Education can be a great equalizer or a great divider. The same system that can enable less advantaged children to move up the economic ladder in adulthood, far too often, reinforces disadvantages that hold them back.
But Stacy Ratner is determined to make sure education leads to opportunity for Chicago’s youth. That’s why in 2006 she founded Open Books Ltd., a social enterprise dedicated to improving literacy among kids throughout the city.
“I believe that literacy is part of the solution to every issue challenging us today, and that one of the best ways to ensure a literate adult Chicago in the future is to work with its children now,” the Highland Park, Ill. native and graduate of Brandeis University and Boston College Law School said in her Power List application.
Open Books gathers donated tomes of all genres from institutions and individuals and sells them in its two stores (in Pilsen and River North) and online. Proceeds primarily pay for its literacy programs, and Open Books also makes some of the reading materials it collects available to students through a book grant program.
It’s a model that has withstood the test of time — though the business itself has evolved over the years.
When Ratner first founded Open Books, she ran it out of her basement. Its first warehouse for books was in what she describes as a “rough” neighborhood, its doors punctured by bullet holes. Initial funding — $100,000 in all — came from family and friends, as well as Ratner’s own bank account.
It took 15 months to really get things moving; bringing the business online and hiring interns proved to be significant turning points for Open Books. It was the organization’s first director of literacy who decided to bring on additional helping hands — initially without Ratner’s consent. And it was one of those interns who first tried selling books through online vendors. Now, Open Books has 19 staff members and does close to 30 percent of its total book sales online.
During the past nine years, the venture has grown by leaps and bounds from its humble beginnings. It now reports $1.3 million in revenue annually — not to mention, zero drive-by shootings at its new warehouse location. And in all, Open Books has donated around 94,000 books and served almost 5,000 students.
Ratner is also helping to bring like-minded organizations together in what she considers one of her biggest entrepreneurial successes to date. “I co-founded the Chicago Literacy Alliance to help the city’s organizations come together for the cause,” she told us. This month, “it will open the country’s first nonprofit shared workspace devoted to literacy: the Literacenter.”
Beyond starting and growing a viable business that has become a unifying community force, Ratner is also making a real impact on the lives of area children.
Take Bianca, a student Ratner worked with who wrote an aspirational novel. When Bianca won a prize for her work, she told a reporter, “I thought I was going to do great things — but now, I know I’m going to be the first black woman President.”
For other business owners hoping to start and grow a business that makes a real difference, Ratner had one word of advice: listen. Whether it’s your employees or your customers, there’s much to be learned from conversations, interactions and feedback, she says.
Why do you deserve to be on our Power List?
“I’m a good example of a driven, powerful, successful force for collaboration through change in both nonprofit and for-profit contexts (my third current project, Hooray Learning, is a for-profit social enterprise). My story is about doing something bigger than yourself, at an age when the media thinks you may be too old to matter, for a cause you think is crucial.”