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Kinko’s Founder Makes Giving His Main Business

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s an image Paul Orfalea couldn’t get out of his mind. Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s, was visiting one of the chain’s stores in Texas when he was struck by the story of single mother who worked there.

“Many years ago, when I was in our store in San Antonio, I met a woman with four kids. Her husband had left her. I was trying to add up how she could work for us and possibly make her budget and pay her bills,” he said. “I was so impressed by her, by her dedication, that I kind of embraced the cause of single moms.”

That epiphany--coupled with challenges from his own youth--inspired his latest effort, the Orfalea Family Foundation.

The 53-year-old Orfalea retired from Kinko’s just over a year ago, and in the past several months he has donated more than $32.5 million to educational institutions in Southern and Central California, particularly child development centers.

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For Orfalea, who lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Natalie, and their two sons, the impact of the struggling mother in San Antonio, and others like her, did not diminish over time.

The challenges of rearing his own children were a factor as well. “My kids drove me nuts after they were born, and I’ve got a wife and grandparents who could help out,” he said recently in an interview at the foundation office in Santa Barbara. “How is a single mom ever going to make it? Any break is going to help.”

Early childhood concerns also resonate with Orfalea because of his own difficulties with severe dyslexia. “I was a lousy reader, I flunked second grade, was misdiagnosed and was placed in a class with children who were developmentally disabled,” he said. He continued to struggle in later years, graduating with “solid Ds” in high school. Those experiences, he said, “made me feel terrible.”

Despite his lackluster secondary school performance, Orfalea went on to attend community college, then USC, where he graduated with a C average and a degree in business administration. He likes to point out that he also has no mechanical ability, which led him to conclude that he was basically unemployable after high school.

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“With my skill set, getting a job was out of the question,” he said.

Even now, it is easy to visualize the tall, lanky, long-haired young man who, while still a college student in 1970, started his first enterprise, hawking notebooks and other school supplies to UC Santa Barbara students on sidewalks and in dorms.

Orfalea opened his business with a $5,000 loan in a garage so small he had to wheel the sole copy machine outside during operating hours. Although the frizzy red locks that earned him the nickname Kinko have since been close-cropped, Orfalea still possesses an ingenuous boyish enthusiasm, frequently dropping the word “cool” in conversation.

Under his leadership, Kinko’s grew to be an international company--the largest business services firm in the country--employing more than 24,000 people. It has been on Fortune magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” for the past three years, an honor bestowed largely on the basis of employee polls, according to Milton Moskowitz, who with Robert Levering researches and compiles the list. Moskowitz cited generous benefits and responsibility given to workers for its consistent inclusion.

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Orfalea also established on-site day care at the company’s Ventura headquarters and awarded scholarships to workers’ children.

Born and reared in Los Angeles, Orfalea cites his family, a passion for business and a desire to prove himself as the reasons he has succeeded. “I came from a Lebanese family where people didn’t work for others. All my relatives had their own businesses. It was never part of my education to work for other people,” he said.

His achievement in overcoming dyslexia was recognized last year by People and Fortune magazines. Fortune named him one of 15 “heroes of small business,” saying he “proved that disability doesn’t have to get in the way of success.” To this day, he is challenged by reading and writing and sometimes relies on others to assist him.

His foundation’s biggest single gift, $15 million, went to the business school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. But many donations have gone to child development centers, at City College of San Francisco ($8.5 million), UC Santa Barbara ($2 million), Citrus College in Glendora ($1 million) and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo ($1 million). Additionally, through the foundation, Orfalea has funded scholarship programs at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara and Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

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Why is he giving so much to these causes now? “My mom said, ‘In your 20s you try it all. In your 30s you figure out what you do best. In your 40s you make money from what you do best. In your 50s you just do--do what you want to do.’ ” Orfalea said. This, quite simply, is what he wants to do.

Currently, Orfalea said, he spends about a third of his time on philanthropic efforts, a third on teaching and public speaking, and a third on other business ventures and his family. He teaches on a regular basis at USC and periodically at UC Davis, and he speaks at schools for learning-disabled youngsters about his experiences with dyslexia.

His current business ventures include real estate development, a money management firm, a fund-raising business and coffee shops. But he reserves his greatest enthusiasm for his philanthropy.

“I’m really into these day care centers. Just like at Kinko’s, each has one thing they do a little bit better than anybody else. We’re having a meeting in June to get people [from the various centers] to talk to each other and share best practices,” he said.

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No longer involved with Kinko’s, Orfalea doesn’t look back. “I did it for 30 years. I didn’t like the responsibility for all those workers. I got tired of worrying. I didn’t want to be the wealthiest man in the graveyard.”


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