The following is a conversation between David Risher, President and co-founder of Worldreader, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Many parents complain that their children spend far too much time on their cell phones and are delighted when they put it down for a minute and pick up a book. But in many parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, that book simply does not exist, and it’s a cell phone that brings the magic reading and books to millions upon millions; and that’s due in large part to an organization called Worldreader, and it’s a pleasure to have with us its co-founder and president, David Risher. Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
David: It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks, Denver.
Denver: Tell us about Worldreader and the mission of the organization.
David: Our mission is simple. We want to get a billion people reading. It sounds simple when I say it, or maybe it doesn’t. The thesis is, with a little bit of technology, some great local content and reading support, you can get millions upon millions of people reading around the world.
For me, reading has opened all of my opportunities.
You were a huge reader yourself as a kid. In fact, you would walk home with your nose in a book, and you’re also a Radio Shack guy. Always in the store, always exploring. So Worldreader, in many ways, marries two of your great passions, tech and reading. Tell us a little bit about your journey before you started Worldreader.
David: As you say, I grew up as a reader. My mother would drop my brother and me off at the Bethesda Public Library when she would go off shopping at Safeway, and we’d come home with a big stack of books, and we’d read them all by Tuesday. Next weekend, she’d bring us back and drop us off again, and that was sort of our babysitter. For me, reading has opened all of my opportunities. I was actually raised by a single mother. So, really a lot of my own exploring in the world started with reading.
And as you say, technology also mattered a lot to me. In fact, it turns out, my mother…she and I were just talking about this… she started her own business, and one of the things she had to buy was an Apple II Plus computer to do her invoicing and write her proposals and so forth. My handwriting was terrible, so the combination of bad handwriting plus liking computers, I’d type at the computer; I’d get better grades as a result. I loved reading. It just kind of came together. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that was my childhood.
Denver: It makes perfect sense. If there was a moment of conception for Worldreader, it very well may have been outside a girl’s orphanage in Ecuador while you and your wife and two daughters were on vacation. Tell us what happened there.
David: My wife and I made a decision– which was a big decision in our lives– and that was to spend an entire year traveling around the world with our daughters. Of course, most people don’t have this opportunity but for whatever reason, my wife and I are both people of action; we said: “ If we’ve got an idea, let’s get this thing done.”
…the idea of the world’s knowledge being locked up inside… reflecting a little bit not only on my own upbringing, but reading to my own daughters, noticing that we actually had Kindles as we were traveling. At that time, this was an expensive, niche, a $400 device, but we were using it to read ourselves. It just sort of came together. I said: This is the moment.
Denver: Part of your five-year plan.
David: That was exactly what it was. I had worked at Amazon for many years. In business, you come up with your five-year plans for your business. So, the idea was: can we come up with a five-year plan for our family?
So we spent about a year going to 19 countries… and that’s a longer story. But as you say, we found ourselves in a girl’s orphanage in Ecuador. Doing the things that you do. We brought them some towels and some writing implements, and just sort of spending some time with the girls. At the end of our day there, as we were walking out of the orphanage, I saw a building with a big padlock on it. I asked the woman who ran the orphanage what’s going on? She said, “That’s our library.”
I asked myself, now wait a minute. That doesn’t sound good. So, I asked: “Why is it locked?” And she said, “Look, the books come by boat. It’ll take forever to get here. By the time they get here, they’re out of date, or they are somebody else’s old, junky encyclopedia, or accounting manual from the 1970s.” So, I said, “Gosh. Can we take a look inside?” And she said, “You know, I think I’ve lost the key in that place.”
Denver: (Reaction of shock)
David: That was exactly how I felt. Again, I was a reader as a kid. That’s how I explored the world. So, the idea of the world’s knowledge being locked up inside… reflecting a little bit not only on my own upbringing, but reading to my own daughters, noticing that we actually had Kindles as we were traveling. At that time, this was an expensive, niche, a $400 device, but we were using it to read ourselves. It just sort of came together. I said: This is the moment.
Denver: Bring digital reading to this part of the world.
A lot of people get good ideas like this, but not many people act on those ideas. They tend to die in the shower. What did you do to help launch this concept?
David: I’ve come to think that everything in life is some combination of romance and practicality. So, the romance was again around reading and something that I’ve very passionate about and can change people’s lives. The practicality was: look, I’d worked at Amazon for many years. I knew a lot of the Kindle team. I thought they might be supportive of this idea if put in front of them. This was back in 2008, 2009. But still, I was hopeful that that would be the case. And this may be a character defect, or maybe an outcome of working at Microsoft for many years and Amazon for many years, but I’ve been taught to think big. You mix your temperament and your skills and so forth… with the romance of: Let’s do something good for the world; I almost found I couldn’t not do it.
