Real Leaders

One Woman, 100 Million Books

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

In 1992, Kyle Zimmer, then a corporate attorney, was volunteering as a tutor regularly at a soup kitchen in Washington DC. Realizing that the kids she was working with had no books to call their own, she set out with some friends to remedy the situation. Little did she know that her volunteer project would evolve to become First Book and her network of “friends” would become one of the secrets to success.

Twenty years and 100 million brand-new books later, Kyle continues to lead First Book, the nonprofit social enterprise she co-founded, to ensure that local schools and community programs across the country serving children from low-income families would have a steady supply of brand-new, high quality books they so desperately needed.

As a business person, I am perhaps most impressed by how she accomplished this amazing achievement. She first connected with publishers who routinely disposed of books they didn’t sell. Over time she now has convinced 90 publishers to provide even best-sellers to the group at bargain basement prices. Applying good business principals to the nonprofit world led to two groundbreaking programs – First Book National Book Bank and First Book Marketplace.

First Book National Book Bank is the nation’s largest clearinghouse for publisher’s excess inventory, one that gives them an efficient way to donate large quantities of new books – for free – to thousands of worthy programs. They help publishers save the cost of multiple book shipments to fulfill donation requests. Instead, they make a large scale shipment to The National Book Bank, and First Book “connects the dots” to qualified programs.

As part of the qualification process, it became apparent there was a huge need across the country so Kyle connected programs in need, ranging from regular classroom teachers in impoverished areas to a wide variety of nonprofits. By combining the collective purchasing power of 50,000 schools and programs they serve into a single network, the First Book Marketplace, Kyle was able to convince publishers they would be reaching a new market worth their investment as the future of publishing depends on a new generation of readers. This groundbreaking new models is an award-winning, self-sustaining program that purchases new books and makes them available to educators and program leaders at affordable prices – at prices 50-90% below retail.

Not surprisingly, Kyle is not resting on what’s been accomplished so far, but instead continuing to innovate. Her market of teachers and leaders told her there weren’t enough stories their readers found relatable. Their latest program, The Stories for All Project, was a deliberate act of what Kyle describes as “collaborative disruption.”

First Book is new actively investing in the publishing industry by providing $1 million in funding to develop multicultural titles that include black and Hispanic characters in urban settings by authors from diverse backgrounds. They believe that promoting the needs and preferences of their network of consumers, they are actually building the market and giving the publishing industry a real reason to produce more diverse titles.

Over time, as the market for more diverse titles grows, that content will be available to all children, not just the kids in the schools and programs that First Book works with. Every child needs to experience the full spectrum of cultures and life experiences. The Stories for All Project will, in the end, benefit all children.

It is this kind of thinking that makes me a huge fan of First Book, Kyle Zimmer and the wonderful team that work together to “collaboratively disrupt” by paying attention to the markets they serve and creating innovative solutions applying best business practices to social issues.


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