The Curly Haired Copy Entrepreneur: The Rise of Paul Orfalea

“If you’re going to enjoy the picnic that life really is, you’d better learn to like yourself,” says Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea, “not despite your flaws and so-called deficits, but because of them.”

Orfalea was a D-minus student who had already flunked two grades. He suffered from both dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), making it hard for him to sit still in a classroom. He had even been expelled from several schools as a result. Despite the obstacles, Orfalea would go on to turn a 100-square-foot store with a single photocopier into a multi-billion-dollar operation. Today, Orfalea’s Kinko’s is the most successful copy store chain in the U.S.

Paul J. Orfalea was born on November 28, 1947 in Los Angeles, California to parents of Lebanese descent. Early on, friends started calling him “Kinko” thanks to his curly red hair. But even his friends could not help Orfalea get through the next few years of school.

“In second grade, I was in a Catholic school with 40 or 50 kids in my class. We were supposed to learn to read prayers and match letter blocks to the letters in the prayers,” recalled Orfalea. “By April or May, I still didn't know the alphabet and couldn't read. I memorized the prayers so the nun thought I was reading. Finally, she figured out that I didn't even know my alphabet, and I can remember her expression of total shock that I had gotten all the way through the second grade without her knowing this.”

Orfalea suffered from both dyslexia and ADHD, making it impossible for him to concentrate in school. His parents offered Orfalea’s siblings $50 to teach him the alphabet but even that did not work. He failed second grade. Doctors assumed that he could not read because of poor eye muscles and his parents did not know any better.

“Every summer, I went to summer school, and during the school year I was in every little special group,” he says. “I was in the speech group, the corrective posture group, the purple reading group, the green reading group. In third grade, the only word I could read was ‘the’. I used to keep track of where the group was reading by following from one ‘the’ to the next.”

It was not until Orfalea was 15 years old that he could finally get by with reading in class, “but I could never spell,” he says. “I was a woodshop major in high school, and my typical report card was two C's, three D's, and an F. I just got used to it.” Orfalea graduated from high school with a 1.2 GPA. “I was eighth from the bottom of my class of 1,500 students,” he says. “To be honest, I don't even know how seven people got below me.”

Surprising even to himself, Orfalea was accepted into the University of Southern California, but he did not have high hopes. “Everyone in my family and all my parents' friends had their own businesses,” he says. “So, for me, college was just for fun because I knew I was going to have my own business. In college, I majored in business and ‘loopholes.’ I knew who all the easy teachers were.”

It was while he was a student at USC that Orfalea decided to start up his own business. For $100 a month, he rented a small garage near campus and began selling notebooks, pens, pencils, and the services of a copying machine. He was quickly making upwards of $1,000 a day. But it would be just the beginning for Orfalea.

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