Anthony Vrkic is busy working behind the counter of a pop-up donut shop in a busy Canberra shopping centre.
"I like my work here," he says, taking a short break from serving customers. "It's good working with the donuts and making friends."
The 19-year-old is shy in front of the camera, but his mother Danijela couldn't be more vocal about his achievements.
“He's exceeded all of our expectations. He's absolutely flourished,” she says.
Anthony Vrkic works in the family business in Canberra. Source: SBS
Anthony is working in the family business, Krofne, which means donut in Croatian. The Vrkic family make the iced treats using a traditional Croatian family recipe handed down by Danijela’s mother and produce up to 20,000 donuts each month.
“My mum used to make them all the time, particularly on special occasions,” Danijela says.
“It’s a very traditional recipe and quite unique. At Easter and Christmas, we would always have these beautiful, fresh donuts, and they are best when hot - fresh off the stove.”
Danijela was born to Croatian parents in Sarajevo, the capital of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. The family migrated to Australia in 1970 when Danijela was two years old, fleeing the communist regime in the former Yugoslavia.
“There were horrific things happening overseas and no freedom of speech,” she says.
“When we came to Australia, no-one in the family was allowed to know. It was kept secret because the fear was there would be ramifications for the extended family.”
Danijela (front) with her parents soon after arriving in Australia in 1970. Source: SBS
Today, Danijela is the mother of three adult children including 19-year-old Anthony, who is among the 13,000 Australians with Down syndrome.
People with the genetic condition, as with other disabilities, can face challenges finding paid work.
“There are a lot of barriers. There is discrimination because people look at their disability, not their ability," Danijela says. "Some employers are frightened that hiring someone with a disability will cost a lot of money.”
Of the 2.1 million Australians of working age with disability, around half are employed in paid work. But rather than simply accept the statistics, Danijela decided to act.
In 2016, she left her job in the public service and joined forces with her builder husband John to set up Krofne, in order to provide work for Anthony.
Their son now sells donuts and assists with setting up the shops and helping with deliveries - but he's not alone.
In total, Krofne employs 16 young adults, including several with Down syndrome, at pop-up shops across Canberra.
Staff work Thursday to Sunday and Danijela says they are employed under the Fast Food Industry Award and paid according to their age, including penalty rates for weekends.
Last year, Danijela went a step further in helping people with disability, gaining a federal government grant to co-found employment project KINECT, which trains potential employees with disability and their future employers.
Its staff are paid under the Higher Education Industry award, and by partnering with government agency Austrade the program has secured its first placements.
“At the end of March, three of our graduates from the KINECT program will be employed in full-time positions,” KINECT’s Kara Potter said. “They are all neurodiverse with limited work experience and all have faced many obstacles.”
Kinect is helping people living with a disability to enter the workforce. Source: SBS
Prejudice in the workplace remains a significant barrier for many people with disability, as well as for Indigenous Australians, refugees and migrants from a minority background, according to part two of the report Entrepreneurs with Disability in Australia, due to be released later this month.
"A lot of people [with disability] get sick and tired of knocking on a door that never opens for them," said co-author Professor Simon Darcy from UTS Business School.
"They are literally putting in hundreds of job applications and if they disclose their disability - which for somebody like me, who as a power wheelchair user is pretty hard to hide - their resume doesn't even get a look in.
"For those with a disability that is intellectual or cognitive, support circles are very important to their success in life, as we are finding out more and more in business."
Professor Simon Darcy from the UTS Business School. Source: Supplied
Congratulating Danijela on the success of Krofne and KINECT, Professor Darcy said entrepreneurship often generates jobs for those with a disability.
"We're starting to see some really innovative local enterprises identifying skills that are needed and getting people with disability trained in those skills."
By going online, the Vrkic family weathered the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and are now busier than ever. They are also considering franchising Krofne Australia-wide, aiming to help even more people with disability get into paid work.
Danijela at the Krofne pop-up store in Canberra. Source: SBS
“Daniela is an amazing person. It's a privilege to know her," KINECT's Ms Potter said.
“Her energy and her passion are infectious and the ability that she has to create change and to see the things that she believes in become a reality is phenomenal.”
For Danijela, seeing her son become independent is its own reward.
“He’s the face of our business; that's why we started it. And if my son Anthony, who has Down syndrome, can work as a salesperson at one of our pop-ups, so can others."
“He's a role model. He is absolutely a role model.”
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