Stacy Ratner: In Business to Do Good

The founder of Chicago-based Open Books has built a high-impact literacy nonprofit by applying everything she learned as a serial tech entrepreneur.


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Stacy Ratner – Founder – Open Books

Stacy Ratner (SR): When the Open Books idea came along in 2006 and I started really working on that, that was the first moment to say, "This is what I have really had in my heart my whole life and now I think I would like to do it," I would say nine-to-five, but it is really like 7 in the morning 'til 9 at night, every day for as long as I can continue to work those kind of hours because I think this is really the thing that I am supposed to work on.

CARD: Stacy Ratner – Founder, Open Books, Chicago, USA

SR: Open Books is a nonprofit literacy organization headquartered in Chicago. We collect used books. We sell those in our two bookstores and online. We use that money to fund literacy programs, reading and writing, for about 5,000 students a year, across the city.

CARD: Stacy grew up in Chicago.

SR: I liked to read. That will not be a surprise to anybody. My parents were both teachers and so many summers we would be out of the country. We lived in Denmark for several summers; we lived in Israel for several summers. I was the kind of kid who reads a lot and plays with my brother.

SR: I really cared a lot about working with words, so I wanted to be a copy editor from the time I was about six, and I went off to college to become a copy editor many years later.

CARD: Stacy studied comparative literature at Brandeis University in Boston.
CARD: But when she graduated in 1994 she couldn’t find a job.
CARD: She decided to study law at Boston College and to become a legal copy editor.

SR: Halfway through my first year of law school the big legal publishing firm in Boston closed and moved to Minneapolis. So, there I was in law school thinking I'm not really sure what comes next.

CARD: When Stacy graduated in 1999, her brother, Dan, made her an offer.

SR: My brother said, "I am going to start a company. Do you want to work with me in my first start startup?" and I said, "Like when we were little and we would have companies and you would be CEO and I would be everything else?" And he said, "Exactly like that." So we did. He was the CEO of our first company and I was everything else until we could hire some people.

CARD: Stacy and Dan went on to start five other companies.
CARD: When she turned 35, she decided to move back to Chicago to strike out on her own.

SR: I decided that the really big challenge I wanted to devote myself to was something in the nonprofit sphere and literacy was on the list because literacy has been sort of a thread throughout everything in my life.

CARD: Stacy discovered about 30% of adults in Chicago need basic literacy training.

SR: And when we say "basic" literacy we are talking about beginning at the level of difficulty reading the label on a can of food, difficulty filling out a job application, difficulty deciphering a bus schedule. And one of the reasons that we’ve chosen to focus on children is of course those are the adults of tomorrow.

CARD: In 2006 she decided to start Open Books.

SR: The Open Books concept from the beginning was: Let's have a used bookstore. If my cost for picking up a bag of books is a couple of dollars and I can sell each of those books for a couple of dollars I have just made a profit on that particular bag of books and now I can make it work to scale.

CARD: With the money from selling books, Stacy planned to launch literacy programs for Chicago students.
CARD: Working from home, she soon had dozens of volunteers and thousands of books.
CARD: But she had no store.

SR: It was so hard to find the right space because we had very specific set of needs. We were looking for a retail facility which could also have offices and classrooms, which was near public transportation, that was in a part of the city that students could access, that had ideally some processing space and a loading dock because the books had to come in and out.

SR: That was really the driving challenge for the first three years. I looked at envelope factories. I toured a not-entirely-cleared-out funeral home that was on the market. True. And when we eventually did find the first Open Books location it was a Wizard of Oz "no place like home" moment.

CARD: With space for the shop, classrooms and offices, Open Books has scaled up fast.
CARD: Now they offer reading and writing programs across the city.

SR: Creative Writing Workshops is our largest program in terms of students served – about 4,000 a year. Those are two-hour writing workshops for third through twelfth grades. And at the end of the session, those who choose to can share their work with the class.

SOT: The year turned on and the water, uh . . .

SR: They then each go into our bookstore and choose a book to take home. And then a few weeks later they get a published, bound anthology of all the writing that the class did.

CARD: Open Books now has 2 stores.

SR SOT: Is it a whole bunch of Portuguese stuff or just that one?

-Oh, just this one.


CARD: They sell books online.
CARD: They give away 100,000 books every year to students and teachers.

SR: We now have 18 people on staff, 500 volunteers a year. Every single one of those people is here because they care deeply about the mission. So, my job as founder is going to be to support all of that. We are all heading for the same ideal vision, which is, turn Chicago into 100 percent literacy. We all want to be a part of that.

Posted: June 1, 2016

Nusha Balyan at The Story ExchangeStacy Ratner: In Business to Do Good