Connected Nation

From the vault: Lyft's new CEO on using technology to help others

March 30, 2023 Jessica Denson Season 4 Episode 9
Connected Nation
From the vault: Lyft's new CEO on using technology to help others
Show Notes Transcript

The big business news this week is that Lyft's co-founders are resigning, and David Risher has been named as the new CEO.   In light of these headlines, we're taking you into the vault of Connected Nation. 

In this one-on-one interview, recorded in November 2021, Risher shares details on how he found his way to becoming a  Microsoft Executive and later an Amazon Senior Vice President. Plus, learn why he was moved to start a FREE program that uses technology to help one billion children around the world.
Related links:
Worldreader website 

Worldreader app:

Follow Worldreader and its founder on Twitter @worldreaders and @davidrisherWR

More about David Risher:

Pew Research study referenced in podcast -

PLEASE NOTE: This interview was recorded in November 2021

Jessica Denson,  Host (00:00):

This is Connected Nation, a podcast focused on all things broadband from closing the digital divide to improving your internet speeds. We talk technology topics that impact all of us, our families, and our communities.


On today's podcast, we talk with former Microsoft Executive and Amazon Senior Vice President, David Risher. Learn why he believes expanding broadband access can positively impact the nation's literacy rates, especially for children in vulnerable populations. And learn about the international program he co-founded 10 years ago, that's just recently come to the us I'm Jessica Denson, and this is Connected Nation.


I'm Jessica Denson, and today our guest is David Risher, who is the c e o and Co-founder of World Reader. Welcome, David.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (00:46):

Hey, great to be here. Jessica,

Jessica Denson,  Host (00:48):

We're really excited to talk to you today and about what you're doing with World Reader. Um, but I like to really give our audience a little background on each of our guests. And I know I mentioned some hefty titles with Amazon and Microsoft <laugh>. Uh, so let's give people an idea, some of your background that those are some pretty interesting places to have worked. <laugh>.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (01:06):

Yeah, you know what? I got really lucky. I, um, I joined Microsoft, which at the time was a fairly small company back in 1991. And, you know, I was a comparative literature major back in the university. And so I came from the world of reading to the world of tech and, uh, and really got excited about it.

Jessica Denson,  Host (01:23):

That is really interesting that you came from literature to tech. Uh, share how that even happened.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (01:28):

<laugh>. You know, it's funny, I, I guess when I look back at my, my own childhood, you know, I, again, lucky is a funny way to say this, but when my mother and dad split up, my mom bought a very early Apple computer to help her start her own business. And, uh, and so I kind of grew up with a computer in my house. We didn't have much money. We had very little, but we had a computer. Cause the time my mom, uh, uh, made her money. And so, so the, the combination of reading, which I've always loved and tech, which, which helped me out a ton, even back in high school, I had terrible handwriting. So I, I got better grade <laugh>, you know, my teachers could actually read what I was writing cuz I used a word processor. Anyway, all that kind of came together, uh, later in my life. And, um, and, and Microsoft seemed to think it was a, it was a good bet, uh, for them to, to take me on.

Jessica Denson,  Host (02:14):

And you really did some pretty, uh, innovative things, right? You, you were part of the first desktop database products. You, you were part of, uh, Microsoft's first internet, internet-based services. Share some of those details cuz I mean, all of us wanna know how these companies got started and what their early days were like. I mean, we just do <laugh>.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (02:31):

Sure, yeah. And it was just, it was crazy and fun and exhilarating to be there. So Microsoft in the nineties was a pretty different company in some ways. It was run of course by Bill Gates, who was this larger than life character, and he had this huge vision of a computer on every desktop and in every home. Now, you know, we still haven't quite realized that vision, you know, certainly around the planet, but we're a lot closer today than we were back in 91 when I joined. So I joined to work on a desktop database product, which was called Access. Then as you mentioned, uh, the internet kind of crashed over, it's like a tidal wave in 96. And I helped start up an early investor product, Microsoft investor, back when personal finance on the internet was just sort of a, a weird kind of science experiment. Um, so I, it was really a sort of very lucky, uh, set of events where I got to work on some really interesting products, uh, and, and really help, you know, get millions of people in the early days, um, interested in online on the internet.

