After graduating from George Washington University Law School in 1986, Kyle Zimmer practiced energy law and later served as a legislative advocate. “I love law,” she says. “Legal institutions—if not in reality, then in theory—are wonderfully designed for elevating civilization. I didn’t leave law because I didn’t like it.”
Rather, her transition out of the profession began while she was mentoring a child at a homeless shelter in a “tough neighborhood” in Washington, D.C., and discovered there were no books for the kids.
“The shelter had able and willing volunteers trying to turn kids’ lives around, but it didn’t have the resources. It troubled me because ready access to books is one of the key elements to whether a child becomes a reader,” Zimmer explains. “I had strong private-sector wiring in my head, and a light went on for me. As a country, we’re good at moving product—we can get a soft drink in the hands of a kid in rural China.”
Before long, Zimmer founded First Book, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year and has distributed 100 million books to children in thousands of communities. The organization provides books not just to low-income children, but also to children of active military members and children with serious medical conditions. The organization is celebrating its third year in Canada and has a pilot program in India.
Through First Book, Zimmer pioneered innovative distribution channels, including the First Book Marketplace, which makes books available at prices far below retail to organizations serving children in need, and the First Book National Book Bank, a clearinghouse for large-scale donations. Now a leader in the social sector, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named Zimmer the Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of 2007.
According to Zimmer, her legal degree “has been critical” to what she has been able to accomplish. “As a lawyer, I learned an awful lot about how business models work, and I apply that to the social sector. We don’t approach social issues using the traditional charity framework and we’ve won awards for our business planning.”
Being a lawyer, she adds, “evens the table. When you have the professional training of the caliber of a law degree or a demanding MBA program, you can walk into the leadership in corporate settings with confidence. You know you have the skills to negotiate with grace and to understand the other side’s business pressures. It’s a remarkable asset.”