The Queen's Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) team supports the University’s strategic goal to build community partnerships and fully embed Queen’s in the community. With support from external funding, the QPI team offers numerous services, resources, and programs to support entrepreneurs, including those from Queen’s, and to accelerate the growth of startups and small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within Kingston and Eastern Ontario.

Starting an entire YouTube platform was not exactly what Michelle McDonald had in mind during a visit to the local library with her daughter in 2017. As a child protection social worker, Michelle knew that the children she worked with didn’t necessarily have the same access to resources such as story time at the local library.

“Stories are important for both kids and adults,” says McDonald. “Kids can learn to develop their own set of values and their worldview from the stories they read and hear about.”

What was missing in the market was easy access to storytelling services for kids who might not be able to visit a library, as well as to stories that include people from diverse communities.Ruthy's Reading Room logo

That’s why she chose YouTube as the platform to share unique and diverse stories with her audience. She knew that her young son was able to access content on YouTube fairly easily with the touch of a few screen prompts.

“I figured, if my four year old son could navigate to YouTube to find content, other kids could too. Why not at least make that content educational?” McDonald adds.

Since its inception in 2019, Michelle has created almost 200 videos and attracted over 900 subscribers to Ruthy’s Reading Room, a platform aimed at providing a unique library story time experience, book reviews and educational content for children from Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities.

“When kids from the BIPOC community see themselves portrayed positively in the books they read, they feel more confident,” says McDonald. “When they see other characters that look like them, it helps them feel less alone in the world, especially if they are in communities where there aren’t a lot of BIPOC children like themselves.”

It’s also important for non-BIPOC kids to learn these stories, “It helps them to build empathy and connect with kids who have a different background story,” adds McDonald. “It’s a way to show diversity without making any one group feel ‘othered’. The goal is to bring people together and build a community of inclusivity.”

Michelle McDonald in a chair with a children's book
Ruthy's Reading Room founder Michelle McDonald.
Photo credit: Michelle McDonald

Over the spring and summer of 2022, McDonald completed the Wings Acceleration Program, a program designed for early-stage companies with the tools and guidance to validate their business idea, develop their value proposition, and enter the market with a solid foundation.

Before agreeing to be part of the Wings Cohort, McDonald was concerned about her fit into the program. She met with Rick Boswell, Assistant Director of Programs and Operations with QPI to better understand the program and how Ruthy’s would fit in. Since Ruthy’s was an early-stage tech-based company and had an important role to play for young children, Rick encouraged her to join the cohort.

McDonald had to make some important choices about where she wanted to take her business.

“At the start of the program, I was feeling pulled in so many directions and feeling like I wasn’t doing any part of it really well,” she says. “But the Wings program helped me to focus on one direction for the future of the business, which has helped me implement some key goals.”

“I was so glad that Michelle joined the program – I could see what she was getting out of it, and it was clear at the end of the program that it helped her to crystalize her options to go forward and make sound business decisions based on her new-found knowledge,” said Rick.

McDonald has also been an active member of the WE-CAN Project, which helps to address gaps and provide support for women entrepreneurs in the Eastern Ontario ecosystem. She completed the FUSION Coaching Program, and the Growth Plan Challenge, and has attended many WE-CAN workshops and virtual cafes.

“Michelle is an enthusiastic WE-CAN participant. Her community-focused YouTube channel has dedicated fans all over the world! Her efforts to amplify the voices of Black authors and promote greater representation among young readers and their families play an important role in today’s digital landscape,” says Kerry Ramsay, WE-CAN Project Manager with QPI.

And all that applicable learning is paying off. Since launching Ruthy’s Reading Room on YouTube, other opportunities have been pouring in. She now provides Ruthy’s Reviews and Recommendations for the Kingston Frontenac Public Library as well as the Lennox and Addington libraries from the books available in their collections and she has a regular spot on Amherst Island Radio on Saturday mornings at 9 am, where she is reaching a new audience of listeners.

“I’m so glad I joined the Wings cohort,” says McDonald. “There were practical lessons that were immediately applicable to my business. It pushed me beyond my comfort level in the best way.”

The Wings Acceleration program and Queen’s Startup Runway are offered through the Scale-Up Platform, an initiative led by Invest Ottawa in Eastern Ontario and in which Queen’s is a regional partner. The Scale-Up Platform Project is supported by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). The WE-CAN Project is enabled with funding from the Women Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Fund which is administered by FedDev Ontario.