In 2016, Nicole McLaren started a book club.
Like many people across Canada, Nicole had read the Truth & Reconciliation Committee’s final report and came away disheartened, yet motivated. Eager to shine a spotlight on her findings, she turned to Indigenous literature to open the eyes of those around her.
“Raven Reads was born from a desire to educate others about the devastating impact residential schools had on Indigenous people in Canada,” she explained.
“Reading stories helps us to better understand the historical context. It also broadens perspectives and raises awareness.”
What started as a book club in a lunch room has slowly grown into Raven Reads, an Indigenous and female owned business that curates Indigenous books and crafts into a quarterly subscription box. The contents of the box can be tailored toward an adult or younger audience, and Nicole now delivers to thousands of customers across North America each quarter. She also recently started shipping to Europe.
We caught up with Nicole to learn more about her unique business.
I don’t have a background in literature. In fact, I started off working as a geologist in the mining industry. Over time, I developed an interest in Indigenous literature, and was tasked with helping my employer at the time improve our approach to reconciliation. This activity inspired me to start a book club in my own time and we focused exclusively on books written by Indigenous authors.
The group was primarily non-Indigenous co-workers and I saw how effective these books were for helping people to connect the historical context with a lot of contemporary societal issues we’re facing. I saw people having those ‘a-ha’ moments and I thought it would be great if there was a way to get these books into the hands of more Canadians.
Parallel to that, I discovered the concept of subscription boxes and I thought it would be a cool way to support Indigenous entrepreneurs while also promoting literature by Indigenous authors. I spent about a year researching and putting together a business plan, leaned on Small Business BC, and we launched in August 2017.
We started with maybe 20 subscription boxes out of my house in Surrey, and for a few years I continued doing it as a side business. Since then, I’ve moved to the interior and we’ve been focused on growing and enhancing the experience for our subscribers.
On the book side, we speak to a lot of publishers across Canada to get an idea of what’s coming out. We like to maintain a mix of established authors alongside up and coming writers. I’m lucky enough that in my previous career I worked with a lot of Indigenous entrepreneurs so I have a pretty established network.
Back in 2016, I had created a social networking group for Indigenous women entrepreneurs. This has allowed us to create a great database of Indigenous entrepreneurs and the type of products they offer. As we’ve grown, we’ve focused more on optimizing the curation of products for the box. We look at things like price points, quality of packaging, alignment with what our subscriber base likes, and whether the product will fit within our 10 x 8 x 3 boxes.
Let me grab my list!
Some of the more popular ones I enjoy are Eden Robinson, Tanya Talaga, and there’s this great writer out of the US, his name is Tommy Orange and he’s a real up and comer.
I also really like Katherena Vermette who wrote a book called The Break. For me, that book was so instrumental in me realizing these books could help people connect the dots. You know, people often say, or believe, the bad stuff happened 100 years ago, so why should we be concerned today? Well, The Break really highlights that ripple effect of intergenerational trauma and I think everyone in Canada should read it.
All you have to do is visit our website, which can be found at ravenreads.org and you’ll find information on how to sign up, the different products we offer, and all our frequently asked questions.
It’s the small businesses and startups in our economy that bring the best in terms of innovation and better products. So, by supporting small and new businesses, you’re ensuring the products you love continue to evolve. It also allows consumers to hold brands responsible for providing a better product that’s more aligned with what you’re looking for.
To put it another way, it’s harder for a large ship to change direction. With the smaller ones, we have a closer relationship with our customers and we can be more responsive to what consumers are looking for.
I’m going to recommend one of my colleagues, who’s also made it to the finals of the SBBC Awards, Skwalwen Botanicals. Leigh is an Indigenous entrepreneur and she’s one to watch. Her business is doing really great things!
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We respectfully acknowledge our place of work is within the ancestral, traditional and unceded territories of the Xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilwətaʔɬ/sel̓ílwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and that we serve the Peoples of the many Nations throughout British Columbia.