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Kyle Zimmer of First Book: “Reach out to others, because someone out there has the experience, knowledge or contacts — or all three — that can help you”

Reach out to others, because someone out there has the experience, knowledge or contacts — or all three — that can help you. I tell younger entrepreneurs to make a list of the 10 smartest people who may have insight on the problem you’re facing — and contact them. Even if you don’t know them. […]

Reach out to others, because someone out there has the experience, knowledge or contacts — or all three — that can help you. I tell younger entrepreneurs to make a list of the 10 smartest people who may have insight on the problem you’re facing — and contact them. Even if you don’t know them. Actually, ESPECIALLY if you don’t know them. Most people are flattered that you want their insights. If you can connect with 2 or 3 people on your list, you can transform your work.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kyle Zimmer. Kyle is the President, CEO and Co-founder of First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that furthers equal access to quality education for the more than 31 million U.S. children ages 0–18 growing up poor/near poor. Under Kyle’s leadership, the award-winning organization has developed a research arm to give a voice to educators working with kids in poverty, and powerful market-driven models that elevate the insights of educators at schools and programs on the front lines and then leverages their collective economic strengths to deliver critical resources/services to address barriers to learning. The nonprofit has distributed more than 185 million books and educational resources, valued at more than $1.5 billion at retail. Those educational resources include basic needs items, school supplies, and resources that provide educators with research-based strategies on issues such as cultural inclusion and social and emotional learning. Kyle’s commitment to innovation and collaboration has earned her a reputation as a social sector leader. She and First Book have been honored with awards from the National Book Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Authors Guild, the National Education Association (NEA) Foundation, Fast Company, the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and more. She serves on the boards of directors for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P., as well as for Youth Venture, and Ashoka, which works to support the finest social entrepreneurs in more than 70 countries.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s, and started to also volunteer at a soup kitchen. At that time, the crack epidemic had hit D.C., and kids were coming in off the streets looking for adult support. I felt like my time with them would be best spent if I could read with them — but I learned they didn’t have any books at home, and neither did the soup kitchen. I started visiting local schools and programs and realized how poorly resourced the schools were. I started reading research studies and became increasingly aware that this wasn’t an isolated issue, but the norm in low-income communities across the country. What I saw contradicted everything I believe.

For me education is everything — and books are the key ingredient to education. It is completely unacceptable that in the richest country in the world, kids in need and the schools and programs serving them don’t have access to books. Of course, there are a lot of other significant issues — but this lack of access to books and educational resources means that the door to a fair education is never really open for children from low-income families. Once you witness this level of injustice, you must do something. I think that fundamentally, I am a private sector person, so I made myself a student of the publishing industry and I also talked to schools and programs to learn more about why this situation existed. Based on what we learned, two friends and I started First Book in 1992 as a nonprofit social enterprise with the goal of creating a new, systemic approach to permanently solve this issue.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The MOST interesting story? Wow, no pressure there! First Book has the largest network of formal and informal educators working with children and families in need — and the most interesting, impactful and thought-provoking stories always come from the educators and kids we serve. Like:

· There’s the lunch lady in rural Iowa who knew that some kids coming to school in the morning hadn’t eaten since the school lunch the day before. Realizing that this kind of poverty was in their community, she and other volunteers refurbished a school bus to deliver meals and books to kids in their district over the summer months. Distributing books with food doubles the power of her program — so she can address summer hunger as well as the summer slide in reading skills. I will never get over witnessing this kind of innovative compassion.

· And the teachers who have used our free online resources like our Trauma Toolkit, with tips on how to support students experiencing childhood trauma. Eighty-five percent of educators surveyed said they already had shared the toolkit with colleagues, including some using the kit for professional development training. One educator told us, “Teachers learned so much and have started making changes to the way they respond to students in their classrooms who have experienced trauma.”

· I am also blown away by the response of Network members to the surveys and research work we are doing to identify the issues they and their students face. They know that there is inadequate and inconsistent data that conveys the real challenges in the lives of kids in poverty — and they are stepping right up by the tens of thousands to tell the story. Their insights are critically important.

I could go on and on. Good thing you only asked for one story, right?

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Boy, do I have one! In our early days, we had 2 million books that had been donated by publishers that we were trying to distribute to area schools — and one school agreed to be the host site. We were scrambling with all the logistics. We had to line up trucks; we had to recruit volunteers to help unload; we had to alert teachers and organize pallets of books so teachers could select titles. But everyone jumped in to make it happen and we were so excited: TWO MILLION BOOKS!

The big day arrived for the book distribution and — with the news cameras rolling — one of the donated trucks that pulled up to the school turned out to be a beer truck with a big beer ad on the side. Well, the optics of a beer truck delivering to a school caused a bit of commotion — not to mention the fact that someone called the police because the truck was blocking traffic. I learned two things in the process: First, details matter. And second, you never know where critical help will come from. There are a lot of heroes who care.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes First Book stand out is that we are entrepreneurs and we are never satisfied. We constantly work to identify the major barriers between kids in need and quality education. When we recognize a major barrier, we sharpen our pencils and we build large scale solutions to attack the barriers. One of our major accomplishments is that we have aggregated the unique, collective voice of educators serving kids in need. This First Book Network currently numbers more than 450,000 educators, with 1,000 educators joining every week!

