A World of Books
If you’ve just read Curious George Visits the Library and desperately want to get your hands on Curious George Goes to the Beach, being a second grader in rural Kenya means you’re likely in for a long wait. “But what if you could just push a button and have instant access to all the Curious George titles at little or no cost?” posits David Risher (MBA ’91).
A former “Professor of the Year” at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, a Microsoft veteran, and the marketing visionary who helped Amazon.com expand its horizons beyond books, Risher is now putting his imagination to work on finding better ways to bring books to children worldwide. As cofounder of the nonprofit Worldreader, the 46-year-old father of two has set “a crazy and overly ambitious goal of touching a million kids’ lives by 2015” by providing them with e-readers.
Risher developed the idea for the venture during a world tour with his family that combined sightseeing with hands-on community improvement activities such as building a house in Vietnam and teaching English at a school in China. “I’ve always been interested in both reading and education, so when I saw a padlock on an unused library at an orphanage we visited in Ecuador,” he recalls, “it made a huge impression.”
Even with funding and good intentions, “the logistics of acquiring and maintaining libraries in off-the-grid locations are difficult,” notes Risher. “For schools in these areas, e-readers, which are rapidly coming down in cost, are ideal.” With a one-time donation of 30 Kindles from Amazon, Risher launched Worldreader last winter in a small trial at an international school in Barcelona, Spain, where the organization is based. After partnering with USAID and private funders to bring e-readers to six schools in Ghana, Worldreader now has extended its reach to Kenya, where a foundation is partnering with Risher’s group to bring Kindles to students and teachers in government-run schools in the Rift Valley. At the same time, Worldreader is busy raising money and working with publishers to expand the list of titles that can be downloaded via Africa’s cell phone network.
As the organization scales up, Risher says he is relying heavily on lessons learned at HBS. “There are two classes I think about constantly: POM and Service Management,” he states. “Ordering 500 Kindles, shipping them halfway around the world, getting them, intact, through customs and to schools way off the beaten track — that could be a Roy Shapiro case. And from Service Management, I think about the value proposition to our ‘customers’ — kids who otherwise wouldn’t get to read Robinson Crusoe or [his own childhood favorite] Half Magic.” Creating Worldreader has also allowed for personal growth, says Risher, who was recently honored with a Microsoft Integral Fellow award from Bill and Melinda Gates and the Microsoft Alumni Foundation, and was the subject of a Microsoft video.
“All of us want to be committed to something bigger than ourselves,” Risher concludes. “This is my way to help.”