Jessica Denson,  Host (03:27):

You know, it, it, it strikes me. And, um, just to go to the left a little bit or to the side a little bit, that I, I've really heard a lot of conversations recently where they talk about stem, where also there needs to be creative side to it and bringing creatives together with people with tech backgrounds. Did you see some of that in those early days?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (03:45):

I mean, I couldn't agree more with that. I think, uh, everyone, as you say, likes to talk about STEM because they think, oh my gosh, the world is, is going more towards technology. But I actually think what's really happening is as the world goes to technology, uh, skills like empathy and understanding, people become even more important. And, and you can see some of the, as you say, this is a bigger, bigger conversation, but you see some of the impacts of that today in our society when we all were excited about, uh, you know, the role of, of Facebook and other social networks in the early days from almost a technology perspective, bringing people together. But we didn't understand the impact it was gonna have on, on empathy and human connection. So I, I actually think the future belongs to people who understand technology, but also can think creatively and, and sort of emotionally in the way that people who tend to be big readers, uh, are.

Jessica Denson,  Host (04:34):

I would agree with that. And, and, uh, give you a here, here applause. Um, also, I I do, I did mention that you were a senior vice president with Amazon, and, um, I might are you to blame for my Amazon prom prime account that I now have?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (04:48):

<laugh> <laugh>, uh, you know, I, I like to say I, I played a part. I played a part. Um, but you know, I'll tell you, I'll tell you a funny story there. So I left Microsoft, uh, back in 1996, early 1997 when Amazon was just an online bookstore. And, and now you probably already know enough about me to know what was so exciting to me about that opportunity going to an organization, very small organization at the time, Amazon, uh, which was only a bookstore using technology to get books into people's hands. And I just thought that combination was just sort of a perfect fit for me. Now, over time, the company's become a bit bigger. <laugh>

Jessica Denson,  Host (05:25):

Yes. <laugh> understatement of the year. Yes, <laugh>.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (05:29):

And, and yes, I did have something to do with the early development of, uh, of Prime at the early days. We called it free super flavor shipping. So that just shows how, how long ago. Um, but, um, but yeah, that was, that was sort of my, my early role.

Jessica Denson,  Host (05:42):

Just so people understand, uh, I did talk to your, your PR team before this, and they said that you grew retail sales from fif 15 million to 4 billion. Imagine that <laugh> a billion is a hard number to imagine. So let's not discount just how much impact you had there. Um, let's move on though to, to what's going on now. A little more than 10 years ago, you co-founded what's called World Reader. Uh, it was described to me if you, if you allow me for a moment as quote, a San Francisco based global tech nonprofit that uses literacy apps via smartphones to bring high quality books to children's most to the world's most vulnerable children. So, you know, that's the, the official what it is. But share a little bit ab about what that really means to you and why you made the shift from for-profit to the nonprofit world, really at a time when you're at the top of your game. I would, I would suggest <laugh>.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (06:35):

I I appreciate that. That's, that's kind of you to say. Um, and, and I was, uh, doing well at Amazon, uh, when I decided to make this shift. But I will tell you that the same things that attracted me to go to Amazon were, um, the same things that I'm excited about today. You know, I'm just, I'm just really passionate, personally about the power that reading can bring to kids all around the world to almost unlock just enormous potential. I mean, just think about, so reading I think is almost a superpower that we have as a species because it allows us to share ideas over time, over space. It inspires us, you know, it allows us to get out of our own house without even leaving. And, and the world is moving more and more towards, of course, a technology based world where we're all gonna be spending more and more of our time. And so the question that I asked myself, uh, about 12 years ago now is, can we use technology? At the time, it was Kindles now at smartphones, someday it'll be something else. But can we use technology to get a billion kids around the planet reading so that they can have better lives for themselves and for their futures.

