What Will You Change: A Better Book Store
December 30, 2009
By Elizabeth Michalka — This article was originally published in the alumni magazine Team Fuqua.
As a financial officer for eight years, Paul Sansone (Daytime ’92) was used to concentrating on profits, but he had to change that mindset when he became Chief Financial Officer of Better World Books, “the online bookstore with a soul.”
“In the corporate world, it was all about growth and profit,” Sansone said. “My philanthropic self was separated. I enjoyed giving back to my community in my free time, outside of work. I never thought the two — work and philanthropy — could blend, but Better World Books does that every day.”
Founded in 2002, Better World Books is a for profit social enterprise with a triple bottom line — people, planet, and profit. The company accepts new and used books, and resells them online with portions of revenue directly funding international literacy initiatives. The company has sent more than $7 million in unrestricted funds to literacy partners including Books for Africa, Invisible Children, and The National Center for Family Literacy. Any books that can’t be sold are recycled — more than 25 million pounds so far.
In fall 2008, before accepting the CFO position with Better World Books, Sansone asked himself whether he could look beyond a traditional corporate model toward a more service-oriented enterprise. He knew changing his financial archetype would be challenging, and also exciting.
“The more I learned about Better World Books, the more it resonated with me,” Sansone said. “So I decided to take the leap.”
He added that the company not only fulfills his personal interest in social responsibility, but also in technology as an e-commerce firm. The growth rate keeps him energized, too. Better World Books became profitable during the second half of fiscal year 2009, and is doubling revenues every two years, perhaps spurred by recognition from the media including The New York Times, CNN, Time, and BusinessWeek. Fiscal 2010 revenues are estimated at $45 million.
Sansone returned to Fuqua with Better World Books Co-founder Xavier Helgesen and CEO David Murphy in September 2009 to speak about the company’s business model. The event was sponsored by Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, and Managing Director Matt Nash introduced the group, calling the company a “pioneering social enterprise” with leaders who “believe that education is a basic human right.”
Sansone and his colleagues explained that Better World Books depends on book drives and donations by individuals and groups. The company is supported by nearly 1,000 libraries and more than 1,600 colleges, including Duke. Since spring of 2006, the Duke Textbook Store donated more than 10,200 books, while Duke’s Perkins Library and Law Library together donated more than 4,600. And now, Fuqua’s Ford Library is involved. Collection Services Librarian Amy Brennan said they were so impressed by the company’s presentation that moving forward, Ford Library will donate its extra books to Better World Books.
Sansone said he greatly appreciates the support, and acknowledges his responsibilities to navigate the company’s growth and strike a careful balance between fostering continued profitability and meeting the needs of stakeholders including investors, non-profit literacy partners, campus and library partners, employees, and customers.
“It’s challenging and it’s refreshing,” Sansone said, eagerly. “The company has a good heart, and it’s very gratifying to be associated with it.”