Hands on reality at Brookdale_NativeApparel-268

How Entrepreneurs Are Helping ‘Behemoth’ Brookdale Stay Nimble

The nation’s largest senior living provider knows it can’t let its size slow it down.

So, Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) began its Entrepreneur in Residence program to help it stay on top of new opportunities within the senior living industry.

“It’s how we fight against being a behemoth,” Andrew Smith, director of innovation and strategy at the Brentwood, Tennessee-based senior living provider, tells Senior Housing News. “It helps us stay connected to the front end of our industry.”

After Brookdale acquired Emeritus Senior Living in 2014, it began getting more phone calls from organizations looking to form partnerships, Smith says. The company’s expanded geographic footprint played a role in the increased interest, as more companies—some of them startups— found Brookdale facilities in their neck of the woods.

In response, Brookdale came up with the Entrepreneur in Residence program as “a much faster way to identify potential partners,” Smith says.

As part of the program, chosen entrepreneurs live for a few days among residents in a Brookdale community. They interact with the residents in all walks of life, Smith says, from meals and exercise classes to educational events, recreational card playing and field trips.

During their time in the communities, entrepreneurs can forge connections and gain valuable insights—say, by getting feedback and testing their products with the cooperation of willing residents or caregivers—as well as relationships they can maintain after their stay.

“We try to make an experience tailored to each entrepreneur’s desired goals,” Smith says. There are some aspects that stay the same for all entrepreneurs and Brookdale communities, though, including the structure of the program.

“It’s not a pilot, it’s not a formal contract commitment, we’re not developing a professional working relationship,” Smith explains. Instead, the program allows Brookdale to see a new product up close and in action, for relatively little cost.

Working Out the Kinks

Brenda Wilton first visited Brookdale Greenville in Greenville, South Carolina, on Nov. 16, 2015. She was there to introduce residents and staff to Narrative Apparel, her functional-yet-fashionable line of clothing that looks like outfits that anyone would wear on any given day—but is engineered for people who have difficulty dressing independently.

Seeing how it works at Brookdale_NativeApparel-262

Wilton visited the assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care community for two weeks on a daily basis, during which time she sought to understand her clothing line from the perspectives of both residents and caregivers. She did not sleep overnight at the facility, as doing so was prohibited by South Carolina law, but she was at the community from the first thing in the morning until the residents retired in the evening, she says.


In time, Wilton developed a rapport with residents and found out who was comfortable wearing Narrative Apparel clothing for a fashion show. One of the highlights of her time at Brookdale Greenville was when a staff member “danced down the runway in the clothing,” feeling comfortable doing so because they are so attractive, Wilton says.

Assistant Exec Michael models nightwear

Nowadays, Wilton is over at Brookdale Greenville almost weekly. The residents know her and come up and talk to her, and due to such a welcome reception, Wilton describes her position as Entrepreneur in Residence as “ongoing.”

The Entrepreneur in Residence program can help bring a sense of reality to entrepreneurs about their prospective market. Working out a product’s kinks before it gets to the marketplace is “invaluable,” Wilton says. And having someone who can help to poke holes and show what needs rethinking?


A Win-Win-Win

Brookdale has no plans to shutter the Entrepreneur in Residence program, though it may evolve over the next year or two, Smith says. So far, for instance, Brookdale communities have only played host to entrepreneurs from startups. The provider is interested in and is currently exploring inviting some innovators from larger organizations, Smith says.

“There are all types of organizations innovating for seniors and their families,” he explains.

Additionally, Brookdale is considering selecting a particular business challenge and opening it up to a wide set of entrepreneurs across the country.

As for maintaining relationships with previous entrepreneurs, Brookdale has had “good conversations” with a few following their stays, Smith says. In some cases, Brookdale may consider a pilot of their products. Wilton, for one, intends to continue a partnership with Brookdale if possible, she says.

All in all, the Entrepreneur in Residence program has been inexpensive for Brookdale to operate—though it does take a fair amount of time and planning.

“It’s not something that takes a large amount of dollars,” Smith says.

Can the program be described as a win for entrepreneurs, for Brookdale, and residents and caregivers? Yes, Wilton says, it’s a win-win-win.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson