Equipping social entrepreneurs for success: Marlena Books’ journey through the University of Waterloo’s innovation ecosystem

Thursday, January 31, 2019
Rachel Thompson, founder of Marlena Books, reading with her grandmother

The Epp Peace Incubator program at the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement defines success broadly, with participants working in a variety of ways to make a positive impact. Marlena Books joined this program in January, 2016, and now, 3 years later, is generating ongoing revenue through book sales and their recently launched App. More importantly, they are empowering individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and founder Rachel Thompson is using Marlena Books as a springboard to engage the public, health practitioners, and policymakers. To mark this achievement and her new status as a program alum, we recently reflected with Rachel on her journey through Waterloo's innovation ecosystem.

The idea for Marlena Books came to Rachel Thompson in her last year of the Health Studies program at the University of Waterloo. Reading had always been important to her grandmother, who was living with dementia, but the lack of dementia-friendly books kept reading at a distance. Combining her academic knowledge of dementia with the lived experience of watching her grandmother struggle to find appropriate reading material, Rachel created dignifying recreational tools to encourage people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia to keep reading.

Rachel with fellow St. Paul's GreenHouse participantsRachel with fellow GreenHouse participants

When Rachel first developed the concept for this type of product, she was unsure how to turn the idea into reality. In 2015, Rachel was introduced to the St. Paul’s University College GreenHouse Innovators in Residence Program, where she accessed mentorship and programming designed to help student innovators realize their ideas. Through the program, Rachel received assistance in creating a prototype of her idea. Mentors helped her to refine her idea into a viable business design. Experienced social innovators that Rachel received support from were, as Rachel said, “focused on my overall success,” and when she graduated from the University of Waterloo and the Innovators in Residence Program, they continued to mentor her.

At that time, Rachel was still in the early stages of Marlena Books and was eager to put wheels to her idea.

Rachel connected with Paul Heidebrecht, the Director of the Centre for Peace Advancement (CPA) and quickly became an Epp Peace Incubator member. Once in the program, Rachel was surrounded by other entrepreneurs who were all working toward peace. In addition to the use of a hot desk, she received mentorship and access to funding, connections, and conferences that helped create a worldwide presence for Marlena Books. Guidance from mentors and the community of entrepreneurs that she became a part of made Rachel feel secure and welcome in the CPA. Knowing that someone was on her team gave her confidence in working toward her goals.

Rachel Thompson won $25 000 dollars at the Velocity Fund FinalsRachel won $25,000 at the Velocity Fund Finals 

Another milestone came when Rachel won the Velocity Fund Finals in April, 2017, and joined the Velocity Garage in downtown Kitchener. There were entrepreneurs in the program that Rachel knew from the Centre for Peace Advancement, so she quickly felt at home. She was “pushed to innovate beyond the considered possibilities” that she had had for Marlena Books, leading the company to begin creating e-books. Rachel received mentorship from Velocity's Business Advisors that helped her address the sustainability of her venture and develop Marlena Books’ technology. Her growing team continues to be housed in the Velocity Garage, and benefits from the opportunities that the greater Waterloo innovation ecosystem offers. For example, she recently joined Communitech’s Edge Accelerator program.

Though Rachel has had access to funding and work space on each step along her journey, she cited the mentorship that she received as one of the most important themes. The knowledge and support that were available to her greatly affected Rachel’s ability to create the Marlena Books we know today. Rachel says that “investing in the ecosystem through mentorship is so important” for early entrepreneurs to be guided with wisdom of lived experiences.

Going forward, Marlena Books is focused on expanding its reach and increasing the products that it offers. The company is hoping to enter the U.S. market to reach even more people that can benefit from Marlena Books’ products. The company also plans to release a new version on their app to make its services more viable for retirement homes and similar settings.

We wish Rachel and Marlena Books all the best as they move on from the Centre for Peace Advancement and continue their work in at the intersection of peace and dignity!

Learn more about Marlena Books and the services that they offer.