President: Kyle Zimmer
Winner of the 2007 "Outstanding Social Entrepreneur" award from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship
When Kyle Zimmer cofounded First Book in 1992, one staggering statistic stuck in her head: The reading skill level for low-income kids in the United States had been flat for nearly a quarter-century. She decided that to move the needle on literacy, she would have to link her effort to the most powerful force she could find—business.
"Business is the biggest jet engine out there," Zimmer says. "I knew if I was going to gain any significant ground, I had to harness the power of that engine."
First Book focuses on the distribution problem behind the literacy problem: 80% of preschool programs serving low-income kids don't have age-appropriate books. Initially, it launched a special catalog of discounted first-run children's books for the literacy organizations First Book serves. Then Zimmer enlisted publishers to donate their children's books.
Now, First Book is testing an online marketplace venture that aggregates the buying power of community-based literacy organizations to secure special print runs of children's books from publishers. Zimmer has already managed to publish a 5,000-copy paperback edition of a book called Playing Loteria, a bilingual tale told in Spanish and English.
The marketplace brings in new revenue to First Book. And it exposes publishers to an audience they otherwise would not reach—"a 'base of the pyramid' initiative in the most unexpected place," as Schwab Foundation executive director Pamela Hartigan observes. "Not India, not Brazil, not South Africa—but the U.S.A." —CD
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship selects one Social Capitalist Award winner each year to join its network of Schwab fellows—and to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Number of books First Book has put in kids' hands since 1992: 40 million
A version of this article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.