Paul and Jane Orfalea have always empathized with those who fall “outside the system” because outside the system is where they feel like they come from.
From the beginning, Paul Orfalea knew his brain “worked differently.” While in many ways this made him feel like an outsider, Paul considers what he calls his “profound ADHD and dyslexia” a blessing that allowed him to observe the world in a unique way and therefore blaze his own path. Fortunately, Paul’s parents celebrated these differences rather than try to stuff their square, redheaded peg they called “Kinko,” into a round hole.
“Success is more about your imagination than anything else,” Orfalea says.
And whatever Paul’s deficits in attention, he made up for them in innovation, daring and instinct. And it was as an undergrad at USC, when he should have been cramming for finals, that Orfalea instead found himself in the library studying others who were cramming for finals. It was then he overheard students complaining about paying too much for photocopies. Sensing an opportunity, Orfalea set up his own copy shop, charging about half what the university vendors charged. So began his round the clock office copying empire that became Kinko’s.
In 2004, when Orfalea sold Kinko’s to FedEx for $2.4 billion, this windfall gave him the means to devote his life to three new loves: teaching, philanthropy, and eventually his new bride, Jane Walker Wood.
In Jane, Paul found his ideological match, evident by how they finish each other’s thoughts when talking about their shared giving philosophy. Paul and Jane’s philanthropy is fueled by a mutual commitment to give away at least 85 percent of their wealth during their lifetimes. “With everything you leave to your kids, you’re also taking something away,” Jane says.
Though they consider themselves “not religious,” Paul and Jane point to early influence from religious teachings as an inspiration for their commitment to philanthropy. “He who sees the face of the poor sees me,” Paul says, quoting Jesus.
The Orfaleas’ philanthropic focus is inextricably bound to their political views, their personal philosophies, and a bit of guilt over their own good fortune. “I do feel guilty about consumption and how much of the resources I’m taking out of this planet,” Paul says from the passenger seat of his Prius. But he puts that guilt to good use.
Through their Audacious Foundation, the Orfaleas work to fill what they see as the gaps in Santa Barbara’s social safety nets. Jane attributes this focus to her Canadian upbringing. “I’m Canadian, so I believe in the value of supporting a society to make the whole society better,” says the Toronto native.
Most recently, Paul and Jane have expressed particular concern over the disproportionate toll the pandemic is taking on lower-income children. “The pandemic made the division between rich and poor so much greater because with the wealthy kids, these families hire a tutor and have a learning pod of six kids, so they have a mini private school.” They’re also concerned about how much time kids are spending indoors. “Spending all day inside is not a healthy or happy childhood. Kids need to be outside – exercising and playing actively.” To that end they support the Wilderness Youth Project’s “Bridge to Nature” program, which mentors kids outdoors while their parents are working.
To address what he sees as inequities, Orfalea tries to give back some of the emotional nourishment he received as a child. “While I hated going to school, I did in fact love learning and still do. That’s why I find it so particularly gratifying to help students, especially those who don’t like school, so they can build confidence, learn in their own unique way, and thereby flourish. Which will ultimately translate into better opportunities.”
To this end, the Orfaleas describe what they call “Whole Child Development,” a system of youth oriented initiatives backed by their Audacious Foundation. The idea is that “whole” kids become the best, well-rounded adults, with the greatest breadth of opportunities. So the Orfaleas support a veritable decathlon of child development programs including almost anything that would benefit a disadvantaged kid, starting at the mouth, sponsoring nutrition and even orthodontia for youth who otherwise would not have access to it. “We discovered there was nothing in place for kids with orthodontia. But you don’t see too many successful people in college with bad teeth,” Jane explains.
The Audacious Foundation also supports, through partnerships: swimming for kids, biking for kids, science camps, and almost any connection to the great outdoors. “Many Title I kids in Santa Barbara don’t know how to swim and have never been to the beach and there was no program for getting them there,” Jane explains.
“We also found there are a lot of programs to help kids with education, but not much to teach the things that kids from wealthy families learn, such as how to use a knife and fork, how to dress for a formal dinner… If you’re fortunate enough to work hard and you get through school and you get a scholarship to a good university, you’re then suddenly invited to somebody’s home for dinner and you don’t know how that system works, which can make a person feel awkward. So we try to give that advantage to kids as well,” Jane says. “So underprivileged kids can compete with privileged kids on more equal footing.”
The Orfaleas see the nonprofits they support as partners. “For example, with the Boys & Girls Clubs, we went to them and said, What can we do to help you get these kids outside and exercising? They said, Give us this much money, here’s what we can do. And then the founder said, I’ll meet that match.”
Another partnership the Orfaleas proudly reference is their work with Montecito Bank & Trust regarding Financial Literacy for youth. “At least half of these families don’t have a bank account and the parents don’t have financial education, so we co-sponsor an initiative where these 6th grade kids are actually doing the family’s finances. We give them financial literacy classes through Montecito Bank and Trust… We open up a bank account for the kids which starts with $50. And then we match it. And then the bank matches it, too.”
For Paul and Jane, most philanthropic roads seem to lead back to helping Santa Barbara’s neediest kids. And to be sure, no one understands more than Paul Orfalea that with the proper support, even the most idiosyncratic, non-traditional, kinky-haired, square-peg learner can go very far.