Leeds storytelling wonderland wins Branson’s backing

Hazel Merlino with niece Freya Underwood and a handmade model from the Rainbow Factory. PIC Tony Johnson.
Hazel Merlino with niece Freya Underwood and a handmade model from the Rainbow Factory. PIC Tony Johnson.
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An innovative new children’s activity centre in Leeds has been hailed by Britain’s best-known billionaire as an inspiration to budding entrepreneurs.

The Rainbow Factory, a storytelling wonderland set to open in Farsley this month, is one of just six new businesses from around the country chosen to be Virgin StartUp Ambassadors.

Rainbow Factory managing director Hazel Merlino with Richard Branson.

Rainbow Factory managing director Hazel Merlino with Richard Branson.

The project is the brainchild of 31-year-old Hazel Merlino, of Guiseley, and her 33-year-old sister Sarah Underwood – associate professor at the University of Leeds and Pudsey mum-of-two.

The duo said they were “incredibly proud” when their efforts were recognised by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. And Hazel was thrilled to meet the inspirational entrepreneur himself.

“It was great to hear him say ‘what a great idea, fabulous’. To get his stamp of approval meant a lot to me.

“We haven’t even opened our first Rainbow Factory yet and he asked why we hadn’t already started planning our second!”

The venture is the only one of its kind in the north and aims to inspire youngsters with a love of reading by bringing classic stories to life through fun activities and unique handmade models.

Visitors can explore the forest storybook trail, get crafty in the creative kitchen, step inside a giant’s cage and even tuck into a meal inside Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house.

The sisters have transformed a 5,000 sq ft space in a refurbished mill off Bagley Lane, creating more than 20 part-time and several permanent jobs.