Paul Orfalea – Kinko’s Founder Speaks About Dyslexia

Paul Orfalea, founder of the most successful American copy store chain, is a maverick. For 30 years as the CEO of Kinko’s, until his retirement in 2000. he ran his company in a manner much different from most traditional, MBA-gilded chief executives. His office boasted no volumes of statistical charts, no stacks of business reports, and no computers maxed out of memory. Orfalea had filing cabinets with no files inside, Much of the time, he didn’t even have a pen; coworkers helped him with written correspondence. And as for the mechanical aspects of the operation, well, Orfalea says there isn’t a machine at Kinko’s he can operate. Orfalea had to do things differently-he has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Undiagnosed and untreated-as Orfalea’s conditions were through most of his life-learning difficulties like ADHD and dyslexia can often create significant barriers for children and adults trying to fit the expectations of a typical classroom or office setting. Students with these differences are often seen as troublemakers, are told they are “too bright not to be doing better,” are more likely to receive disciplinary actions or to repeat grades, and experience a whopping blow to their motivation for learning and their self-esteem.

Yet this is the man who turned Kinko’s into one of the most recognizable names in the corporate landscape, transforming it from a 100-square-foot store with one photocopier into an office-service empire that now tops two billion dollars a year in revenues.

How? By drawing on the very qualities he had to develop to compensate for his learning difficulties. That’s why Orfalea (pronounced OR-fah-la) doesn’t like to use terms like learning disorders or learning disabilities. He prefers learning opportunities-the chance to learn new and different strategies for success.

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Indeed, people with such learning opportunities include some of the most successful stars in the corporate galaxy, such as Virgin Records founder Richard Branson, telecom pioneer Craig McCaw, Cisco CEO John Chambers, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, renowned attorney David Boies and discount brokerage founder Charles Schwab.

In Orfalea’s case, his learning style gave him the ability to see the big picture, the overall vision, and not get mired in minutiae. That can be a wonderful skill for a businessman with a flow of bright ideas.

Unable to be a wonk or a tekkie, Orfalea valued the abstract and the psychological, becoming an astute judge of character-a vital quality for choosing employees (whom he prefers to call co-workers). He also views as a benefit his reliance on others for help with tasks like correspondence. That experience allowed him to understand the value of working as a team, a concept he feels is essential to business success.

Recently ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, stopped to meet with Orfalea in Santa Barbara, California, where he lives with his wife Natalie and leads the Orfalea Family Foundation, a nonprofit he and his family founded in 2000.

Paul Orfalea walking and talking with Gillian Friedman, MD
Paul Orfalea walking and talking with Gillian Friedman, MD


Throughout his corporate career. Orfalea built his business on showing respect and trust to those he meets. He has sealed many deals with a handshake, and he places great value in symbolic gestures. He abhors lateness making the ABILITY team glad for light traffic on the Interstate 5 freeway up from Los Angeles to Santa Bar bara-and he trusts no one who doesn’t come to greet him in person, walking away several times in his career from potential partners who sent an assistant out to welcome him. In typical Orfalea fashion, he meets his ABILITY interviewers at the foundation’s front gate, shouldering Dr. Friedman’s heavy bag for the walk to his favorite restaurant nearby.

Orfalea explains that he doesn’t like being confined to an office and hates the bureaucratic morass of board meetings. While he has recently published his unconventional autobiography Copy This! Lessons From a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea Into One of Ameri ca’s Best Companies, co-authored with journalist Ann Marsh, he’s never read the book himself, as his dyslexia prevents him from enjoying reading..

But these qualities served him well at Kinko’s, he believes, because they allowed him to really see what his company was about and what was needed to make it better. Because he can’t draw inspiration from reading. Orfalea says he has to see things with his own eyes and draw from his own experiences.

In Copy This! he explains, “My restless ness propelled me out of doors. How many managers do you know who really understand what is happening at the frontlines of their business? I did.

“I visited stores to find out what our different locations were doing right… Then, I tried to spread those practices throughout the Kinko’s network.”

A bold businessman who has gone against the grain in many ways. Orfalea took innovative, unusual approaches to carving out a niche in American industry. He also acknowledges his frustrations and failures, writing that the “dark side of the Kinko’s story is that the company was built, at least in part, on emotional extremes, most of them my own.”

Adrianna Foss, now program director for the Orfalea Family Foundation and previously a longtime colleague at Kinko’s, argues that Orfalea’s temperamental style worked for Kinko’s. “There is no doubt that Paul is brilliant,” she says. “The speed at which his mind moves also causes him to be impatient and frustrated, emotions that he admits he is not good at holding in. But his impatience motivated all of us to get to the point and focus on the headlines of situations, not the minutiae. It also created a sense of urgency that kept propelling the company forward.”

ABILITY’s lunchtime conversation with Orfalea offers a taste of this colorful and distinct personality. True to form, his mind is restless and his talk frenetic as he leaps from one topic to another. But the personable businessman, a familiar figure in the community who is greeted by a number of passers-by during the meal, is also an intent and curious listener, wanting to know everything about his visitors’ lives.

