David Risher: The Quiet Revolutionary

Much praise is rightly attributed to tech giants of our generation such as Elon Musk, the late Steve Jobs et al but there are some who are changing the world in a far more quiet manner. One such person is David Risher, co-founder of Worldreader. Here is his story.

Having graduated with a BA in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, David gained an MBA from Harvard Business School before moving to Seattle and joining Microsoft. He was General Manager in charge of launching the company’s first database product, Microsoft Access.

In 1997, he left Microsoft to join Amazon.com as its first Vice President of Product and Store Development. Under his leadership, Amazon’s revenue grew from $16 million to over $4 billion. He later served as the company’s Senior Vice President, US Retail, overseeing the marketing and general management of Amazon’s retail operations. David left Amazon in 2002. At the bottom of Amazon.com’s store directory, a perpetual Easter egg link leads to a tribute to David written by Jeff Bezos.

After travelling with his family, teaching and philanthropy work, David co-founded Worldreader with Colin McElwee in 2010. Worldreader is on a mission to unlock the potential of millions of people through the use of digital books in places where access to reading materials is very limited. It recently won The Innovation Award for Mobile-First Market, and The Market Award for Social Responsibility at The Meffys.

“I want to unlock the potential that’s locked up in the next billion people so they can be the next scientists, the next teachers, the next innovators, the next explorers.”

Newnham: You often talk about your childhood love of books. When did you fall in love with books and what book first grasped your attention?
My mom would drop my brother and me off at the library when she went to Safeway shopping for food, and the habit stuck. We also had a bunch of old books in our basement from my mom’s childhood — Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, that kind of thing. And I remember loving CS Lewis’ Narnia books as a kid. There’s something about the idea of being able to explore new worlds, figure problems out, and return safe and sound that was super-appealing to me. [From an early age, David devoured books; his mother received calls from neighbours who had seen him walking to school with his nose in a book — they were worried that he would get into an accident.]

Newnham: What first sparked your interest in tech?
We didn’t have much at home, but there was a Radio Shack a few miles from my house. My friend Tony and I would go there for hours after school and hang out banging on the TRS-80 — a very early computer — trying to program adventure games in BASIC.

Later, my mom bought an Apple II+ for her business, and I used it to write my high school papers. There was this very early word processing program called ScreenWriter II which we had, and I thought it was incredible. I had terrible handwriting — I think the fact that my teachers could finally read my papers popped my grades up a full notch!

“I loved the idea of creating something from scratch that could someday help millions of people.”

Some time later in 1990, between my two years at Business School, I joined Microsoft as an intern. I’d been interested in technology, and I wanted a way to see the West Coast (I went to school in Boston), so it seemed like a way to kill two birds with one stone.

I worked on Microsoft’s Windows desktop database which at that point didn’t have a name — it was code-named Cirrus, and later became Microsoft Access — and I loved the idea of creating something from scratch that could someday help millions of people. I later came to run that group, and then started a new product called Microsoft Investor which was one of Microsoft’s first web properties.

“Nearly everything was a high in the early days of Amazon.”

Newnham: You left Microsoft to go work for Jeff Bezos at Amazon. Bill Gates famously dismissed Amazon as a small internet bookstore ~ what was the potential you saw in the business and Jeff?
My first dealings with Jeff were actually when he called me for a reference on a fellow Microsoft employee. We had a great conversation and I was really impressed by the questions he asked, and that the CEO of Amazon would take 45 minutes to personally do a background check.

I then joined Amazon in late 1997 as its first Vice President of Product and Store Development. The reason I joined? Honestly, it was more of a way to scratch an old itch. I’d loved books forever; I’d fallen in love with technology. What better way to combine the two?

Of course, the fact that Jeff painted a picture of creating a new, billion-dollar business was pretty exciting too — you don’t get the chance to be a part of that very often, even if it might not succeed. But at the base of it was a way to bring books and technology together in a new way.

Nearly everything was a high in the early days of Amazon. I was employee 60 or something like that, so everyone was doing everything. At the time our big challenge was to get big fast, but also create a customer experience that was so incredible that people would change their habits from shopping in stores to shopping online. Doing both at once was exhilarating.

The only real low was waking up most mornings and reading some version of “Amazon.Bomb” in the headlines. It’s hard not to let some self-doubt creep beneath the surface after months and months of people wondering if you’re crazy. But now, it serves me well: people sometimes think Worldreader is crazy, but I’m used to it!

“The idea that you, personally, can improve the lives of millions of customers if you take the responsibility seriously is very powerful.”

Newnham: Can you tell me about working at Microsoft and Amazon? What lessons did you learn working for two such formidable tech titans?
Both Bill and Jeff had boundless energy and drive, long after there was any rational reason for them to be so engaged. It was clear that the fire that burned had a lot of fuel — and I think in both cases it was very motivating to do something that hadn’t been done before.

At Microsoft, then-President Mike Maples gave a talk to new employees where he described the sin of being a “black hole” — an employee that doesn’t follow through on things. I became very aware of how important it is just to get the job done, whatever it takes, so that others can rely on you.

Bill Gates taught me not to worry about things that were going to happen anyway and to focus on what was much harder to predict. We were at an offsite in the mid 1990’s and someone asked him a question about Microsoft Excel. His answer was basically: “I don’t need to think too much about Excel, because its market share is only going to increase over the next few years. I need to worry much more about things I can’t predict.” A few years later, the Internet came crashing over us, and Bill responded incredibly, pledging to give away Internet Explorer so that (among other reasons) Microsoft strengthened its position in browsers, regardless of the cost. It was an incredibly bold move.