Jessica Denson,  Host (07:45):

Now, the, it did start, uh, overseas, so explain why you decided to start, um, outside the US and then slowly bring it to our national borders.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (07:56):

Sure. So, you know, it, it's actually kind of a, a, a personal story. My wife and our two daughters and I, uh, had decided to spend, uh, an entire year doing something sort of crazy. And that was to travel around the world, uh, to about 19 different countries and spend time in each really trying to understand the world from a bunch of different perspectives. This was not at all my growing up to be clear. I, I grew up <laugh>, you know, raised by a single mother. Uh, you know, she would say, we're not poor. It's just, again, we just don't have much money. <laugh>. Yeah.

Jessica Denson,  Host (08:27):


David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (08:28):

You know, so, uh, consequently as a kid, my way of exploring the world was through books. But, but you know, I've been lucky. And so we decided to do this, this crazy thing. So we went around the world and did, uh, sort of service learning projects as well as, um, were our own kids' teachers for a year. At the end of that trip, we found ourselves at an orphanage in Ecuador, a a young woman's orphanage, girls' orphanage. And we, as we were walking out of the gates at the end of the day, uh, I saw a building with a big padlock on it. I asked the woman who ran the orphanage, why the building was locked up. And she said, well, look, that's our library. And I kind of gulped and said, well, what's going on? And she said, the books take forever to get here.


They come by boat, by the time they arrive, the books are out of date. Or they were somebody else's sort of junk books and old, you know, encyclopedia from 30 years ago or something like this. And so I'm thinking to myself, that sounds awful. And I, I say, can we take a look inside? And she says, you know, David, I think I've lost the key to that place. And once I heard that and, and thought about my own childhood, you know, growing up and really exploring the world with, with, through reading and looking at my own daughters, each of whom had an early version of the Kindle, uh, again, for my Amazon days, we were using Kindle at the time to read, uh, wherever we were, you know, in our trip. I just thought, this is nuts. This is nuts. This, this, our future will be more around technology. It's gonna be lesser around cutting trees down and sending books around the world that way. So let's see if we can start a program for the, some of the world's most vulnerable kids, and if it works outside the United States, let's bring it to the US someday.

Jessica Denson,  Host (10:00):

Now that you've done that, you've, you've had it around the world and it's been 10 years, um, yeah. And explain how it works and then explain how you think you can help tackle literacy in the us.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (10:13):

Sure. So the, the framework we use is, we call it a, B, C, D, <laugh>. And, and, and it's, it's, it just goes like this. The, a, uh, stands stands for apps. We've developed a set of applications including one called Book Smart that works even on very low end phones. One of the real advantages of our, we're doing work in Africa and India and all over the world, is we've really gotten good at understanding what it takes to get kids reading. And particularly on, on phones. Even on some phones, which are, which are very sort of, you know, rudimentary. They're certainly not the latest iPhone. So that's the A, the B stands for books now. So those are digital books, right? So when most people think of books today, they're still thinking paper. But look, it's so much easier to get a book into a child's hand, uh, and to, and to get that child engaged and the parent engaged with the child if it's on the phone, why?


Because we're all spending more and more time on phones. And so that's where kids' eyes are. That's where their attention is. And we wanna fight for that attention. We want it to be not just around Snapchat and Facebook and Instagram. We want it to be around reading and learning, and we attach activities to those books and other things that, that make it more, uh, more fun, uh, than than just reading, which gets me to see, see is for continuous engagement. And that's keeping kids engaged. And that's everything from incentive programs, you know, free gift certificates after you've read a certain amount, um, to notifications, reminding you when books are coming out, you know, the same types of things that maybe a Netflix might do to get you interested in a, in a new movie. Um, and d stands for data, and that's important, uh, for us to be able to see how much impact we're having, how many millions of kids, uh, are reading on our platform, as well as we can give that data back to publishers and to individual readers to show them how they're, how they're making progress. So when you add all that up, we've reached about 19 million kids over the last decade. And I mean, man, I hope to get to, you know, 25 million, 30 million, a hundred billion. I, I really wanna get to a billion kids. Cause I think that's really how we can unlock so much more of our potential down the road.

