Kyle Zimmer – Firstbook

Kyle Zimmer

 

The One Wild Life +10 series continues- these are follow up interviews with the amazing, diverse and passionate social entrepreneurs who I met on my travels 10 years ago and whose stories were chronicled in my book, ‘One Wild Life’

We are heading to the Washington DC next with First Book’s founder, Kyle Zimmer.

FirstBook’s premise is a simple one; that books change lives. It was this deeply rooted belief that led Kyle Zimmer to forgo a successful law career to run an organisation that has since gone on to distribute over 100 millions books to children from low income families and communities.

First Book impressed me 10 years ago not just for its mission, but the way it designed strategic funding and systems to drive their growth and sustainability. Many organisations start out with brilliant and bold intentions but don’t always have the foresight and skills to put the time and resources into developing the systems needed to scale their models. But that’s exactly what First Book has done: sticking to their original vision and using data and clever funding streams to build a robust and brilliant organisation…

Over to Kyle to tell us more and share some of her learning along the way…

Photo of Kyle Zimmer from GWU

First Book is a nonprofit social enterprise I co-founded with two friends in 1992 to tackle the lack of affordable, relevant books for children growing up at the base of the economic pyramid.  Even here, in a wealthy country like the U.S., 32 million U.S. children – 44% of U.S. kids! – are growing up in low-income families, where the cost of books keeps them out of the hands of those who could use them the most. A recent study by a prominent researcher found one book for every 830 kids in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood – a neighborhood not too far from my office. Without access to books, there is also no culture of reading — stifling learning and failing to provide opportunity for millions of children. We established First Book with the goal of developing a systemic, market-driven solution to this enormous social issue.

How has your path shifted and evolved since I interviewed you for One Wild Life? Where are you now and what are you working on? 

First Book’s model has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Nearly 20 years ago, we started the First Book National Book Bank, becoming the first national clearinghouse for publishers to donate excess inventory to classrooms and programs serving children in need.  The National Book Bank has grown into a major success story over the years, providing approximately 15 million books annually at present — free books to children in need.  While the First Book National Book Bank is extraordinary, over the last 9 years we’ve built a brand new, self-sustaining model that has become a jet engine for our efforts.

In recent years we have focused on aggregating the voice and purchasing power of formal and informal educators serving children in need.  By the end of this year, our online network will include 300,000 teachers and caregivers.  The First Book Network is growing fast – more than 7,000 members are joining every month. We are already the largest and fast growing network of educators serving children in need in North America and our goal is to reach 1 million educators and programs in the next five years.  

Photo of child with bookBy harnessing the power of our Network, we created the First Book Marketplace, an e-commerce site that provides brand new high quality books and educational resources for children in need ages 0 to 18 – all for free or at the lowest prices possible.  This is an unprecedented model that collaboratively disrupts both the publishing industry and the retail industry – to serve the children at the base of the economic pyramid for the first time.  

Instead of relying on donated inventory, the inventory available through the First Book Marketplace is driven by the very educators serving children in need, enabling First Book to purchase in bulk the exact titles and types of resources most needed to support curriculum, fuel learning and help inspire reading. The First Book Marketplace now carries more than 6,000 new books and resources.  And in response to educators’ requests, we’ve expanded the First Book Marketplace to also carry resources uniquely needed to serve children who show up to school cold, hungry and suffering from chronic stress.  We now carry winter coats, socks and underwear; nonperishable snacks, backpacks and school supplies, and essential needs items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste.  All of our products are specifically designed to eliminate barriers to equal education.

We’re also using the First Book Marketplace to help make recent educational expertise and resources more actionable and accessible to educators serving children in need, providing research updates, tipsheets for educators and parents, and curated collections of books that support such issues as social and emotional learning and mental health.

There have been a lot of changes over the past 10 years.  For example, we’ve shifted away from our earlier volunteer model – which was expensive to support and was difficult to scale.  In its place we have built a volunteer platform called ‘Team First Book’ that better reflects the volunteer interests of the next generation.

In more recent years, we have also begun to scale our efforts globally with pilot initiatives through local NGO and corporate partners in more than 30 countries.

And finally, we’ve been able to use market-based levers to request new content from publishers, instead of being a reactive and captive market. In this way we have been able to begin to elevate diversity in children’s literature.  It’s been an amazing 10 years; I am sure I could not have predicted many of these developments when we spoke 10 years ago.

What are some of your highlights of the past 10 years? 

One of the highlights is the skill level we’ve built within the organization.  Don’t get me wrong:  we’ve always been hugely fortunate to have incredibly dedicated, compassionate, smart and wonderful people here at First Book. But ten years ago, there were fewer people and we had to multi-task in areas that weren’t always our strengths.  As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to hire the skill sets we need – on staff and through outside support.

We’ve also benefitted from some incredible partnerships – including corporate and foundation funders, amazing business and community leaders and social sector supporters who have believed in us and helped us grow.

Nearly 5 years ago, we celebrated our 20th anniversary by distributing our 100 millionth book – two major milestones.  We held our celebration at the same D.C. soup kitchen where I volunteered 20 years ago, and where I first learned that so many of our children are growing up without books.

Photo of two kids readingAnother highlight for me has been the launch of our Stories for All Project, the first market-driven initiative tackling the lack of diversity in children’s books. Since 2013, First Book has distributed millions of diverse, inclusive books. In fact, educators can now access a wide range of diverse titles from First Book, with books featuring different cultures, races and ethnicities, as well as different religions, family structures, sexual orientation, individual abilities, experiences and neighborhoods.  In addition, the Stories for All Project is serving as a catalyst for bringing culturally relevant books to the retail market, so that all children have access to more diverse books. We see how necessary that is every day – not just to turn non-readers into readers, but to better understand our commonalities and our differences and to build a path forward with empathy and understanding.