At Amazon, Jeff’s relentlessness around being innovative on behalf of customers made an enormous impression on me. The idea that you, personally, can improve the lives of millions of customers if you take the responsibility seriously is very powerful.

Jeff also taught me that no matter how attractive a business you’ve built — and no matter how strong your value is to customers — if there’s a higher value way to deliver that value to customers you’ve got to shift there, even if it’s costly and ruins your own business.

The funny thing is that the lessons I learned from both are very similar — but the motivations were different. In Bill’s case, there was a stronger focus on out-foxing a competitor; in Jeff’s case, the focus was more on blowing away customers. Both strategies work; they’re just products of different people and different market dynamics.

Worldreader in Kenya
“It’s about the vision… but even more, it’s about the people.”

Newnham: Can you tell about the conversation that led to you and co-founder Colin starting Worldreader? And what was your mission from the get-go?
It was my last day in Barcelona before my family and I left for South America, and Colin asked to have breakfast. He was excited about the Kindle, which my family and I had been using for our reading as we travelled, and wanted to talk about how it could be used to bring books to those who didn’t have them. I thought it was a cool idea, but kind of set it aside until I was in Ecuador visiting a girls’ orphanage in Guayaquil called Perpetuo Socorro — I saw how this locked-up library, which meant there were 100 girls who were being held back, and it had a profound impact on me.

Worldreader Co-Founders David and Colin McElwee

So when I got back to the US, I called some friends at Amazon and started the process going of seeing if they could donate a few Kindles to us to test the idea. I figured, if I could convince them, we could try something together. Amazon was convinced, so I moved back to Barcelona (which hadn’t been the idea); then Colin and I spent the following fall debugging the idea, testing it at our daughters’ school, and seeing how far we could take it. After a few months, we realized it was working so I focused on it full-time; Colin left his job at ESADE business school, and Worldreader was born.

If you look at my career, I’ve been a professor; I’ve worked at two technology companies; I’ve been Chairman of the Board of a school. Worldreader takes everything I’ve done, spins it around, and spits it out in a new way. But all of our success comes down to the the team we’ve developed — that’s the biggest lesson from the private sector. It’s about the vision… but even more, it’s about the people.

Worldreader in Uganda
“Literacy is our only vaccine against irrelevance and obsolescence.”

Newnham: Entrepreneurs often talk about what they do as their calling. Can you tell me how you view your work at Worldreader?
Some people work to eradicate disease; others work to help us get to Mars. I want to unlock the potential that’s locked up in the next billion people so they can be the next scientists, the next teachers, the next innovators, the next explorers. Literacy is our only vaccine against irrelevance and obsolescence.

I’m lucky: the work we do is hard in many ways, but I find that energizing. The only thing I don’t much love is being told “No” by people I’d hoped would be supporters. Usually they’re very nice about it — maybe it doesn’t fit in with their own strategy around philanthropy. But it’s hard not to take it a little personally sometimes, because I see the impact we’re having and I think: Why wasn’t I successful in getting others to see the same?

Newnham: If you could make one thing happen tomorrow to help Worldreader with its mission, what would it be? What does success look like?
The demand for what Worldreader does is basically unlimited, and the costs per person are declining to $0.50 or less. So I’d like a philanthropist partner to wake up tomorrow morning and say: I’d like to make a $50 million contribution to help 100 million people reach their potential. Once we get to 100 million, the rest of the world will take notice and and say: OK, now, let’s get to one billion.

Success to me is when digital reading is considered commonplace everywhere in the world, and billions more people will therefore be able to reach their potential. That’s what success looks like.

“You might not remember me, but I think of you often. You left me with a burning wish to operate at a world-class level.”

Newnham: Looking back on your career thus far, what are you most proud of? Is there a particular incident that demonstrates the moment in some way?
I left Amazon to teach at the University of Washington’s Business School — I’d always wanted to be a teacher, and they offered me a position teaching a course called “Competing on the Internet.” A few weeks ago I got a Facebook message from a former student saying, “You might not remember me, but I think of you often. You left me with a burning wish to operate at a world-class level. I want to let you know the impact you’ve had on the lives of others.” I’m still grinning a month later.

Newnham: Where do you think tech can take us? In terms of its power for good, where do you think it will go from here?
We’ve barely scratched the surface. If you think of our most basic needs and desires — for health, for sustenance, for a good job and a living wage, for a good life for our children — technology can help address every one of these, and at a larger scale and lower cost than ever before. Really the only thing that holds us back is that the financial markets don’t reward these kinds of initiatives very well, because most of those who would benefit don’t have a lot of disposable income. So philanthropy has to prime the pump.

Newnham: What’s your favourite book, and quote?
My favourite book is usually the last one I read — I tend to enjoy what I’m reading and nearly always take something away from it. I just finished The Magic of Reality, which explains the science behind so many myths — the creation myth; the Tower of Babel, and so forth — and shows how reality can be just as magical as story.

For the quote, I’ll choose the quote I cited in my college yearbook, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself.” [“No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”]

“Over and over I realize: time spent with close friends and family is the most precious time in the world.”
David and his mother in Iceland celebrating his 50th birthday

Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give a younger David?
My father died 15 years ago, and every day I wish I’d spent more time with him. My wife and I both recently turned 50 and we spent celebrated our birthday with 50 of our closest friends and family members. Over and over I realize: time spent with close friends and family is the most precious time in the world.

Newnham: You and Colin have truly inspired me this year. Who inspires you?
My mother. She and my father married when it was illegal for a white woman and a black man to marry in parts of the United States. She said: “Let’s just do this” — and, of course, I wouldn’t be here otherwise.

Worldreader has reached over 6 million people in 69 countries and aims to reach 15 million by 2018.

To learn more about Worldreader, please check out its website. All images care of Worldreader.

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