, Senior Associate Dean at the Rutgers Business School, was there to support the students who have become involved in Popcorn for the People through the Enactus program. Markowitz sees his job as "brokering relationships" between business and the university. Enactus, which is a program based on driving social entrepreneurship, is a growing focus at Rutgers and Moskowitz said that, "I knew that Popcorn for the People would be a good fit for our students." "Social entrepreneurship," said Markowitz, "Focuses on businesses that perform a charitable function, provide employment, and turn a profit. These businesses as not just fundraisers. They are employers in the marketplace. We want to encourage people to build companies that make money and help people at the same time. We are supporting sustainable businesses.
Markowitz noted that the Rutgers Enactus team is currently a finalist in competition for the Hult prize, an international group that has pledged to help 10 million people by 2015. Next month, Rutgers students will engage in the final competition for the million dollar prize held at the United Nations. If they are successful, they will use the award to support refugees in the Middle East.
Right now, though, these students are helping to support a business that makes popcorn in East Brunswick, providing work, dignity, and pay for autistic adults. Rachel Cheng, a graduate student in the Rutgers Enactus group, has been hired by Popcorn for the People to be their first Chief Operating Officer. She faces the challenge of moving the organization forward as a larger supplier. Cheng was not available for comment, but her colleague Connor Shah of Edison, a major in supply-chain economics at the Rutgers Business School, said that he was "excited and happy" to be working at Popcorn for the People.
Rutgers University plays the University of Washington in football tomorrow night at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, and Popcorn for the People will be there. Says Steve Bier, "We are moving on to a nationally-televised event and will be there for every game this season."
The outreach of autism at work is moving off the spectrum as this local business grows and gains support.