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LeVar Burton and Alicia Levi – From Reading Rainbow to Partnering With RIF

Reading Rainbow ran on PBS for 23 years and as the host of the show our guest LeVar Burton developed an immense appreciation for the importance of access to literature for young children. While his initial entrepreneurial skills were developed as a working actor, leading him to land roles in shows like Star Trek and Roots, after Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2006 he decided to buy its rights and made it his mission to leave an impact on future generations through reading.

We sat down with LeVar and Alicia Levi, the CEO of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a non-profit founded in 1966 that has 400,000 volunteers nationwide working to bring books and literacy resources to millions of people. We start by discussing how they think about risk taking and failure, and the best frame of mind to move past obstacles that paralyze you. LeVar tells us how Skybrary, the company he started in 2012, ultimately took off when the Kickstarter they launched raised their goal of $1 million in 11 hours instead of the planned 35 days.

We also learn how their massive new partnership came about, starting from a chance PSA that LeVar did for the non-profit in Los Angeles, and why investing into building your relationships can have life changing consequences.

Show Notes

2:00 LeVar’s start in entrepreneurship was prepared by his work as an actor, which is a very entrepreneurial endeavor.   

3:22 How were you inspired by your mother? How did your mother instill that entrepreneurial drive?

4:08 One big thing I learned is that you don’t do it by yourself. There are people that are both directly, and indirectly involved in your achievements, even if your effort is self directed

4:37 The confidence in knowing that I was going to be okay gave me the confidence to make mistakes.  You can always adjust your path along the way.

5:02 Vadim: But what would you say to someone that’s afraid?

5:17 Acknowledge that fear is a part of the process, but don’t let it paralyze you into inaction. How you respond to the fear determines who you are and how much you get done.   

5:30 Alicia: You might not know how you’re going to get to the end, but you will figure it out if you just work at it.

6:19 Vadim: We all have something unique to offer, so we all have to believe in yourself… so you just have to take that first step to set yourself apart from yourself.

6:42 LeVar: Know, that wherever you are, it’s only temporary.

7:30 I want to have a lasting impact. By making a partnership between my company Skybrary and RIF I know that millions of kids are going to experience the world that we created about discovery and exploration for emerging readers, and that’s my primary concern

8:12 Before I was an entrepreneur I was a consumer of content, learning from others.  

9:23 Skybrary was launched in the summer of 2012, and it was based on Reading Rainbow. The idea was to translate the popular television show and translate it to a digital medium.

9:55 LeVar: Sometimes you don’t know where to start, but when you start to engage, all the problems that you need to solve will arise.

10:30 Alicia: But you also activated your network, and brought people together. Millions of people came along for your journey.

10:55 LeVar: When we did the The Kickstarter in 2014 the response was unexpected. 106,000 people donated to the Kickstarter.

12:40 We planned to raise $1 million in 35 days and it happened in only 11 hours, ultimately raising $6 million total

13:00 Vadim: but you also talked about failure. There are more moments of failure than not. Have you had times where you through – this initiative might fail?

13:05 LeVar: All the time. Sometimes there are moments that you don’t think you will live through, but guess what – you do. Do the work, trust, and take care of yourself.

13:36 Alicia: And persevere, you can’t give up and know that what you’re doing is the right thing for you.

14:00 I believe everybody has a specific mission in life. We’re all here for a reason. Identify why you’re here, and then have the courage to pursue it – relentlessly. If you’re aligned with your true purpose in life the universe moves in your favor.  

14:27 Levar: “Take the step that’s in front of you, the next step will be revealed to you.”

14:40 Vadim: We get into our own heads. There’s a lot of uncertainty, you never know what’s going to happen but you need to take that next step

14:56 LeVar: Need to have intuition that what you’re doing benefits not just you, but brings value to other people.

15:45 Alicia:  Literacy is the very first step. It’s a fundamental building block to accomplish anything.  

17:30 Vadim: How did you guys originally meet? When did the relationship start that ultimately allowed this opportunity to come about?

13:45 LeVar: 7 years ago I took part in a RIF PSA that was shot in L.A. That was my first time working with Reading Is Fundamental, and when Alicia came on board I was familiar with Alicia from her time at PBS

18:32 Vadim: That’s the beauty of relationships. You never know when something can come from it, and that’s why you need to invest in it.  

18:38 LeVar: You need to leverage your network, but in order to leverage it you have to build it, and that takes time.

19:01 It was not my intention to strike out and work on a product like Reading Rainbow that was so visible. It was an outcome of certain decisions that I made, but not planned. And the relation that came from there all matured slowly over time.  

19:31 Vadim: And I know you’re working on the third season of your podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, and you’re doing live shows now right?

19:41 LeVar: Yes, I’ve done 13 shows so far, and we’re looking at how to incorporate more touring because it’s something that I really love.

20:33 Vadim: The fact that you’re impacting children so much, and providing these resources for them is what creates longevity.

21:14 LeVar: Our combined ability to be effective is greater than our individual ability to have impact  

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