Brian knew that he was different. He loved to be read to by his parents and had a voracious curiosity, but when it came to reading a book on his own, Brian failed miserably. He couldn't read the text on the page and words got jumbled. Some teachers thought him lazy. "How could this bright boy with intense listening skills not keep up with his schoolwork? Try harder!" they said. Reading was more like an elusive puzzle than a way to absorb information. Years went by and his grades fell, and his parents weren't getting help through his school. After searching for more answers to their son's reading difficulties, Brian was diagnosed with dyslexia -- the inability to decode printed words.
Without significant assistance, Brian's chances at higher education and a career leveraging his substantial intellect were almost as remote as those of Lou Her, a young woman who lives on the other side of the planet, just outside of the capital of Laos.
Lou also has significant drive and passion, but her circumstances worked against her ability to access work and higher education. She is one of 12 siblings born to a poor family, and contracted the polio virus at a young age, causing her legs to be permanently disabled. After graduating from public high school, her prospects seemed limited; she helped her mother weave silk while her siblings worked on farms or in factories, earning a paltry income.
However, Lou is now building valuable job skills and is earning an associate degree in finance and accounting. She can support herself and lives in a shared apartment in the city. She plans to become an accountant after graduation.
Happily, we live in a world where Lou in Laos can reach her potential while helping Brian in New Jersey to reach his. Where technology and social enterprise can be catalysts, and everyone really can win.
Brian now gets most of his books through Bookshare the world's largest library of accessible ebooks for people with print disabilities, such as visual impairments, physical disabilities and severe learning disabilities that affect reading. Highlighted text with audio on an iPod Touch is great for Brian, while other students use enlarged font on a PC or even electronic braille. Bookshare books have specially formatted digital text that allows all of these uses, and, since its beginning in 2002, they have been created through scanning by individuals, typically by the users themselves.
But six years ago, Benetech had a dilemma. We had to scale Bookshare to provide hundreds of thousands of books. Through funding from the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, we were charged to provide free services, and necessary materials, to qualified U.S. students like Brian. As a social enterprise, Benetech sought not only the best value for the money, but an approach that could maximize benefit. In short, we wanted to setup a high quality, low cost, flexible social supply chain.
The first step was finding like-minded partners, such as Digital Divide Data (DDD), who were busy pioneering the field of Impact Sourcing. This approach pairs paid work needed by organizations with outsourcers who pay a living wage to people in need. Such programs often provide both needed financial income for families, as well as education assistance and flexible hours for the workers. When the work being outsourced is information oriented, there's another benefit: These employees have an entrée into the information economy. For example, people with disabilities employed by one of our impact sourcing partners in India have gone on to work at major Indian IT firms after their tenure.
Through DDD's offices in Laos, and other partners in the U.S., India, and Kenya, we found we were able to massively scale our longtime volunteer efforts, where people compare book scans to the resulting digital text and correct the scanning errors, to ensure our student users have the same textbooks as their peers. We applied best practices from corporate supply chain management, including quarterly vendor scorecards, as it was important to us to make sure that quality, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness were all reviewed regularly with our partners, in an open manner. And these scorecards go two ways -- they rate us every quarter as well, to insure we're keeping up our end of this social and operational bargain.
Today, Bookshare serves over a quarter million users in 40 countries, and has 190,000 books in its collection, growing at about 3,000 books per month. While many publishers now contribute to the collection by generously sharing their new digital materials with us, a majority of our critical textbooks, for K12 and higher education students, are still processed through this social supply chain. That means each dollar of funding in this area helps multiple people at once. Continuous quality improvements and reduced costs mean we can serve more students better, while we also seek new technology solutions that will completely change the landscape in the future.
Then we can hear about more success stories about students just like Brian, who is near the top of his class in high school and is now a well-known blogger on Assistive Technology.
This approach to social enterprise has so many benefits; it's difficult to count the bottom lines. The bottom line in this story is: Don't just look at what you do to deliver your mission; look at how you do it.
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