Recent Graduate, Founder and CEO of a Startup Company, Helping Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children to Communicate
Since the 1st grade, Renee Kakareka ’16 has been learning sign language and communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, she could not have predicted that as a senior in college she would establish Olive Devices, a startup company working to develop a smart wearable worn around the neck device that can locate sound, caption voices and provide surround sound experience for anyone.
Kakareka began developing the concept as smart glasses in February 2015 when she participated in the Occupational Therapy, Industrial Design (OTID) collaborative project at Philadelphia University. It was one year prior to this when Kakareka was recommended to a book that influenced her conceptualization of the design.
“In my sophomore year, my Industrial Design professor, Lyn Godley, gave me a book to read called Design Meets Disability by author Graham Pullin. I was fascinated with this book,” Kakareka said.
Pullin’s book notes several historical accessibility designs as well as hypothetical products that could be created for the purpose of universal usability. Pullin’s voice and insight into universal design moved Kakareka to see design in a different light.
“I was able to see how design could help to affect the way we are able to interact with our world,” Kakareka said. “After reading this book I started doing a lot of research on developmental disabilities and became really excited to start working on the OTID project.”
As part of the project, Kakareka worked with a deaf client who was having trouble talking over the phone and in group conversations. She designed a concept for the technology and design of the frames and the mobile application, which ultimately laid the foundation for Olive Devices’ wearable.
While Kakareka was working on the OTID project, Verizon was sponsoring a PhilaU project with Occupational Therapy students and Kakareka was encouraged to take part.
“During the final presentation of this project, I was approached by PhilaU’s Blackstone LaunchPad, through the Entrepreneurship Center, to meet and discuss how feasible the concept was of turning this into an actual business,” Kakareka said.
The Blackstone LaunchPad (BLP) is a co-curricular program that is open to all students, staff and alumni of PhilaU, regardless of academic major. It provides coaching and other resources for students interested in entrepreneurship, in developing entrepreneurship skills and knowledge, and with specific ideas they are considering pursuing.
“After meeting with Zoe McKinley and Abena Nyarko from BLP, I decided to continue with the design during my senior year and went to the BLP for help with business plans, business models, learning how to do accounting and finances and all the other business aspects that I knew very little about,” Kakareka said.
Kakareka explained that BLP gave her the tools and guidance she needed to continue to grow her project into a company. Her hard work was realized when she got her first investor as a result of a connection made through a student competition at Thomas Jefferson University (TJU) called JAZ Tank.
The JAZ Tank Opportunity Track was for entrance into the inaugural JAZ/PhilaU Virtual Incubator. Eight outstanding teams with ideas but not a formal plan or fully vetted business concept were selected to participate. This new track was designed to provide opportunities for team building, prototype development and business model exploration to support their concept.
Kakareka was a runner up in the competition, winning a prize of $5,000 in financial support for her business idea. But more importantly, she won the attention of one of the judges, who eventually became an investor. This development led to Kakareka working even harder to launch her business while still a full-time student.
“While most students were spending the end of their senior year applying for jobs, I was working on a business plan, website, pitch deck and learning how to start and run a business,” Kakareka said.
Olive Devices, LLC has now been running for almost an entire year. Since graduating this past May, Kakareka started working as an Architectural Drafter for Marrero Glass & Metal, then received enough funding to work on Olive Devices full-time. This past October she decided to return home to Chicago to continue to build the company while becoming a Substitute Paraprofessional Instructors Assistant in the School District where she grew up.
Kakareka now spends two days a week, in addition to running a company, working as an Aid in Autism Spectrum Disorder classrooms, for individual students as well as with deaf and hard of hearing children. This rewarding position has given her the flexibility to do two things she loves; help encourage learning and develop a company that can build products to change people’s lives.
Although Kakareka is reminded her journey has not always been easy. “Without having an educational background in business or software engineering, I’ve had to learn a lot about working in a manager role as well as in software engineering,” Kakareka explained. “One of the most difficult things for me to get used to was how to build a team of people that were going to fit the culture I wanted to build and had the skills needed to get the job done.”
Kakareka now manages a team of five people, made up of mostly interns and a Chief Technology Officer. In between her teaching schedule, she works on Olive Devices from home or a local coffee shop in Chicagoland area.
In year one, Kakareka has led Olive Devices to take part in several competitions including the Angel Venture Fair and the MedTech Bootcamp in Munich as well as winning bronze at the world wide Publicis 90 competition. In addition, Kakareka has received pilot funding from BioAdvance, a venture capital firm, to progress the company to raising their SEED round of funding. Since this funding, Olive Devices has been a semi-finalist for the Forbes 30 under 30 Change the World Competition and a finalist for the Blackstone LaunchPad Charitable Foundation. Kakareka was also recognized by local Philadelphia news website BillyPenn.com as one of the up and coming entrepreneurs under 40.
While she has received plenty of accolades thus far, Kakareka stays humble and says she still has a lot to learn. “I don’t consider myself successful yet. Being a very early stage start-up, this will take some time. I have a plan but the roadmap isn’t steady. Having small successes here and there such as the emails or competition recognition has helped me to see the path to the larger goal of success,” Kakareka said.
The Nexus Learning model of Philadelphia University is something Kakareka believes helped her get to where she is today.
“The interdisciplinary education is what gave me the most value,” Kakareka explained. “Being able to work with and learn from other disciplines as a student is what has made me a strong entrepreneur thus far. I understand how to read my engineers code. I know how to get a product from start to finish. I’ve learned, and still am learning, how to create a sustainable and scalable business model leading to a successful company, where I can sell products that people will use for long term and effect their lives for the better.”
To learn more about Olive Devices, LLC, visit www.olivedevices.com.