Orfalea was born in Los Angeles, California to parents of Syrian Orthodox Christian descent. His father's family came from the city Urfa (now in Turkey), formerly a major center of Greek Orthodox and Syriac Christianity.
He is currently a philanthropist and a visiting professor in the Global and International Studies Department of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), and at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business. He is a brother of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
Orfalea's father and grandmother ran clothing stores in Los Angeles. According to Orfalea, he was a woodshop major in high school, and his typical report card was "two C's, three D's, and an F." Due to his dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Orfalea reportedly flunked two grades and was expelled from several schools. He later attended the University of Southern California. Despite being fired from a number of jobs, his family supported him in his determination to launch his own business. In later life he remarked on the subject of his handicaps, "I get bored easily, and that is a great motivator, I think everybody should have dyslexia and ADD."
Orfalea decided to start up his own business while he was attending USC. With a $5,000 bank loan co-signed by his parents, Orfalea founded Kinko's in 1970. His first store was a 100 square foot space adjacent to a hamburger stand in the Isla Vista neighborhood of Santa Barbara, California, rented for $100 a month. Orfalea began selling notebooks, pens, pencils, and the services of a copying machine at 4 cents per copy. Within ten years, Kinko’s grew to a network of over 80 stores across the country. Rather than franchise, Orfalea formed partnerships with each individual store's local co-owners. Since the stores were located mostly near college campuses and staffed by part-time students, the business was initially driven by the needs of university students. The clientele soon expanded to include other high-end document users, such as job seekers printing resumes and business users generating professional documentation. Orfalea's open-for-24-hours policy increased the stores popularity and led to the spread of Kinko's across the United States and internationally, and ultimately to more than 1,200 locations and 23,000 employees in 10 different countries. Orfalea put a high value on employee satisfaction, and Fortune Magazine named Kinko’s one of the best places in America to work for three years in a row. Kinko’s was acquired by Federal Express in 2004, with Orfalea no longer involved in the company’s business management. The company presently does business under the name FedEx Office.
In 2000, Orfalea established the Orfalea Family Foundation that deals with differences in learning, care in early life stages, knowledge-giving programs that span the needs of multiple generations, and training for caregiving. The Orfalea Foundation, as it is now known, focuses on early childhood education, K-college education, and youth development, primarily in Santa Barbara County, California. The foundation is known for taking direct action as well as making grants. Its most visible program, the School Food Initiative (SFI), trains food service staff and directors to transition from heat-and-serve fare to cooked-from-scratch meals in local schools. SFI also provides infrastructure and equipment grants to support scratch cooking, along with farm-to-school connections, school gardens, and food literacy programs.
- Copy this! : lessons from a hyperactive dyslexic who turned a bright idea into one of America's best companies. 2005, Paul Orfalea; Ann Marsh. Workman Publishing
- Two Billion Dollars in Nickels : Reflections on the Entrepreneurial Life. 2008, Paul Orfalea; Dean Zatkowsky. Dizzy One Ventures LLC
- The Entrepreneurial Investor : the Art, Science, and Business of Value Investing. 2008. Paul Orfalea; Lance Helfert; Atticus Lowe; Dean Zatkowsky. John Wiley & Sons
- Carmichael, Evan. "The Curly Haired Copy Entrepreneur: The Rise of Paul Orfalea". Evancarmichael.com. Retrieved 1 March 2012.
- The Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara
- Sterman, Paul. "Meet "Kinko" Paul Orfalea". Giving Back, April/May 2003. Ability Magazine. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
- Renee Martin; Don Martin (5 April 2011). The Risk Takers: 16 Top Entrepreneurs Share Their Strategies for Success. Vanguard. pp. 45–. ISBN 978-1-59315-637-4. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
- BOWERS, BRENT (December 6, 2007). "Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
- Seth Godin (26 November 2002). Survival Is Not Enough: Why Smart Companies Abandon Worry and Embrace Change. Simon and Schuster. pp. 4–. ISBN 978-0-7432-3338-5. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
- Olsen, Dana (2012-02-15). "Orfalea offers advice to start ups". Pacific Coast Business Times. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
- "About Paul Orfalea". California Polytechnic State University. Retrieved December 21, 2012.