Denver: So, you started it, and you started in Ghana. How did you choose that country?
David: Again some pragmatics with some romance. The romance, my own heritage; my father’s father was actually an undertaker in Washington, DC. I don’t talk about this very much. My father’s father was educated, but more self-educated. Many generations in Washington DC, many many… six generations in Washington DC. But if you look way back in my own heritage, it’s West African; it’s Ghanaian or it’s Nigerian or it’s something. So, part of this is just my own heritage and being interested and, frankly, helping a part of the world that’s desperate for some help. “Desperate” is a strong word, but “could use some help” Let’s put it that way.
Another part of it was just thinking, Look, if this can work in a part of the world where the infrastructure was poor but getting better; digital infrastructure… cell phones are coming on the scene; the need is so great, the literacy level is low, but growing. And it’s really hard to work yourself out of the situation of sort of poverty or development without education. It just sort of felt like all the ingredients were there.
The pragmatics– a friend of ours introduced us to a woman who used to run orphanages in Ghana. Turned them over to the education ministry to use at schools, and she said, ”Look. If you want to start working in Africa, Ghana is a reasonable place to start. It’s a stable country, been stable since 1957.” So, again, it all just came together.
… it’s very hard to be your best self if you can’t interact with the world unless other people give you information.
Denver: You mentioned a second ago the literacy rate was low. What is the impact of illiteracy on the trajectory of one’s life?
David: It is a killer. I can say that in a couple of ways. First, on a very personal level, it’s very hard to be your best self if you can’t interact with the world unless other people give you information. Imagine a world, and you can almost imagine this a little bit as a thought experiment. But if you’ve done any traveling, when you’ve gone through a country where maybe the script is different. You go to China, you go to Vietnam, or you go to a part of the world where you can’t even— Greece; you can’t even read the words, and you’re just so isolated. So isolated, you can’t be your best self. You’re operating at 10%.
But then let’s broaden that a little bit. A child born to a mother who is literate has a 50% greater chance of living past age 5; 50% greater chance! Astounding! It’s a health outcome. Look at safety. There are companies in the United States that when they design prisons, they look at the literacy rate of a community. The lower the literacy rate, the bigger the prison. Illiteracy leads to radicalization, and it holds people back from being economic powers. You can’t be a consumer. You can’t be a producer. You’re never going to be a great inventor if you can’t read. So, it is everything from almost a sort of personal human right to sort of a societal need for its population.
Denver: Pretty foundational, that’s for sure.
What’s the process of doing this, David? How do you get these books in digital format and eventually to mobile readers? How do you decide on what books? What kind of deals do you make with the publishers? Whose phones do they go on?
David: These are all great questions, and I suspect if we had thought every one of them through, we never would have started.
This is actually a great character defect, sometimes oversimplifying things, because by oversimplifying, you can move forward. There are a couple of components. First, you’ve got to find some hardware, because we’re using technology. In schools and in libraries, we use Kindle, and then increasingly low-cost tablets. Sometimes we get them or buy them from Amazon or from Huawei. Amazon actually very generously, we can talk about this later, but they’ve just recently made tens of thousands of contribution of Kindles to us. That’s one of the ways.
Then we have to go to the publishers. As you say, without the content, nothing happens. That too is kind of complicated. You have US publishers. With them really typically, they’ve been very generous with us; the Simon and Schuster’s of the world, the Penguin, Random Houses. We go and we say, Look, you’re not selling a lot of Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or Magic Treehouse Series in Ghana or in Kenya, in Rwanda or Tanzania. So, we negotiate with them, and typically, they’ll let us use the books for free– the digital books, but it takes some work.
As important as that is, even more important is working with local publishers, and one of the other insights that I think we had was: books start off as mirrors, and the they become windows. You have to see yourself. You’ve got to be able to see people going through your issues. I can tell you some of the most popular books in our program at another time. You very quickly realize that if you don’t have local books, even if they’re in English, but locally published books, you’re not going to be speaking directly to these kids.
We digitize the books. We meta tag the books. We do all sorts of crazy stuff. We put them on the devices. A lot of that happens in San Francisco at our headquarters, and then we package them all up in literally shipping containers and send them to places like Ghana or Kenya. And then we have local staff and local partners that actually do the reading support with teachers and librarians and so forth. It’s a bit of a complicated process, but we try to make it easy, and we try to make it very efficient.
Denver: You’ve explained it very well. It’s such a big process, and you have so many programs, you have organized them around four stages of your readers’ lives. Tell us what those stages are.
David: We realized a couple of years in.. in our first view is: Let’s start with schools because that, of course, is where kids learn how to read in the most formal setting. But then, we sort of stepped back and said, Look, in a sense by the time you get to school, it’s sort of already a little bit late. Really, all the research shows that the earlier you start with reading, the better. In fact, that’s actually true in almost any intervention you can think of. The earlier you start in a person’s life, the bigger the impact will be.
More recently, we’ve been working with what we call pre-readers. Mothers reading to their children from a very young age. The first stage is pre-reading; that’s mothers reading to their kids. That’s a cell phone-based program. We’ll talk about that separately. Second is school. Working in schools. That’s number two, the second pillar. Third is libraries. Of course, a huge amount of reading happens in libraries as you would expect and hope, but as the world gets digital, we can help them remain relevant, and even more relevant as they can do some community outreach and so forth. Then we have a lifelong reading program. Literally people reading on the bus as they come home after work.
Denver: You also have an open library. What are some of the more popular genres that are taken out of that library?
David: This is one of the biggest surprises for us. Again, let’s just sort of step back for a second. One of the interesting characteristics of working digitally and with technology is you get the data. You don’t have to guess anymore. You don’t have to wonder. I wonder if anyone’s reading that book. So, to your point, among adults, some of the most popular literature is romance. It’s a little bit surprising. So, I was in Kenya last year, and I asked the young women there. These were 18-year-old girls actually, why they liked romance so much. Of course, some of them sort of laughed a little bit. But then they say, it’s very very hard for us to talk about issues of sexuality. It’s very hard to talk about issues of relationships, particularly non-traditional relationships. Very, very hard. And very hard to get information like that in a way that feels reliable and private and personal and safe. That’s actually exactly the word.
So, that was it…reproductive health, also particularly among young women and girls; sexually transmitted diseases; these are obviously nonfictional books, but that genre and set of genres is very very important to our readers. And then you move to books like for adults. How to Get Your Next Job,. What Color Is Your Parachute? The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – These are also very, very important books because people want to work; they just sometimes don’t have the skills or they don’t have all the tools.
Denver: Even though more men have mobile phones, and you may have more male readers perhaps…but, boy! Women read a lot, lot more than the men, don’t they?
David: They sure do. And I think some of that again is reading on a cell phone is a little bit more private, and you can find the books that you want to read, not just the books that somebody else thinks you should be reading. Particularly among adults, women out-read men almost six to one. Crazy.
Denver: Push that home button if you don’t want anybody to see what you’re reading real quick. That just disappears.
What are some of your numbers – the number of readers you had last year, how many countries you’re in, how many languages?
David: Again, that’s the beautiful thing about technology is it gives you so much data. So, I’ll start with the big numbers. We’ve reached about 7 million people over our last eight years. It is a bit of a feeling of an accomplishment. At the same time, look, we want to unlock the potential of a billion people; so we’ve got a ways to go. When you think about how many readers read every month in our schools and libraries we work with and so forth, it’s about 700,000 people every single month, and it’s really interesting, just to go one level deeper on that.
We just looked at the number of people who have checked out, our e-readers in libraries in Kenya. Just that number alone, over 18 months, is over 500,000 times. So, this is the nice thing about digital is you can scale quickly and get big fast. But again, if you look at the number of books, we have about somewhere over 40,000 books in over 40 languages now, 350 publishers. I know these numbers can start to be a bit overwhelming, but, again, the thing about digital is you can get big fast if you’re smart about it, if you’re focused. That’s about where we are.
Denver: What is the cost for you to reach each reader?
David: It depends on the program. If you’re in a school or in a library, for $50 we can get you, and typically you’ll be sharing this, but you’ll get an e-reader with about 100 books and support that will last for anywhere from three to five years. So $50 to unlock a library of books, it’s a pretty good return.
Denver: It’s a sweet deal. No doubt about it.
As you mentioned, one of the big advantages I think you have coming from the tech sector is the idea of scaling is really second nature to you. That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s easy. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in scaling Worldreader and getting to that next level and towards that one billion?
David: This is an area where we have learned a lot. I think when you’re starting an organization, you’ve got some ideas that are right. You have some other things that you figure out along the way. One of the things we figured out is scaling for us means almost going system by system, and what I mean by that is: let’s look at schools for example. Within schools within a country, you really need to figure out: What’s the district? What’s the unit that you can sort of flip to digital because once you flip that unit, in this case, the district; I’m thinking specifically of a school district in Ghana where we’ve been working for a number of years; that can be the proof point, and then other districts can sort of follow suit and then entire countries can follow suit. One of the things that we think a lot about is: What are these units that we can flip entirely to digital?
I’ll give you another example. The library system where we’ve been working in Kenya; this is the Kenyan National Library Service; they have 61 libraries. We’re in every one of the libraries, all 61 libraries.
Denver: That’s wonderful.
David: And they love it. That’s not just pride speaking. We’ve got the data; we talk to them often. Now, we’re taking what we’ve done in Kenya, and we’re replicating it in Ghana, in Uganda, and in Zambia. There’s a little bit of a step-by-step approach. Sometimes, it’s at district level. Sometimes it’s a library system level. But our view is: if we can flip some of these to digital, then we can make digital reading as normal as turning on the faucet and getting water, or turning on the television watching Sesame Street… whatever might be… these types of things.
Denver: In looking at other organizations who are in this field of trying to promote education and reading, where does Worldreader fit into that ecosystem? Do you partner with other NGOs?
David: We do. When we look at our core values, actually partnership is at the top of the list. In fact, there’s a great Kenyan expression which says,” If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together.”
Denver: That’s great.
David: It turns out to be one of these deep truths that you can’t do anything at scale alone. We partner with other education organizations; Pencils of Promise I know is an organization that you know… they’re New York based, but they have work in Ghana. Great organization! They’ve been great partners of ours over the years. We work with another group called Bridge International Academy which actually runs low-cost private schools, again, across Africa and India.
In India, we worked with the community outreach organization. This may come as a surprise, but the community outreach organization there that’s most interesting is one that works with new mothers; and for the equivalent of let’s say $4, they get four different visits to the health clinic, and one of those visits is all about the importance of reading to your child. So, we’re trying to partner with other organizations that are like-minded, have similar values, that can really sort of extend the reach and impact of our work to get to ultimately millions of people.
Denver: It’s always fantastic to plug into those already established lines of communication and be an agenda item or a visit item. And, boy, you reach a lot more people that way and very inexpensively and effectively as well!
You also partner with corporations, among them, Microsoft and Amazon. Having been on both sides of that fence, what do you think are some of the keys to an effective partnership between a nonprofit organization and a for-profit business?
David: I think this is a very deep question because I think the first answer you’ll probably get isn’t maybe the best answer. Broadly speaking, the partnership has to benefit both parties. In some sense it is that simple. In some sense. But I’ll use Amazon as an example; actually, I’ll give you two if you don’t mind.
With Amazon, we went to them and asked them to give us 10,000 Kindles to help us scale across an entire school district in Ghana, to reach 45,000 children… the same school district I was just referring to. And our early conversation with them was around marketing. “Do this, and it will make you look better as a company.” Just being straightforward here. They said, “You know what? I’m not sure it’s our best marketing idea. We might have better marketing ideas. But what you can do for us is you can really help us understand the next billion readers that we’re going to have some day across the continent of Africa and India.” That’s actually 2.4 billion between the two of them.
So by partnering with us, we were giving something that they really wanted, which was knowledge and insight. They said, “Look, we’re going to follow along with you. We don’t know when the world is going to flip to digital, but we believe the thesis. When it does… the developing world, we want to be right there, and we want to be smart about it. We don’t want to be starting from scratch.”
Denver: That’s a deep relationship. That’s not a cosmetic relationship, and a quick hit. That’s a deep, deep relationship.
David: To exactly this point, they now send engineers down to our office. We’re one of their biggest customers, right, for institutional use of Kindles outside the United States. So, they literally send people to us, and they ask for our advice on some products that they’re developing and so forth. So, it’s very, very clear. We get something from it, but so do they.
I’ll give you a second example. Pearson is the world’s largest education company. It started as a publisher; now they do all sorts of things in the education and publishing space. They helped us fund our Worldreader Kids Program, which is the one that gets parents reading to their children from a very very young age. Again, this is enlightened self-interest. Someday, if the next billion people in India become readers, that’s going to be very important for Pearson.
But let’s be clear. It’s a long-term bet. The short-term bet though is they’re going to learn alongside us. What they said, and this is very kind of them… and I take them at their word… they said, “Your level of innovation and your use of data and technology… frankly, we have some things to learn.” You can actually teach us along the way, as we sort of help develop for market in the very long term. I’m actually not…some people maybe want to apologize about relationships between for-profit and nonprofit corporations; I feel the opposite. I feel like you have to find that area where there’s intersection of interest and then go for it, and that’s how you get a billion people reading.