We started with a model we called the First Book National Book Bank, which became North America’s central clearinghouse for donated excess inventory from publishers. This enabled us to provide free books to schools and programs serving kids in need for only the cost of shipping and handling.

We then launched the First Book Marketplace, an award-winning nonprofit eCommerce site that provides educators with thousands of new, free and affordable books and resources. First Book negotiates the lowest prices possible and purchases on a guaranteed, non-returnable basis from publishers. Based on input from educators, First Book has served as a catalyst for diverse, inclusive titles to increase access to books that are relevant to kids in need — with stories and characters that reflect children’s cultures, families and experiences. First Book’s Stories for All ProgramTM includes books that celebrate different races, ethnicities and cultures, as well as different religions, sexual identity, family structures, individual abilities and more. And because educators need resources to support kids who are coming to school cold, hungry and suffering from chronic stress, we’ve expanded the resources on the First Book Marketplace to include winter coats, socks, nonperishable snacks, hygiene and feminine hygiene products and other basic needs items.

While books will always be core to what we do, we will continue to evolve based on input from educators.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we have two new initiatives that we are very excited about. Recognizing that data is king — and that there is no real-time quantitative and qualitative platform focused on children in poverty, First Book has established a research arm called First Book Research & Insights. Our Network of educators is working on the front lines with kids in need at schools and programs throughout our communities and across the country — and they have an unprecedented understanding of the unique challenges facing our kids. First Book is committed to amplifying our educators’ voices. Frankly, these educators have very few venues to share what they are seeing. They care deeply about our children and they are desperate to be part of the solutions. The input we receive from educators is critical to support our nation’s most vulnerable children. Through First Book Research & Insights, educators feel like someone is finally asking — on an ongoing basis — about what they are seeing, and taking action based on their input. R&I informs not only the field of education, but the broader social sector focused on poverty. As a country, we will not make progress on poverty until we have the ability to tell the story — and data is essential to that.

The second initiative that we’re excited about is the First Book Accelerator, which is focused on dramatically decreasing the time for research-based, best-in-class strategies and insights to reach educators serving children in need. While the for-profit sector is adept at quickly turning customer insights into new products or product improvements, the nonprofit sector is woefully behind. New strategies and insights about, for example, child development can take 15–20 years to reach practitioners serving children in need. First Book partners with subject matter experts to transform their evidence-based strategies into actionable educator resources and distribute them to thousands of educators in a matter of weeks, rather than years. We’ve already applied this model to expedite new resources to help educators support issues like social and emotional learning, unconscious bias, and ways to promote empathy and understanding in their classrooms. These resources are often available with curated book collections, videos, recorded webinars or tip sheets that include how to talk about these issues with children and their parents. For example, educators have raved about the Trauma Toolkit that we developed to support children experiencing trauma.

Educators can’t wait 15 or 20 years for this type of support; they need these resources to help children right now! The integration of First Book Research & Insights, identifying what issues children and educators are facing, and the First Book Accelerator, to rapidly develop and deliver resources that address those issues, is a powerful combination!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

My advice would be to stop feeling like you don’t know enough or being afraid of failing. First, none of us know enough, nor do we have all the answers. The important thing is to keep asking questions that can contribute to new ideas and new solutions.

And on the issue of failing: the very nature of being an entrepreneur and a leader means that you are there to think differently about issues, to try new approaches, and some of those are going to fail. The path to any invention or innovation is littered with failures. Every famous person who has ever succeeded has failed — and usually very significantly, before contributing their success to the world. The truth is: you can fail without ever succeeding, but you cannot succeed without ever failing. The trick is to dust yourself off and chalk it up to one more thing you know doesn’t work.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

My advice is to hire great people, be clear about your expectations, and then let them do their j-o-b-s. It is critical to communicate your expectations up front and consistently. It’s equally important to be clear when people aren’t meeting those expectations — to explain why, and then allow people to articulate what they’re going to change so they start meeting them. Quite simply — hire leaders and then let them lead.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

We know that it’s often the founder, the president, the CEO who gets the credit for an organization’s success, but the idea that one person achieves success on their own is fiction. It doesn’t happen that way. In my case, I’ve been lucky to have heroes supporting me all along the way:

· My Mother, who baked into my DNA the power of education and activism to support social change.

· Bill Drayton, who is the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, and is the father of social enterprise. Bill has taught me so much. He has been a mentor and a champion for me for decades.

· My friends Peter Gold and Elizabeth Arky, who co-founded First Book with me and who have spent many a long night helping to think through solutions or who we collectively know who can help us further our mission.

· And I owe enormous gratitude to the team at First Book, who, of course, have changed over our organization’s 27-year history. First Book — and I, personally, have benefited from such an amazing group of smart, committed, compassionate people who’ve been in the trenches with me, giving their all to support our nation’s kids and educators. We would not be here without them.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At First Book, we believe in collaboration, not competition. So, we make our models, like the First Book Marketplace, available, meaning that any organization serving 70% or more children and families in need is eligible to access books and resources from First Book. This allows fellow nonprofits, teachers’ unions, and other organizations to bring more books and resources to more children and families. By pulling them together we are building nation-wide collaborative platforms.