He has strong opinions and he expresses them bluntly, often peppering his talk with profanity. He volunteers his political views openly, without consideration that he doesn’t know the opinions of his listeners-this is not a man shy about debate and controversy; rather, he wants everyone’s perspective out in the open for consideration. At Kinko’s he encouraged everyone in the company-from the copy store co-worker on the front lines to the conglomerate’s highest managers-to send ideas to him by voicemail.

Over lunch he lambastes politicians, calling one “a big government problem-he spends money like water.” He pronounces, “How can the people think this is the work of a conservative? I don’t like him.”

He has an equally strong reaction to conversation about motorcycles (“If any of my kids ever gets one, I’m taking a baseball bat to it!”) and shares his inner struggles as he grapples with the heartache of sending one of his two sons off to college. “Can you imagine loving somebody so much-like my senior in high school-and then they are going away to college?” he asks. “I’m so happy when my children are right next to me.


Orfalea was a kid who couldn’t sit still in the classroom; his mind raced, he couldn’t read and he was terribly restless. Like many bright students who have dyslexia or ADHD, he was a D-minus student, flunked two grades and was expelled from several schools.

Dyslexia is a neurological condition affecting language processing. At the most basic level, it involves difficulties recognizing and decoding words. Children with dyslexia often pronounce words with difficulty, con fuse the order of letters and miss hearing fine differences (for example between thick and think). They frequently struggle with reading comprehension and have difficulty distinguishing important information from unimportant details.

People with dyslexia lack a skill called automaticity or whole-word memory. Usually, once people learn a word, they then recognize it as a single unit the next time they see it. For many people with dyslexia, however, each time they look at a word is like seeing it for the first time.

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Although dyslexia is persistent and lifelong, there are many ways to help children with dyslexia approach learning successfully, often by helping them take in information through alternate formats beyond printed text.

Similarly, ADHD, another neurological condition that frequently occurs alongside dyslexia, can impact ability to learn in a traditional fashion. Children and adults with ADHD need a high level of stimulation to maintain attention. Their physical restlessness is sometimes coupled with impulsivity, problems managing frustration, and difficulty organizing and completing tasks that have many details.

Unfortunately, dyslexia and ADHD were rarely recognized at the time Orfalea was in school, and educational techniques to help children with learning differences were not well developed. A gifted tutor taught him how to read using phonics, but he still graduated at the bottom of his 1,200-student high school class. Somehow, he made it through college, but he says he often had his dad’s secretary write his papers for him.

Not exactly the background of someone you’d predict would become an astute businessman. Yet Orfalea became a phenomenally successful one.

Sally Shaywitz, a professor of pediatrics and a researcher at the Yale University School of Medi cine, does not believe his success is so surprising. Shaywitz notes that people with dyslexia often have outstanding thinking and reasoning skills and an impressive talent for conceptualizing and creative thinking. Similarly, the restlessness of ADHD can be a motivator for action, and the curiosity and adventurousness it brings can propel entrepreneurs to take bold chances and ignore naysayers in developing truly unique products and services.

Orfalea believes the support of his parents was critical in giving him a strong foundation. Kids with dyslexia and ADHD can develop a brutal self-image if parents reinforce society’s negative labels and make them feel inferior to others, he says. His never did.

He tells ABILITY, “If you have the right perspective on life and on your children, you’ll say, ‘So what?’ about their grades. Grades aren’t what’s important. Are your kids developing trusting relationships? Are they curious?”

In Copy This! he recalls, “Whenever I felt down, whenever I started wondering what homeless shelter I would die in. [my mother] would buck me up by telling me: you know, Paul, the A students work for the B students, the C students run the companies, and the D students dedicate the buildings.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting parents say this to a child who’s getting A’s and B’s. But the child who can’t play by the same rules needs to know there’s so much more to life than what goes down on a report card.

“I had supportive parents and that made all the difference. I was a sensitive kid. I could have easily fallen through the cracks.”

Although Orfalea’s parents were nurturing, many others along the way labeled him as inept. But that didn’t dissuade him from pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams.

“All my life I knew I would have a big business,” he states. “That’s what I wanted from the time I was in second grade; there was never a doubt in my mind.” Of his stewardship at Kinko’s (which is now owned by Dallas based Federal Express and called FedEx Kinko’s), he remarks. “Building an entirely new sort of business from a single Xerox copy machine…gave me the life the world seemed determined to deny me when I was younger.”

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As a student at the University of Southern California, Orfalea realized that photocopiers were not easily accessible to the general public, and in 1970 he started the first Kinko’s Copy Center in Isla Vista, close to where his girlfriend was a student at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

The Kinko’s debut was an inauspicious one: a single copy machine set up in an 8-foot by 12-foot storefront next to a hamburger stand. The fledgling entrepreneur sold pens and pencils from his backpack or on the side walk in front of the store, chatting up passers-by and offering them specials to persuade them to give his business a try.

People told him the store would never work. “I didn’t listen,” he says. “I knew what I was going to do.”