Denver: It’s the only way nonprofit can scale, to be quite frank about it. There’s no other way that it can be done.
David: That’s right.
Denver: I think it’s such an interesting observation you have. Organizations like yours have the long view, but we sometimes in the nonprofit sector assume that companies don’t have the long view; that they’re looking for something short term. But they have the same long view that we have, and it’s when you can get those long views together that you have a deep, lasting relationship that you’ve just described so well.
David: I think that’s right. When you find, and I would say, thinking about partnerships, when you’re looking for partnerships, the most successful partnerships probably have two characteristics. We’ve talked about the one, of course, which is aligned interest, but they also have to have shared values. They have to have a similar long-term view in that this work matters and so forth. But once they do, it can work very, very well.
Denver: Speaking of your values, Worldreader is very much, if I may say, a hybrid organization between a tech company and a nonprofit. How does that manifest itself in your corporate culture? And what are some of the things that make Worldreader such a special place to work?
David: It’s a great question. It actually again gets to sort of a bit of a complexity. Let me describe that, and then I’ll answer the question. The complexity is: if you have to exaggerate for a second; the tech world sort of thinks: the solution to everything is an app. Let’s just go ahead and create an app for that thing, and it’s a done deal. Get a couple of people in the corner; problem solved. Exactly.
It turns out that’s not actually the case. Technology matters. It really can be a force multiplier and so forth, but without a real focus on human-to-human interaction; I would say, just as important is a focus on the things you don’t know, not just what you know. Silicon Valley is sort of: “We’ve got this figured out!” You have to really be very humble in this world and recognize that the world is a very complicated place. There’s a lot you don’t know. So, our corporate culture– we try to blend both of those. We have a healthy view that says we think technology, of course, is very helpful and can be a force multiplier, but it’s not the only thing.
We also think of ourselves very much as an organization that is learning along the way, but hasn’t got it figured out. The education space is complicated, and anyone who says, Just give the kids an app, and they’ll teach themselves how to read is probably being pretty naïve. So, we try to be very focused on partnership and on community, as well as on technology. I think if you bring those things together, you can do something magic. But it’s not easy as they can feel a little bit at odds sometimes.
She said, “When I come home at night now, after I finish my chores and so forth, I go up to my roof, I hold my cell phone up, and I download more books to read to my kid.” That’s beautiful.
Denver: The word complacent has never been associated with Worldreader, that’s for sure. Let me close with this David. I know you have so many stories of young people that you have really profoundly touched and helped changed their lives; share one or two of those with us, if you would.
David: I’ll share two if you don’t mind. The first is an old one, but she’s a woman that I’ve known for a long time now, and I’ve told this story before. Her name is Okonta Kate. This is a woman who when I first met was 14 years old. She’s a young Ghanaian woman. She had really not read a lot of Ghanaian authors in her past, but the Ghanaian author that she fell in love with is a woman named Peggy Oppong through our program. I asked her…my co-founder, Colin and I asked her: What do you want to be when you grow up? She said, “Now that I know that Ghanaian women can write, I want to be the most famous writer in the world.” I just loved that. And she’s getting it done. She writes poetry. You can actually go on to our website, and you can see some examples of her poetry that we actually have helped her publish. She’s a very strong woman. She’s now 18 years old, and she’s now off to college, of course, university, which is wonderful.
The second story I’ll tell you is much more recent. Okonta Kate I met back in 2014. This woman that I’m about to tell you about, I just met last Fall in India. She said, “David, at night now, when I come home”… she’s been reading to her child, her son, on her cell phone; She said, “When I come home at night now, after I finish my chores and so forth, I go up to my roof, I hold my cell phone up, and I download more books to read to my kid.” That’s beautiful.
Denver: Surprised you didn’t cry. That is a nice story.
David Risher, the co-founder and president of Worldreader, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening.
Tell us about your website, the information visitors will find there, and how they can get involved with your organization.
David: Our website is worldreader.org. If you go there, you’ll see a number of different ways. The most straightforward way, honestly, for most people to help is financially. Like any nonprofit, we’re only as successful as our donors help us be. And as I said, for $50, you can help put an e-reader into a child’s hands with a hundred books, and it will change that child’s life. So, that’s the best, easiest way to do it from your home. Type in worldreader.org to your web browser, make a small donation, and tell your friends about it as well. It’s the best thing you can do.
Denver: That $50 goes a long way.
Thanks David. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
David: I really appreciate it. Thanks for your great questions.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving