Xavier Helgesen: Merging entrepreneurship with charity
Helgeson co-founded Better World Books, an innovative bookseller that also donates books and funding to literacy initiatives.
Wed, Apr 25, 2012 at 01:06 AM
BOOKWORM: Xavier Helgesen's Better World Books donates a book for each book it sells, an easy feat when the organization offers free shipping and books up to 80 percent cheaper than competitors. (Photo: Facebook)
“Entrepreneurship is one of the most compelling and effective tools to change the world for the better,” says Xavier Helgesen, co-founder of Better World Books.
Agnes from Northern Uganda couldn’t agree more. During the war years, her parents sent her to sleep in the jungle each night to avoid being abducted and sent to become a sex slave with child soldiers.
During the chaos, Agnes wondered if she would have a future. Then a friend told her about Invisible Children, one of several African charities supported by Better World Books. “They started supporting my education immediately. And now I am a proud accountant.”
“Education is everything,” she says on a GivCause video by Better World Books, “Education is the only thing that can make you have a better life.”
On a trip to Africa several years after the founding of his business, Helgesen was shocked and thrilled to realize that his company was the largest supplier of college textbooks to sub-Saharan Africa through its partnership with Books for Africa.
In August 2011, just seven years after the founding of the company, Better World Books reached the $10 million mark in literacy donations. This funding is sorely needed, both in the U.S. and abroad. “There are currently 800 million illiterate people in the world, and two-thirds are women,” shares David Murphy, former CEO of Better World Books. “In the U.S., there are 40 million functionally illiterate people.”
A humble start to a global corporation
It was a used textbook sale on a college campus that inspired Helgesen and co-founder Kreece Fuchs to develop the idea of selling used books. The first campus sale brought in $5,000. Better World Books now sells 5 million books annually, with customers in almost every country in the world. The company employs hundreds of workers in Indiana, Georgia and Scotland, and maintains two warehouses with millions of books.
Helgesen now spends time traveling around the world delivering books and inspiring college students to become entrepreneurs. “In entrepreneurship, your customers are the only judge of what qualifications you need. That is part of what makes it so exciting,” says Helgesen.
Aaron King, the first employee of Better World Books, says his first job was wiping dust off the shelves. He proudly admits that his current official title is Senior Book Getter — responsible for expanding the company’s collection of green book donation bins in neighborhoods around the country.
Better World Books partners with more than 1,800 colleges to recycle used textbooks. Books are sold, donated or recycled, with profits supporting several charitable foundations, including Books for Africa, Feed the Children, Invisible Children, the National Center for Family Literacy and Reading Paws.
Zacharia, featured on one of Better World Books’ GivCause videos, was on a fifth-grade reading level when he started ninth grade. He and his mother, a worker at a plastics factory in Oklahoma City, had been evicted from their apartment and were living with his grandparents. “I never got to choose a book of my own,” says Zacharia, who wants to be a track star when he grows up — or a lawyer so he can help people with their problems.
Zacharia’s teacher announced one day that there were free books available for the students to take home — a donation from Better World Books via Feed the Children. “I ran over there, and I was one of the first ones to look at all the books,” he says. Zacharia is now at a seventh-grade reading level.
Becky Feldman, Zacharia’s teacher, says many of her ninth-grade students are reading at fourth- and fifth-grade levels. Her students include homeless children, pregnant teens and kids whose parents are in jail.
“I’m thrilled to receive the books,” Feldman says, “These children don’t deserve any of the situations they’re in. It will change their lives, some of them, to have a book — to have their choice of books.”
Better World Books now donates one book for each book purchased on the site, part of the Book for Book program. A ribbon at the top of the website shows users the number of books donated and recycled and funds raised for literacy in real time.
But it’s not just the charitable aspect that draws customers from around the world. Better World Books is up to 80 percent cheaper than other booksellers, offers free shipping and offsets the carbon footprint from the shipping process.
Future plans include building up the Better World brand and continuing to support literacy around the world. And for the modern reader, Helgesen says the company is working on incorporating e-books into its Book for Book program.
“Even the biggest e-book readers often have big personal libraries of physical books, and I expect that will continue,” he says. “The physical form of books has some negatives — mainly weight — but it has many positives, including the ability to share books, gift them, and the feel, look and smell of books that many readers treasure.”
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