Jessica Denson,  Host (12:10):

And, uh, why is really now the time to bring it to the us?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (12:13):

Well, I mean, COVID, I think as awful as it has been, it also awakened so many people to the opportunity to think differently about education and, and, and about so much of what we do. You know, and, and, and this has been said many times before, but Covid was sort of an accelerant of a path we were already on. And so now you look at grocery delivery and it's gone from, you know, days to 15 minutes. I just read an article today about how in cities you can get groceries in 15 minutes. That's insane. That's, but it's, but it's not, I mean, it is our future. And so, so, so what Covid I think taught us is a lot of learning happens not just at schools, but it helps. The technology can really play a role, not just with students, but also with their parents.


Their parents have to be involved in this, um, in this journey as well. And again, that the technology is gonna be a, a, a bigger part of our life tomorrow rather than a smaller part. So I think all those things kind of come together. And then you look at the massive inequity that we still have here in the United States, and this is something I think it's so hard for us to get our minds around, but in Appalachia, where we're doing work along the border, the Texas border, where we're doing work in the Bronx, where we're doing work in so many cities and rural areas, kids still struggle with the basics of just having, you know, a computer in their home. But frankly, much more often than that, it's a phone in their home that works well, that's problem is being solved over time. And that's why we're so focused on working, you know, where kids are, which is with their phones, in their homes, wherever they are, even if they're in a very vulnerable community.

Jessica Denson,  Host (13:47):

Yeah, I would think at this recording, um, one of the prime examples of, uh, the fact that there's an awareness of it, like never before, is the infrastructure bill that was just passed included 65 billion in broadband related funding. There's, there, there's an awareness. I don't have to explain to journalists anymore why access matters. Um, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, your team told me that you've been a longtime advocate for expanding access. Uh, did you really make that connection early on to the need for, for better access? Uh, why was it that you really were down that path already?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (14:20):

We did. This was something we, we started thinking about in 2010. And, and the way we thought about it now, justice today is, you know, it's, it's the, the internet and in particular broadband, it's almost like physical plumbing to your house. You know, we, we, you would never consider building a house without pipes to it. <laugh> it doesn't make any sense. You know, it doesn't make any sense. And so, so, so the, the, and, and you, so you know that that's gonna happen over time. It might take a long time, it might take a short time. This infrastructure bill is gonna dramatically accelerate that for that last, you know, 20 or 30% of the US that still doesn't even have the pipe, or if it's got the pipe, can't afford to pay for the water. And by the way, in this analogy, we're sort of the water, right? We're the ones providing the content, the books, the activities, the learning materials, the things that make that pipe interesting. You know, no one wants an empty pipe, they wanna pipe with good things to it, <laugh>. And so, right. So that, that's sort of the analogy that we've been thinking about for the last, you know, 10 years. And we're just thrilled that it's, it's really coming to pass here in the US even for populations and, and, and communities that have really, uh, struggled and, and threatened to be left behind without a measure like this.

Jessica Denson,  Host (15:26):

Yeah. If I may quote, um, some stats from a recent Pew research study, uh, 27% of adults living in households earning less than 30,000 a year, which I can't imagine living on just that, but our smartphone only internet users mean they do not have an in broadband connection. Compare that to adult adults earning over a hundred K a year, and 93% of them have that access, and they have multiple devices such as the laptop, smartphone. The reason I bring this up is because by that token, when I was reading about world reader, um, I just couldn't help but be struck that in a way it can help level the playing field a bit more by giving those kids access to the, to what you're talking about. Do you feel that, have you seen examples of that?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (16:12):

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that's a, i it's really worth, I think reflecting on, you know, what you just said, what, what that tells us is that that access is more or less a solved problem if you have money mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but if you do not have money, you know, we, you're still at the, at the starting line now, the great news is that this, this infrastructure bill at least allows you to envision a finish line when you can. You can, you can, you can get there. But the, but the other piece, and this is a little subtle, is you do already have at least a tool. You probably have a smartphone. You know, I was, I was talking to the, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club, the National Boys and Girls Club organization, and he said one of the things they learned over this covid time is you cannot yet depend on people having computers or broadband internet access in their home.


You can't, and, and you just said why? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, particularly if you're, if you're a poor, you, you, you probably don't, but you could almost entirely depend even today on people having a capable phone in their house and, and some, you know, access to, to the internet that way. So I think this gives us an opportunity, and here's what we've seen, we've seen in Appalachia where now we've been working here in the US for just about a year in West Virginia, Barbara County, West Virginia, to be specific. We've seen kids there come to after school reading groups with their phones, and all of a sudden their eyes light up because they're like, wait, I can actually use my phone for something kind of educational and fun. And I know that sounds funny, educational and fun, but these were kids who are desperate, desperate to learn about a bigger world than the one that they typically see day to day.


And so in the books that we have in our program, by the way, these books come from Africa, India, the Middle East, because a lot of the work we've done over the years has been there. And so they're reading about kids halfway around the world, you know, they're saying things like, this is like a low cost ticket to see the world. So anyway, I know that was, that was a lot to sort of take in, but I just, I think that the opportunity is so significant right now, because finally, as you say, no one has to be convinced of the importance of this. It's just, we gotta, we gotta get to work, making sure they've got great content, uh, and that even today they don't, they know they don't have to wait, uh, for, you know, for, for a broadband pipe to get to their house in the next couple years. They can actually start already today.

Jessica Denson,  Host (18:20):

So how does it, a child in Appalachia or anywhere in the US where it's, whether it's Tribal Nation or, or Alaska or you know, just wherever they may be, how would they access world reader themselves?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (18:32):

Sure. So the easiest way today is to go, uh, type in B, B, into your, uh, phone and on just about any phone you use, whether it's a high-end phone or low end phone, as long as you've got some connection to the internet through your phone company, uh, an Apple will pop up that'll then have, uh, you know, hundreds of books from around the world and it'll have a book a week. And I'll tell you just a little story about something that's happening right now on the borders of Texas. Um, we have kids there who are, uh, young ages 10 to 14, and, um, they're in, uh, sites in, in, in sort of detainment sites and refugee sites and so forth. Kids coming across the border, or even kids who've come across the border are being, uh, held there. And we just got a note from one of them last week. It was actually a, one of our, our staff, uh, told us this, where she said, the boys there in particular, who have no control over their lives, no control over their lives, are now using Booksmart to choose books that they wanna read. And one of them said to one of our, uh, people there, uh, it's one of the most comforting times of the day cuz they can actually pick a book that they wanna read themselves, uh, write on their phone.

Jessica Denson,  Host (19:38):

Oh gosh. That just has to make you feel like the work is is worth it.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (19:42):


Jessica Denson,  Host (19:44):

Because I'm sure you've put in a lot of hours and days and time in this <laugh>, um, you just made me tear up <laugh>. Uh, I can just think of this kid who just wants to read a book and have a, a moment of choice in his life. That's, that's a beautiful thing. Um, speaking of beautiful things, in your perfect world, what would you like to see take place? What should kids have access to?

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (20:06):

I mean, I think if you, if you roll the, the calendar forward, you know, two years, five years, 10 years, a again, I don't think we have to guess a lot about whether kids are gonna be spending more and more time, uh, online and, and, and connected to, to phones and devices. That's just the world we live in. Um, that train has left the station. So what I'd like to see is that a real percentage of their day be spent not just, you know, playing games, not just, uh, you know, kind of goofing off and doing the things that, that that people do, but also recognizing that if they become readers in the way that people have been encouraging folks to do for years with paper books, but now you can do it digitally writing your own pocket, hundreds of books, not just one or two.