This also allows us to look at how can we work together to really move the needle. How can we further educational opportunity for kids in need? What new resources or tools are needed by educators or kids growing up poor/near poor? Our collective success depends on how we work together to answer these types of questions.

For years, I have also served as a regular guest lecturer at several universities to cultivate the next generation of social entrepreneurs. We have brilliant young people who are eager to contribute to addressing the world’s challenges — and hearing from practicing social entrepreneurs provides real-world examples. I have found these interactions to be as valuable and inspiring for me as I hope it is for students.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1) Reach out to others, because someone out there has the experience, knowledge or contacts — or all three — that can help you. I tell younger entrepreneurs to make a list of the 10 smartest people who may have insight on the problem you’re facing — and contact them. Even if you don’t know them. Actually, ESPECIALLY if you don’t know them. Most people are flattered that you want their insights. If you can connect with 2 or 3 people on your list, you can transform your work.

2) Create a culture that detoxifies failure. At First Book, we give an annual “Brick Wall” award to the person who develops a great idea, but for some reason or other, the idea hits a brick wall and doesn’t work. The goal is to promote innovation and acknowledge that not every new idea will succeed, but that it’s important to keep trying.

3) Experiment. Constantly. Sometimes we fall in love with the way we’ve always done something. But the world is changing all the time — and people’s needs are changing, and technology is changing, and markets are changing. If we had been complacent with our First Book National Book Bank, we would never have created the First Book Marketplace. While both are important, the First Book Marketplace is a critical platform for distributing a full range of resources that are responsive to educator needs.

4) Keep your sense of humor. In fact, ask yourself: what is funny about this situation? We all have tough spots in our business and personal lives. A sense of humor can help us manage stress and can help diffuse challenging situations so we can get past it and think about what’s next.

5) Don’t compare yourself to others. There are days you are going to feel like you are completely at the top of your game and in control; and the next day something happens, and you feel like a complete failure. The real rock stars are those who continue to innovate and continue to build.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I cannot think of a better effort than the one that First Book is leading: to inspire a movement in which we give ALL our children — regardless of their zip code — an equal education and an equal opportunity to reach their potential. This is the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. It is a fundamental human right.

We’re a country that talks about fairness and the importance of education. But we’re doing it on the backs of teachers, expecting them to do everything, while criticizing them and expecting them to pay for what they need out of their own pockets. Not only are our kids paying the price, but we’re losing educators and we’re losing as a society. Think of all the brilliant future doctors, engineers, artists, poets, police officers, and teachers we are losing because we are not educating our children.

Supporting equal access to quality education means supporting our teachers, prioritizing investments in education, and making sure that we are engaged with our schools and programs as community members and that we express these values to our state and federal policymakers.

It is impossible to overstate the amount of good to the most people that comes from education. Making sure our teachers have the resources they need, and that our children have equal educational opportunities has a ripple effect — that lifts families out of poverty, reduces violence in our neighborhoods, enables a competitive workforce, improves our nation’s health, and contributes to peaceful, safe and just communities. If I could wave my magic wand, that is the movement I’d want to inspire.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I learned my favorite life lesson quote from my Mom. She told us: “There are a lot of important issues in the world. Pick one and devote your life to it.” There’s hardly a week that goes by that I don’t think about her message to the five of us. It inspires me to continue to focus on what I can do to advance equal access to quality education as a basic human right.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would value a meeting with Michelle Obama because she understands the power of education to transform lives — and the realities facing our country’s more than 31 million children growing up poor/near poor and the educators dedicated to them. She was acquainted with First Book in our earlier days, and our models have evolved considerably since then to address the enormous challenges facing our kids and our educators. I know she would have valuable input to elevate our research arm, First Book Research & Insights, to further the social sector, and to build on the resources we are developing through the First Book Accelerator — as well as other new initiatives that are in the works. She’s incredibly smart and thoughtful and is similarly driven by the belief that every child should have equal access to quality education to reach their potential.

Click here for more information on FIRST BOOK!

· The organization will launch its first-ever ‘GIVE A MILLION campaign on Giving Tuesday (December 3, 2019); the campaign aims to raise $1 million to get 1 million new, high-quality books to kids in need this holiday season.

· Anyone can give a book to a child by donating $1 on http://bit.ly/firstbook1M.

· Educators will be able to choose the books that best suit their students’ needs from the new, high-quality inventory of books donated in bulk quantities by top publishers. Available titles include Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggy, The Mortal Instruments, Divergent, The Space Between Us, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Polar Express, and selections from Marvel and Star Wars.

Click HERE to donate any amount you choose, from $1 on up. $100 will support a classroom, $500 will support a grade level, $1,000 will support a school, and $5,000 will support a community! Please use the following hashtag so everyone can help with #giveamillion on ‘Giving Tuesday

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