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One man's quest to help the world learn

Jan 12, 2009

He left his job at Microsoft to help poor children across the world have greater access to educational opportunities. In this interview John Wood shares his views about his organisation Room to Read that now supports 1.7 million children in the developing world.

After a trek in the Himalayas brought him face-to-face with extreme poverty and illiteracy, John Wood left his position as a director of business development at Microsoft to found Room to Read, an award-winning international education organisation.

Under his leadership, more than 1.7 million children in the developing world now have access to greater educational opportunities.

John Wood.jpg

Room to Read to date has opened 725 schools and 7,000 bilingual libraries, and has funded more than 7,000 scholarships for girls. Wood talked with Knowledge@Wharton about his personal definition of success.

I read your book back in 2006. You began it with the epiphany you had during your trip to Nepal, which inspired you to do what you're doing now and led to the creation of Room to Read. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?

The book is called Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. The nice thing is I got that title before Bill Gates could get that title for his book, because, of course, Bill has now left Microsoft and is going to do amazing things to change the world through the Gates Foundation.

My own personal journey to devoting my life to education was undertaken because in so many places where I've traveled, whether it be post-Apartheid South Africa or post-Khymer Rouge Cambodia or the mountains of Nepal, you just find so many kids who have so little opportunity to gain the gift of education.

Throughout places I traveled, be it India, Nepal, Cambodia or Vietnam, I kept meeting kids who wanted to go to school but they couldn't afford it. I would have kids ask me for a pencil. I thought, "How could something so basic be missing?"

At a certain point, I decided I needed to start taking action. I needed to do something. So I started funding some very small projects, like libraries in Nepal and scholarships for promising students in Vietnam, and realised that a small amount of money could go so far. It wasn't charity because it's education.

Education, as all of your listeners, who are well-educated themselves, know, is ultimately a hand-up, not a hand-out. I decided that the best thing I could do with my life was not to stay at Microsoft, where I loved the company but I kind of felt like I was making rich people richer.

We live in a world today with 800 million people who are illiterate; 200 million kids in the developing world and there's no place for them to go. They don't have a school to go to, and two-thirds of those groups, roughly, are girls and women. It just seemed to me like we needed to do a lot more to give people the opportunity to help themselves through that incredible power of education.

Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started and some of your initial challenges?

Certainly. So I started Room to Read, really, as a hobby, when I was still at Microsoft and then transitioned to doing it full time during the year 2000. The organisation itself is about eight years old. The challenge, of course, of starting a new organisation is there are so many of them. Where do you start?

There's the fund-raising challenge, there's hiring great people. I was very fortunate that I had met a gentleman named Dinesh Shrestha in Nepal, who was a member of the Kathmandu Lions Club, who had worked with me to get my first shipment of books through customs in Nepal and went out and set up 10 libraries in rural villages.

For me, what felt so good was seeing the kids who had never had children's books before and watching the smiles on their faces and looking at these kids as they were viewing African wildlife for the first time and looking at pictures of the rings of Saturn and the solar system and sharks and starfish and the stuff that's happening in the ocean.

These kids just had the most wide-eyed and the biggest smiles on their faces and I thought, if I was going to do this full-time, I wanted to do it in a big way.

I can't imagine a world without books. Yet for billions of people, that is a reality. So my goal was fairly simple: to start Room to Read and to try and change that.

Initially, I think, when you wrote the book, you had given away 1.2 billion books. You had 2,600 libraries and you had 1,700 girls who had received scholarships. Could you tell us a little bit about where Room to Read stands today, globally?

The book has been really great for Room to Read in terms of bringing us new employees, new investors, new donors. A lot more people are getting involved as a result of reading the book.

And we, as an organisation, have quadrupled in size just in the last two and a half years on the strength of the book. By the end of this year, 2008, we will have expanded the girls scholarship programme to about 7,000 girls now on long-term scholarship. Last year, 98.5% of them passed to the next grade.

I wonder if you can explain what is the business model that allows you to sustain what you do and also how your training and background in business contributed to that?

The main part of the business model, really, is to be very good at fund-raising. I'm unapologetic in telling people that they need to support Room to Read, requesting respectfully that people help us, because it only costs $250 to put a girl in school for a year and do everything that that she needs, from school fees to her uniform to a bicycle to school supplies to mentoring and tutoring.

So I'm very unapologetic about asking people around the world to support this cause.

We are trying to turn Room to Read into a worldwide movement. We now raise 43% of our funding outside the US. I'm constantly traveling – to Japan, to Dubai, to Sydney, Australia, to London, to Amsterdam, to Zurich – and telling people, "Let's make this a worldwide movement."

One of the greatest things for me, coming out of Microsoft, is to use my corporate background as a way to get my foot in the door. We're so proud of the blue-chip corporate funders we have.

Companies like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Cathay Pacific – so many great companies out there that really believe that education really should be part of their corporate responsibility initiatives. We've been able to do a lot more as a result of getting that private capital from blue-chip companies.

What's the biggest leadership challenge you have faced in doing what you do? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

The biggest challenge I faced, really, was launching a charity in 2000 with no endowment. The stock market was crumbling. September 11 happened in 2001 and there were valid concerns that Americans had become very xenophobic and not really wanting to do much in terms of helping kids in some of the poor parts of the world.

What I learned was not to doubt myself. There were so many times when I thought I should just throw this Room to Read thing away and go back to the corporate sector and maybe I can make good money again and just give money away. What kept me going were the people who believed in me.

Any time I meet a young social entrepreneur, I never try to point out to them the flaws in their business model. I want to encourage them. I can eventually, if I get close to them, tell them more about how I think that they could do something better, but what I found in the beginning of starting Room to Read was that there are a lot of people who told me why it wouldn't work.

The people who really kept me going were the ones who said, "I believe in you. I'm going to help you in some way." People like Don Ballantine, the founder of Sequoia Capital. He and his wife Rachel endowed the girls scholarship programme.

What I learned from that is to have faith in yourself, to focus on your true north. My true north has always been that I want to help 10 million kids in the poorest parts of the world to get educated.

In the early years, it didn't look like we'd even come close to that and now actually, I can see the day. I've got it on a spreadsheet. We hit that number somewhere around 2018.

That's really inspiring. Just one last question, John. How do you define success?

I'll give you two answers. Success is waking up and doing what you love and working long hours and feeling blessed you get to work them, feeling like the luckiest guy on earth that you get to do your job. That's the first answer.

The second answer, long-term for me, what does success look like? My hope is that by the year 2020 or 2025 that there will be millions upon millions of young adults who will be out there having a successful life and they'll say, "You know, it all started for me, everything changed the day Room to Read came to my village and opened a school." It doesn't have to be Room to Read. It can be any educational NGO. "The day that a certain NGO, maybe it's CAMFED in Africa, gave me a scholarship."

I just hope we can catalyze this whole idea of universal access to education and create a movement that literally affects tens of millions of kids. It's all over the United Nations Millennium Development goals.

Basic rights to education, the universal primary, equal access for girls, yet we are so far behind on those goals. So with that, I will sign off and I'm going to get myself back to work and do my best to make that happen (To read the full interview, please click here).

Source : Rediff
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