Within a decade, by sharing ownership with local investors across the country, Kinko’s (after Orfalea’s nickname, which stemmed from his notoriously kinky red hair) had grown to a network of over 80 stores, situated predominantly near college campuses and staffed by part-time college students, with a funky young corporate culture to match.

Then the network expanded again, welcoming business clients who needed high-end document and media ser vices without having to purchase all the technology themselves-clients ranging from job seekers to traveling businesspeople to self-employed designers.

Orfalea was able to zero in on the kinds of innovative concepts such as the open-for-24-hours policy-that would make Kinko’s a staple in the lives of community members of all types. Stores sprouted up across the United States and internationally, leading ultimately to more than 1,200 locations and 23,000 employees in 10 different countries.

The irony is not lost on Orfalea that although the industry he chose is essentially the reading business, as Kinko’s grew ever larger he still had no desire himself to write papers or read books.

“Of all the people on earth to be in that business!” he says. “You’d think I must love term papers-but I just told people to Xerox them. I just collected the money.”

He notes his company’s ascent to prosperity was not the normal path trod by executives and managers. The key to Kinko’s success, he says, was its ethos, its spirit. Success never hinged on a certain type of copying technology or a particular financial gambit; rather, it grew from creation of an environment where employees enjoyed coming to work, stayed happy and motivated and genuinely wanted to help the customers get what they needed. Orfalea says the achievement he is most proud of is that before he retired, FORTUNE magazine for three years in a row named Kinko’s one of the best places in America to work.

“These great guys who ran corporate businesses in New York…they’d ask me what our greatest competitive advantage was with Kinko’s, and I said it was a spark in our workers’ eyes,” says Orfalea. “And they didn’t realize that.”

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Since the acquisition of Kinko’s by Federal Express in 2004, Orfalea is no longer involved in the company’s business management. So what does a corporate mogul do in retirement?

Orfalea doesn’t actually describe himself as retired, but rather as repurposed, devoting himself to the educational and philanthropic causes that have always ignited his passion.

He’s not entirely out of the corporate arena, though. In 2000, the same year he started the Orfalea Family Foundation, he launched West Coast Asset Management, an independent investment advisory firm registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Orfalea’s devotion to understanding and participating in the financial markets traces back to junior high school, when he would skip school to visit the offices of a family friend-a stock broker-and beg to learn the ins and outs of financial trading. Today West Coast Asset Management provides equity and income management for individuals, institutions and charitable foundations.

For another venture, Orfalea has taken himself back to school-this time, though, on the other side of the lectern. He frequently teaches at the University of Southern California, the University of California-Davis, the University of California-Santa Barbara and a wide range of other schools.

In his regular economics class at UC-Santa Barbara, Orfalea doesn’t want his students taking notes; in fact, he won’t allow it because he wants them to be present in the classroom experience, listening, engaging and enjoying themselves.

The entrepreneur draws on his own experiences at Kinko’s and elsewhere to encourage students to come at success from new and fresh angles. He is famous for using male-female romance to teach the assertiveness necessary for effective business deals. He’ll put a male student on the spot, encouraging him to ask a girl in the class out on a date, which he offers to pay for. The students report back their experiences from the date, what worked and what didn’t, how they responded to each other. Orfalea feels that if they can conquer their shyness to talk directly about this basic interpersonal interaction, they can approach business without fear or intimidation.

Similarly, he speaks frequently to a wide variety of audiences about his concern at how quickly society doles out learning disabled labels, without concentrating on each person’s individual strengths and interests.

He writes, “Kids often come up to me and say, ‘I am ADHD, as opposed to ‘I have ADHD.’ What does that do to their self-esteem? Drugs like Ritalin and Prozac are prescribed as quick fixes.

“I am not against those drugs. In fact, my life improved dramatically once I started taking Prozac a couple of years back. But before giving drugs to our kids, we need to better understand what the drugs are trying to erase: the highly varied ways people think and process information.

“How many innovators, I wonder, are lost to us simply because their talents and skills cannot be accurately perceived or measured? And why are we so hung up on measuring everyone, anyway? The very bedevilment we are so eager to cure in a person may hold the key to his genius.”

Through the Orfalea Family Foundation. Orfalea and his family support their Santa Barbara community and a broad range of organizations and educational initiatives, addressing not only learning differences, but also early care and education, intergenerational programs, and caregiver training. Many of the funds go to local causes within California, such as child development facilities on college campuses and an annual retreat for teachers from many of California’s early-care childcare centers. In addition, Orfalea is a major donor to child development programs in the city of Isla Vista. the site of that inaugural Kinko’s store.

Make no mistake. Orfalea still believes in making money, but at this point in his life he believes people’s chief goals should be health, happiness, spending time with family and developing personal relationships. He is currently working with government leaders to encourage more businesses and educational institutions to support family-friendly work policies such as flex time and quality early care for children of working parents.

“We’re going too quickly and we’ve got to relax,” he tells ABILITY We’ve got to have a loving relationship. People need to know how to come home at night and enjoy their children. We all need time for our souls to catch up to our bodies.”

by Paul Sterman

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