If you become a reader, you will have a better future. You'll make more money as a, as in professional life, you'll have more empathy. Um, you'll, you'll, you'll be more curious and, and, and, and a critical thinker of the world. And that, that's, and that's, so that's the future I'd like to help us all. Um, you know, bring into focus is that, you know, 10 years from now, a billion more people are reading on this planet all over the world, including here in the US because they see the opportunity and we've helped 'em see it.

Jessica Denson,  Host (21:14):

I, I love to read as well, so <laugh>, I, I, I echo what you say and, um, I would be remiss, and I did not have this among my questions, so I'm throwing this one out at you. I would be remiss if I did not ask you what your favorite book is, <laugh>.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (21:28):

Oh, man. Man, uh, you know what, this is such a hard question for me because my favorite book almost always turns out to be, you know, the most recent book I've read.

Jessica Denson,  Host (21:37):

Yeah, yeah. I relate <laugh>. Well,

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (21:40):

I dunno why that is. Um, I mean, I'll g I'll give you, uh, an example of a book I just recently read. This is, it's sort of funny, but it's a book about, um, Elon Musk and his, the Space Race and, uh, it's called Liftoff. And it's all about how incredibly hard he had to work to convince the world and his staff that, you know, building a whole new rocket company from scratch, uh, was, um, uh, you know, was, was, was possible. And now look, I think, you know, just in the last, you know, few days, uh, you know, we've seen, you know, more of the crew splash down from, from rockets that Elon Musk, uh, built. So, look, he's a, he's a, he's a curious character, but I will tell you, when you read about re Elon Musk, one of the things you always read is how much of a big reader he is himself. And so I find that, uh, uh, you know, pretty inspiring.

Jessica Denson,  Host (22:24):

Well, that's a good one. I, I wrote that down liftoff. I'll have to, I'll have to look at that <laugh>. Um, so I just, I'd like to give all my guests a chance to add any final thoughts or something that you thought I should have talked about or we should have touched on that you'd like to bring up that maybe I didn't.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (22:40):

I mean, I, I guess my only thought is I really think we are at a moment of time right now as a society where we can feel ourselves, you know, almost being held back by human capacity. What do I mean by that? So many organizations are trying to hire people. There's so many great ideas out in the world. There's so many big problems to solve, you know, climate change or whatever, whatever you know, worries you, uh, you know, a lot or keeps you up at night. All of those opportunities to solve problems and, you know, future planetary exploration again, whatever, whatever gets you excited, they're all gonna be solved by people. And a lot of those people right now are three years old, five years old, 10 years old, you know, who some year are gonna be 20 and 25 and 30 and 35, and they're gonna be the ones solving problem.

Jessica Denson,  Host (23:28):

The only way we can equip them is if they've got a great education in reading is right at the foundation of that, and they're all gonna have phones. So it's like all the pieces are in place now. All the pieces are in place now, <laugh>. And, um, and the only thing holding, you know, us back as an organization, frankly, it's like so many nonprofits is, you know, more funding, more exposure, more people shining a light on this and saying, man, man, I wanna help and I wanna see these guys succeed because I think they've got a chance at, at changing the world. So, to the extent your listeners, um, you know, wanna help us, man, come to our, you know, make a contribution, reach out to us, let us know how you can bring our programs to your communities. I I really think it'll change an entire generation if we do this right.


Well, I am, um, excited. It's hard to not be excited about it when you talk about it, David. So thank you so much for joining us today and sharing what you're doing to help kids around the world.

David Risher, CEO, Lyft  (24:21):

For sure. Thank you, Jessica. I really enjoyed it.

Jessica Denson,  Host (24:24):

Again, our guest today has been David Risher, who is the CEO and co-founder of World Reader On Clean, include links to World Reader and other key items in the description of this podcast. I'm Jessica Denson. Thanks for listening to Connected Nation. If you like our show and wanna know more, pen to connected Our look for our latest episodes on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Google Podcast, Pandora, or Spotify.