Click to Watch Video: John Wood's Room to Read
In 1998 John Wood, a top Microsoft executive in Asia, was trekking high in the Himalayas--his first vacation in seven years--when a chance meeting transformed his life. Shortly after his return, Wood quit Microsoft, where he was marketing director, and eventually formed Room to Read, a nonprofit literacy organization that has donated more than 1.2 million books, and established over 3600 libraries in Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and South Africa. Room to Read has also given scholarships to 2336 girls, published books in local languages, and set up computer labs for children. Wood, who chronicled his evolution from high-tech whiz to social entrepreneur in his book, "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World
," was recently interviewed for Beliefnet.com.
In your book, you describe a chance meeting with a Nepali man that changed your life. What happened?
Along my trek I met a man named Pasupathi, the district resource person for all schools in Lamjung Province.
During our conversation I learned about the dismal state of Nepal’s education system; that 70 percent of Nepal’s population is illiterate and most children do not go to school beyond the 5th grade. It was Pasupathi’s job to obtain books and supplies for students, but because the government and the communities in Nepal are so poor, there is very little money to be put towards education. I loved school as a child so it was shocking for me to hear that Nepalese children had no means to obtain a good education due to economic factors outside of their control. It was because of my conversation with Pasupathi and his kindness and his passion for education that I visited that first school.
You've said that the school library had only a few books, one in Italian and none of them suitable for kids. Plus, all the books were kept under lock and key. What does the library look like now?
The library has been transformed from a dark, empty room devoid of shelves and books into a child-friendly environment with bright walls, bookshelves that put the books at the child’s eye level, and a trained librarian to help the kids get the most out of their library. In addition to English language books donated by major publishers like Scholastic, the library also has Nepali-language children’s books that Room to Read has commissioned from local authors and artists.
In much of the developing world, there are few if any children’s books, because the parents are too poor to afford them, so the publishers don't publish. We’re now finding authors and artists, and training them to be the "Dr. Seuss" of Nepal.
Could you describe how you went from supplying books to school libraries to building schools?
After I left that school in Nepal, I sent out an email to everyone I knew and asked for their help by donating children’s books. I received over 3000 books. My dad and I took a trip together to Nepal and delivered the books to ten schools. The Nepalese man who helped us coordinate the book delivery became the Country Director and together we formed "Books for Nepal." I began fundraising in San Francisco, and when Erin Ganju (now our C.O.O.) joined the team, we changed the name to “Room to Read” and launched in our second country, Vietnam. With the right people on board and a few grants under our belt, we were able to scale our book programs rapidly and effectively.
We realized very early on that one of the most essential educational resources that many developing nations lack are the school buildings themselves. As one stark reminder of this, the UN estimates that 100 million children are not enrolled in primary school. So constructing schools seemed like the logical next step.
In the early days of Room to Read, you met with a lot of rejection when seeking donations. In the book you say, "Had I been less confident, some of these individuals would have dealt crushing blows to my enthusiasm." What gave you confidence?
I believed—and I still do—wholeheartedly in Room to Read’s mission.
I knew that if I could convince people to join me, the rest would follow because they would have a great experience watching the school or library they funded open its doors. How could they not want to then tell their friends and coworkers? So I embraced those who chose to support me, and did not let myself get discouraged by those who did not. That internal belief in our goal--to educate 10 million children across the developing world--continues to drive the organization today.
At Microsoft you often justified your long hours by telling yourself "I can sleep when I'm dead," and consoled yourself with the big payoffs: a high salary, considerable savings, and a comfortable lifestyle. Today you put in long hours at Room to Read. What are your payoffs?
The smiles on the faces of the students and the parents on the day their new school opens is a big one. The sight of a group of children gathered around a book in their new library with wide-eyed fascination. Those are great payoffs! I honestly love coming into the office everyday—how many people can say that about their jobs? Plus I work with an amazing group of highly motivated, passionate and intelligent people. Even though the hours are long and my travel schedule can be exhausting, I wouldn’t trade my position at Room to Read for anything in the world.
Was it hard for you to give up the big salary and perks of Microsoft? Have you simplified your lifestyle?
Yes, [it was] very difficult, especially since I live in one of the world's most expensive cities, San Francisco. But I am happier than I have ever been, doing the work I am doing. So maybe we can say that even if money can’t buy happiness, lack of money can.
Why do you focus on scholarships for girls?
We currently fund long-term scholarships for 2,336 girls, and we will add 1,500 to the program this year. This is important, because two-thirds of the people lacking basic literacy in the developing world are women, and if we don't get this right, the problem will carry forward for generations to come.
Recently in Calcutta, India, a girl took her parents to court because they were pulling her out of school so she could help support the family. Is there an example of similar determination to gain an education among your girl students?
We have dozens of stories, including those of girls who walk six miles each way to school, and others who show up with "petitions" that tell us "If you don't give me a scholarship, my parents will force me to marry at age 14." To me, the amazing thing is that it only takes $250 to keep a girl in school for a year--and that pays for everything, including mentoring. It’s a very low cost to forever change a life, and the lives of every subsequent generation. We experience very few dropouts. In fact, last year our attrition rate was less than 1.5%.
You have said you would like Room to Read to be the Microsoft of the nonprofit world. What do you mean?
Room to Read strives to operate like a blue-chip company (you could substitute Starbucks or GE for “Microsoft”) by taking a business approach to philanthropy, that is, by thinking big and focusing on results. We strongly believe in community investment in the places we work. Our “Challenge Grant” model enables communities to co-invest by raising a portion of the overall expenditure for project implementation through donated land, labor, materials and cash. We also have strong entrepreneurial local teams composed of professionals native to the countries where we work. We believe in keeping our overhead low and running a tight ship. I don't believe in the model of NGO's spending 30 to 40 cents of each dollar on administration and fund-raising. [In our model] about 87-88 cents on the dollar goes directly to educational programs. There are many small steps that together add up to create a very efficient organization. We have a unique "Volunteer Chapter" model which enables us to raise a significant portion of our fund-raising budget with very little money spent on overhead.
Where do you get your motivation?
I benefited tremendously by having parents who continually stressed the importance of education, and from having access to a great public school system and a library. It is incomprehensible to me that we can live in a world with this much abundance, yet have nearly a billion human beings not be able to read or write. This will not stand.
What is your spiritual path?
I believe that service to the poorest children on earth is the best spiritual path. I believe in spirituality through action.
Have you felt spirituality of any kind to be part of the unusual beginning and continuing growth of Room to Read?
A lot of us involved with Room to Read are very big fans of karma.
How to Donate
Click on www.roomtoread.org
. You can make a donation, adopt a project, or get information about attending one of the local Chapter events.