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ADD in the corner office: Five top executives discovered that an LD can be a capitalist tool

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By Lois Gilman, ADDitude Magazine

Copy chief

Paul Orfalea

Founder, Kinko's

He flunked second grade, did poorly in high school, and got C's and D's in college. But that didn't stop Orfalea, who is dyslexic and has "ADD to the max," from becoming an entrepreneur. Instead, it motivated the curly, red-haired executive (nicknamed Kinko) to exceed everyone's expectations.

The idea for Kinko's came to Orfalea in 1970, while he was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He noticed all the people lined up to pay 10 cents a page to use the library photocopier. He decided he could provide the service cheaper. Orfalea borrowed $5,000 and opened his first Kinko's in a converted hamburger stand near the university. It was equipped with a lone Xerox machine. Today, his copying empire, which FedEX now owns, is worth $2.4 billion, and Orfalea, 56, has retired.

"My learning disability gave me certain advantages, because I was able to live in the moment and capitalize on the opportunities I spotted," says Orfalea, as he looks back on his career. "With ADD, you're curious. Your eyes believe what they see. Your ears believe what others say. I learned to trust my eyes." So when customers came into his store looking to use a computer — not to copy documents — Orfalea saw an opportunity. He expanded Kinko's to include computers. As a result, the company captured many small business owners as customers, as well as the self-employed.

His ADD provided him with the right temperament on which to build the business. "Because I have a tendency to wander," he explains, "I never spent much time in my office. My job was going store to store, noticing what people were doing right. If I had stayed in my office all the time, I would not have discovered all those wonderful ideas to help expand the business." A Kinko's that remained open for 24 hours was an idea he picked up from his steady customers.

"I can't write a letter and I can't fix a machine," says Orfalea. "My biggest advantage is that I don't get bogged down in the details, because of my ADD. I hire capable people to handle that."

Looking back on his own education, Orfalea believes that different children have different learning styles, and that the education system needs to recognize that fact before more children are left behind. "If the President's No Child Left Behind had been around when I was in school," says Orfalea, "I would still be in third grade, because that's how bad a speller I am." And we would all be without our neighborhood Kinko's.

Reprinted with permission from ADDitude Magazine. All rights reserved. See for more articles like this one.

Comments from readers

"I don't get why people think it's such a blessing. What's the point in having so many thoughts and ideas shooting at you if you frequently forget them due to yet ANOTHER mental tangent or almost inevitable lack of interest to follow through? This is cliche, but, if ADHD is a gift, I want to return it :p. Nonetheless, it's great to see what these people have done with themselves regardless of their issues :), BUT, and this is just my opinion that they would only be better versions of themselves without ADHD. Also, those ideas held by someone else without ADHD (or under treatment and/or medication) would might have done even more with them. Although being positive is important when diagnosing, accepting the problem, and researching it, ADHD needs to stop being looked at as a gift. It's not. It diminishes your quality of life, and should be taken seriously. That's just my view on it, more power to ya if you're content with it :), cause I'm sure not. "
"I had to laugh when I heard David Neeleman has a certain place for his wallet and keys. I honestly think I have the same condition as he does. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I am an idea machine. I take in experiences from all different aspects of my life and boom another idea and then boom another idea. I compare my brain to a computer with parellell processing. I am constantly juggling 3-4 different threads in my brain all at the same time. It wears me out sometimes. Anyways, if you have the same thing, I wouldn't medicate for it, but just learn to harness that God given ability to your advantage. Awesome article!"