How Robert Brown is transforming lives in Africa – with a little help from his friends.
The civil rights movement had many heroes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of course. Malcolm X, naturally. And Robert J. Brown. Working quietly behind the scenes as a consultant, businessman and White House advisor, Brown spent those crucial years steadily changing perceptions of segregation in boardrooms across America.
"The people so appreciate the books. They want a chance at an education, at opportunity." – Robert J. Brown, founder, BookSmart Foundation.
"Martin Luther King Jr. was one of my closest friends," Brown says. "I served on his board and the executive committee, so I knew Martin and Coretta really well." In 1985, when King's widow, Coretta Scott King, traveled to South Africa to offer assistance to Nelson Mandela's family, she asked Brown to accompany her. Brown had been to Africa many times as the CEO and founder of a public relations firm that worked with companies like F.W. Woolworth, A&P Supermarkets and Sara Lee to handle corporate communications and race relations.
At the time, Mandela was 22 years into a 27-year prison term. Apartheid, the system that forcibly relocated and oppressed South Africa's black population, still ruled the country. Mandela's wife, Winnie, asked that the Americans help her children acquire a U.S. education. So Brown arranged for the Mandelas' daughter and her husband to enroll at Boston University and provided financial support for their family during their six-year stay in America.
The book smuggler
That trip to South Africa changed Brown's life.
"At that time, Soweto was the largest black township in the country," Brown says. "They had about 3 million people living in that one township. We went to the town's library, which was a very small building. I have more books in my house than they had there for 3 million people! Then we went to the school libraries. Almost every library was empty. I was appalled."
Brown decided to bring books to the region. Since it was an illegal activity, he had to smuggle them in, hiding books at the bottom of containers of clothing and shoes. "We would be met by large crowds. When they found out that I had books, they were in a frenzy just to get one. People would come from all over. It was something to behold."
9 million and counting
Brown started the International BookSmart Foundation in 1988 in his hometown of High Point, N.C. Since then, the nonprofit has gathered and shipped more than 9 million books to Africa, mostly school texts.
At the same time, Brown was growing his own business, B&C International Inc., the oldest minority-owned strategy and business management-consulting firm in the United States. And while serving on a number of corporate and nonprofit boards, he continued to secure funds for his book shipments, one of the foundation's biggest challenges.
The nonprofit could only ship books when Brown raised enough money or persuaded a corporation, like Johnson Controls or Sara Lee, to sponsor a shipment.
"Just when I thought we were finished, someone would come through to allow us to continue," Brown recalls.
Logistics to the rescue
Because the nonprofit was cash-strapped, its logistics were unpredictable and haphazard. UPS recently became involved with the foundation, donating a logistics makeover that started with an overhaul of the warehouse. A UPS Customer Solutions team estimates that the warehouse used about 30 percent of its capacity before the reengineering, a process that included reorganizing a mountain of books, installing a racking structure to free floor space and installing an inventory management system.
UPS has also donated three years of complimentary shipping so the nonprofit can schedule regular book deliveries to Africa for individual townships and schools.
"Even now in South Africa and in other English-speaking countries in Africa, many schools have no books," Brown says. "This is something we can do something about."
He adds: "The people so appreciate the books. They want a chance at education, at opportunity." Robert Brown has made it his mission to provide that chance.
Watch how 20 UPS volunteers transformed Robert Brown's warehouse in just three days.