JIM FRUCHTERMAN, Rocket Scientist, Founder and CEO of Benetech

“It’s cool when geeks develop for geeks but it’s even cooler if geeks develop for humans in need.”

Did you know that the social impact of pattern recognition is greater than the impact of a missile? Jim Fruchterman’s ultimate goal was to become a NASA astronaut, but after dropping out of Stanford College and a failed rocket launch attempt, he channelled his energy elsewhere. He realised that “the same thing that makes technology good for making money makes it good for helping the world,” and accordingly unearthed a project conceived during his Bachelor of Science.

His rediscovered project evolved into Calera, which he founded in 1982: the premier optical character recognition technology enabling blind people to read by allowing their computers to ‘read’ printed text. Eight years later, Jim founded Arkenstone, his first social enterprise that produced affordable reading machines (the Arkestone Reader) using the Calera technology.

According to Jim, the “most powerful force on earth is the human mind.” To make this ‘force’ tick, all it takes is interaction with the world outside, often neglected by tech-heads. One afternoon, Jim looked outside and saw his son playing with the neighbour’s boy, the son of the then-CEO of Napster. He thought to himself, “blind people should be able to share books that they have already scanned, just like young people swap music files.”  With this in mind, using profits from the sale of Arkenstone in 2000, Jim founded Benetech. Bookshare was their first product, the first digital library of scanned material accessible to people with print-related disabilities. His dedication to literacy also earned him a place on the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center Advisory Committee of the US Department of Education, where he remains a member today.

For a person who has been alleviating social needs since the 1980s, Jim was a late-comer to the field of social entrepreneurship. In 1999 when he was introduced to the concept, he realised just how unique Arkenstone was with its pairing of technology and philanthropy. That same year, Jim (an avid reader) found inspiration in Muhammad Yunus’ autobiography, Banker to the Poor. The book’s underlying themes of trust and solidarity became the foundation for Benetech and a passion of Jim’s, inspiring him to co-found the Social Enterprise Alliance in 2000.

When asked about the secrets of his and Benetech’s success, he simply answered, “network”. Even in Silicon Valley where some of the strongest connections exist between man and his computer or woman and her computer, human relationships are still central to success, geeks helping geeks. Imagine what would be possible if the whole of Silicon Valley pooled their knowledge…wellbeing for all?

Additional Quotes

“Most social sector organizations are lagging in terms of technology 2-20 years behind mainstream business. Technology can make their work much easier and much more productive, and that’s where we come in.”

“We need to make sure that being socially responsible is an unavoidable thing in business.”

“Don’t stop innovation just because you don’t see enough market for it.”

About Benetech

Benetech is a Non-profit Social Enterprise located in Palo Alto, California that provides social benefits to disadvantaged groups employing sustainable technology solutions. It is invested in the areas of education, specifically bridging the digital divide, as well as literacy, disability, human rights, the environment and tech volunteerism.  In addition, it provides seed capital for market and technical feasibility study as well as infrastructure. True to its strapline, “Technology Serving Humanity” the business model focuses on ROH – Return on Humanity. For more information visit the website, www.benetech.org/ and read Jim’s Beneblog.


Country: USA

Type of Education: B.S Engineering at the California Institute of Technology (CALTEC); M.S Applied Physics CALTEC, followed by PhD in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University.

Awards: 2012 Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce; Brigham Young University, Center for Economic Self-Reliance Social Innovator of the Year, 2009; 2006 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship; Outstanding Social Entrepreneur 2003 by the Schwab Foundation and also in 2003, the Robert F. Bray Award from the American Council of the Blind

Foundation Affiliation: Schwab, MacArthur Fellowship

Pathway to Impact: Pathway of Talent

Impact Area/s: Security -Personal safety, secure resource access, security from disasters; Health – Strength, feeling well, access to clean air & water; Freedom of Choice & Action

Organisation Type: Social Enterprise, Corporation

Facts & Figures: Benetech: 150,000 Direct Beneficiaries (2011); Annual Budget was US$12.5 million (2011)

Additionally, Jim is a cofounder and director for RAF Technology, Inc. that is used by the United States Postal Service and is a key contributor to the recently published book, Creating Good Work – The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy, Palgrave Macmillan.


Website: www.fruchterman.org

Twitter: @JRandomF

LinkedIn: jimfruchterman 

Flickr: jrandomf 

Other Media

Making the Book Truly Accessible, Keynote Speech, 2011 Tools of Change Conference, New York

About the author Helena Rosebery

After completing a Master of Communication (Food & Culture) from Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, Italy, Helena Rosebery followed her heart to Zürich where she is inspired everyday by the resilience and greenness of her home-grown herbs. Helena employs words and coloured pencils to professionally communicate all that is – and is not – in the pursuit of a more ethical world.

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