But the real highlights for all of us at First Book are hearing from educators and children about the difference that First Book is making:  in classrooms, in afterschool programs, in homeless shelters, in libraries and museums, and in the lives of children and families across the country every day.

What have been some of the challenges of the past 10 years? What would you have done differently? 

One of the challenges has been getting to self-sufficiency.  Through our models, we are closing in on 50% self-sufficiency.  It’s been a fist fight to get there – as we challenge ourselves to reinvent our models to be as efficient as possible and to harness the aggregated power of those serving children in need to become a market driver.

But I should note that the fact that we are nearing 50% self-sufficiency is amazing in the field of social enterprise.  We are very hopeful about getting to complete self sufficiency in the next few years, given that our network of educators has grown by 500% over recent years.  Few companies – even in the private sector — experience that type of growth trajectory – so just managing that growth in itself has also been a challenge.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago? 

I would be less worried and more bold in the steps that we take.  I think when you’re running a smaller organization that is more fragile, you can waste a lot of time and energy being too cautious about taking the next step.  I always believe in doing your homework – writing a full business plan – and then LEAP!

For example, I had us pilot our online First Book Marketplace for several years so we could test it, work the kinks out, and see how to make it work best for educators.  It was a completely new approach for us and for the world.  It necessitated that we change our strategy, how we were staffed, and how we saw ourselves. We were really testing out the idea of becoming a market builder.  Knowing what I know now, I wish I had launched the First Book Marketplace years earlier.  My advice:  stop waiting – do your homework and then — just do it.

What do you see as some of today’s global challenges and what opportunities do you see?

Photo of Kyle and a studentMulti-culturalism is in peril.  Fear is driving a lot of political actions, social agendas and military actions.  We have to know each other better than we do.  For First Book, those same challenges also present us with an enormous opportunity. We know that education is a key to furthering understanding, to creating a better life for ourselves and our families, for building more just and peaceful communities.  We also know that developing empathy in children elevates the likelihood of their success in school and in life.

In 2009, First Book Canada began operations; in 2013 we launched the First Book Global Marketplace; and we have been piloting new efforts with book distributions and in-country discussions with publishers and authors from India to South and Central America.

We know there are opportunities to continue to build partnerships in countries across the globe that can help us reach more children and educators with the very resources needed to unlock the future.  First Book is experimenting with ideas that will enable us to unify the terrific organizations working in countries around the world.  Stay tuned!!

Over the last 10 years, the field of social entrepreneurship has evolved and got better known and supported. What would you say is the next stage of growth for the field and what are some of the main questions or challenges which it faces? 

There are so many very pressing issues that need to be addressed, and we have to be nimble, and be willing to question everything; to innovate and try new approaches.  As the field of social entrepreneurship has gotten bigger, there is a tendency to slide back into old models.  It is a natural tendency – but we have to fight it.  We need to continue to develop new models and strive for self-sufficiency.

That means identifying models that have helped address another issue and think about how those models can be applied in new ways.  It also means applying modern business practices and approaches to rethink the social sector. First Book is using predictive analytics and big data to help make new strides in our work:  from understanding the resources that educators need most, to determining which educators are more likely to utilize First Book’s resources.  We want to fuel learning and educational equality as fast as we can, with approaches that help us reach as many children and teachers as possible, as quickly as we can.

Another social sector initiative that I am championing is that we have more dialogue around how we are failing. In fact, that we make it an expectation and place value on the discussion of failure. I’m working with a partner organization to host a series of moderated panel discussions on just this topic.  We want to create a new norm, where funders regularly request – and expect – to hear about failure and that we share those failures willingly because we know that what didn’t work is just as important as what did work to move the needle on what we can try next.  I believe this is critical if we want to further the field.

Why do you continue to do what you do? And how do you sustain yourself in the process? 

I continue to do this work because I know this is a solvable problem.  Educated people make sure their children are educated.  That is the simple and powerful truth.  So when you educate a generation, they will make sure their kids are educated as well.  This is especially true when we invest in educating women.  And it is true in countries all over the world. This means that if we put our minds to it – we could solve this problem in one generation.

While we have a long way to go to reach every child and to solve the issue, as we approach our 25th anniversary, I’m more hopeful than I’ve ever been.  We’ve had a lot of success.  We’ve piloted a lot of things that have worked.  Now we need to amplify and build up our systems – and be part of a grand new era – where teachers have everything they need to fuel equal education for all children.

What advice would you share with others setting out on their own entrepreneurial path? 

My advice would be this:

  • You don’t need to know everything. 
  • Instead, make a list of the 10 smartest people you can think of.  You don’t have to know them.  Then call them; ask them questions.  Tell them about your challenges and ask if they’ll help you think of solutions.  My experience is that 9 out of 10 people are happy to help and flattered that you asked them.  
  • Celebrate your milestones!  And then set the next ones even higher.
  • Do not fear failure. Remember:  You can fail without ever succeeding – but you cannot succeed without ever failing. 
  • Understand this:  the social sector needs experimentation and people who are willing to try.  Look at the failure rate of new businesses.  If we’re not doubling that rate to address social issues, then shame on us. 

Anything else you’d like to add? 

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on this wild ride of the last 10 years.  As our world becomes smaller and more intertwined, as poverty, climate change and other issues reach critical stages, the role of social entrepreneurs has never been more important.  We are the mediators, facilitators, and change agents, unbeholden to political parties, military regimes or institutional priorities.  It is our collective actions, our self-sustaining models and our ability to galvanize public willpower that help achieve the social change needed to provide opportunities for a more peaceful and prosperous world. 

 

Thank you so much Kyle of long-term dedication and tenacity to keep going. It is so inspiring to read of your growth and continued commitment to the transformative power of education.

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