Kyle Zimmer, 82BA, was a corporate attorney volunteering at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., when she realized that the kids she was working with had no books in their lives. So, she set out with two friends to build a market-driven solution to ensure all children have access to critical books and resources.
More than 20 years and 145 million volumes later, Zimmer continues to lead First Book, the nonprofit social enterprise she co-founded that provides schools and community programs serving children in need with high-quality books and other educational resources. The organization has built the largest and fastest growing network of schools and programs across the United States and Canada—currently serving over 250,000—and growing by more than 5,000 per month.
"The story of First Book and its principal champion, Ms. Kyle Zimmer, is extraordinary and phenomenal," says R. Rajagopal, a UI professor of geographical and sustainability sciences. "It shows us that if the heart is in the right place, our heads can move mountains."
First Book has pioneered groundbreaking market-driven models, including the First Book National Book Bank, which serves as the nation's largest clearinghouse for new books donated by publishers, and the First Book Marketplace, an award-winning, self-sustaining e-commerce program that purchases new books and makes them available to educators and program leaders at unprecedented prices. First Book has also branched into school supplies, digital resources, non-perishable foods, and winter coats to meet the needs of children served by the First Book network.
Zimmer's commitment to innovation and collaboration has earned her a reputation as a social sector leader. She currently serves as a member of the board of directors for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Ashoka, Youth Venture, and James Patterson's ReadKiddoRead. Additionally, she is a regular lecturer at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia Business School, and Georgetown University.
A passionate advocate for social entrepreneurship and educational equity, Zimmer has also participated in some of the world’s most prestigious economic forums. She was featured at the opening plenary session for the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America, and she also presented at the 2013 University of Oxford Saïd Business School conference titled "Power Shift: Forum for Women in the World Economy." In 2014, she participated in the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Dubai, and was also a presenter and blogger at the WEF in Beijing in 2012. She served as a member of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Social Entrepreneurship, and was featured as a presenter at the WEF in Davos in 2010. She is currently serving as a member of the WEF’s Global Council on Values.
In 2008, Zimmer was named the first-ever American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketer of the Year and Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year in the United States in 2007 by the Geneva-based Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Among her other honors is the National Education Association Foundation's Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education (2013) and the National Book Foundation's Literarian Award (2014). Zimmer also received the Library of Congress Literacy Award-David Rubenstein Prize (2015), the Peggy Charren/Free to Be You and Me Award from the Ms. Foundation (2016), and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading Pacesetter Award (2016).
Thanks to her exemplary commitment and innovative business strategies, coupled with her awareness of the importance of education to equality and quality of life, Kyle Zimmer has helped make literacy possible for thousands of underserved children throughout the United States and beyond.