At the age of 35, recipient of The Chicago Community Trust Fellowship and serial entrepreneur Stacy Ratner was a veteran of four venture-backed startup companies in markets ranging from high-speed Internet access to online remarketing of used cars. But as that milestone birthday approached, she realized something was missing.
The quest for more meaningful work led her to found Open Books, a nonprofit social venture that collects used books, sells them in its award-winning Chicago stores and uses those funds to support literacy programs and book giveaways for thousands of K-12 students each year. In addition, as the co-founder of the Chicago Literacy Alliance (CLA), Stacy was key to the creation of the West Loop’s recently opened Literacenter, the country’s first shared nonprofit workspace focused exclusively on the cause of literacy.
Q+A with @stacyjratner, founder of @openbooks, on life’s “addictive + motivational moments”
The Chicago Community Trust sat down with Stacy to talk about how her entrepreneurial experiences have influenced her views on philanthropy and how even the smallest acts of kindness can make all the difference in the world.
Q: When did you start giving back? Tell us your first experience with giving or receiving.
A: My first giving experiences were making presents for my parents, who also gave me my first experiences with receiving. I was exceptionally lucky there: in addition to food, shelter, love, care and attention, I received a younger brother and solid roots in a strong extended family. Although I had opportunities for structured giving in college and law school, they tended to be single days of service or small donations to friends’ fundraisers. It wasn’t until I’d spent many years in for-profit startups that I realized I’d gotten trapped in a work culture that did not prioritize giving back, and that I wanted to find a path that led back to generosity. Open Books has been my journey in service of that goal, and it may turn out to the best thing I’ve ever done.
Q: What inspires or motivates you to do good for others?
A: Rather than “doing good for others,” which I think can be a dangerous plan (since it implies you know what will be good for them), I try to focus on offering help and increasing happiness. Those moments—when you use a talent, skill or bit of knowledge to make someone else’s path a little smoother—are addictive and motivational: you want to keep being able to create them again and again.
Q: You are a philanthropist—what advice do you have for others who want to do good?
A: You don’t have to be staggeringly rich or possessed of infinite free time to make the world, or someone’s life, a little brighter. In the course of an average day, you might well have 20 or more chances to give something to someone, ranging from simple assistance (holding open a door) or supportive presence (helping a lost person get to their destination) through meaningful work (sharing professional advice) or a tangible item (buying coffee for a friend). The size of each opportunity is less important than the overall effect of your choosing as many of them as your situation allows. Don’t let the pressure of doing great things stop you from sharing good ones. Small things, added together, make all the difference in the world.