Formerly Microsoft's Director of Business Development for the Greater China Region, John Wood quit his job at age 35 in order to found Room to Read.
In little more than a decade, Room to Read has established over 12,500 libraries, donated and published 10 million books, built over 1,500 schools, and supported more than 13,500 girls so they can graduate from secondary school.
Sam's Dream Blog: A trip to Nepal changed your life. How important is it to visualize a dream and to take action on what you see?
John Wood: The world has a need for great thinkers and doers. Social entrepreneurship is a path that attracts business-minded people with a passion to affect change. I have always referred to myself as an action-oriented optimist. I know that there are many others out there like me, and the world could use more of us on the front lines. Being a social entrepreneur delivers an unparalleled sense of purpose and the Return on Investments is exponential.
SDB: Room to Read started slowly. Then it took off with coverage from CNN, Time, Forbes and more. How did that happen?
John Wood: I was trekking in Nepal, seeking a reprieve from my fast-paced career at Microsoft, and was invited to visit a school with over 450 students. I asked to see the library and was brought to an empty room with a sign above the door that said, "Library." There were no books.
I asked the headmaster why. He said, "In Nepal, we are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor." This to me seemed a very cruel situation. And one that deserved to be eliminated.
The headmaster then said, "Perhaps, Sir, you will someday return with books," and I made a vow to help. At that moment, the seeds were planted for Room to Read. I decided that I’d use some of my own energy and wealth to change the situation. From there, I wrote to everyone in my address book an email asking for help. I encouraged people to send new and used children’s books to my parents’ house (I was living abroad at the time). Over 3,000 books arrived! My father and I returned to Nepal a few months later to help establish 10 libraries. This trip to Nepal was one of the happiest moments of my life, as I watched the smiles and the joy on the faces of the children, and also the teachers. On that day, the seed was planted.
I soon decided that I’d no longer focus on making rich people richer, but instead would help kids in the developing world gain the lifelong gift of education.
SDB: Where are the greatest needs and opportunities? Where have you had the most resistance or difficulty?
John Wood: The main difficulties at the beginning were finding those initial investors, people with the funds that would help me make my dream a reality. I did not walk away from Microsoft with an arsenal of resources that could compete with the one that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has. I had to go out every day and ask people for money, and whatever I brought in from fundraising was what I had to work with. Sometimes this can be a sobering experience. But it is never a reason for defeat. It’s simply a reason to keep working hard, and to not be shy about asking people for investment capital.
Although I encountered a lot of rejections, I believed - and I still do - whole-heartedly in Room to Read’s mission. I knew that if I could convince people to join me, the rest would follow. I had a big vision from day one (educate 10 million children across the developing world) and an idea of how to make the dream a reality. Although there were naysayers along the way, my results-oriented focus and my passion for Room to Read made me very confident.
SDB: Room to Read is one of America’s fastest-growing charities and is now opening new libraries at an astonishing pace of six a day. How do you maintain quality control?
John Wood: We take great pride in our financial efficiency, our accountability to donors, and our transparency. Because we believe the best way for projects and programs to succeed is to have them run locally, we maintain offices in each of our countries to do the work in the field. We also ask that the communities themselves invest in the projects, whether through labor, supplies or services - that approach keeps our expenses lower, and also ensures a local buy-in which makes the libraries and schools a real part of the community.
We also make substantial investments in research, monitoring and evaluation to collect information about our program activities and results from a variety of sources. For instance, throughout the year Room to Read and its partners continually visit project sites to gather information about program effectiveness using a variety of methods, including surveys and interviews with students, teachers, and administrators. The data collected during our monitoring visits is used to help countries identify best practices and provide better support to projects. Each of our programs, including reading and writing instruction, has global indicators - measures that show progress towards our program objectives and provide a reliable basis for assessing achievement, change, and performance. Our global indicators are specific to Room to Read’s objectives and are vital to tracking the progress we have made on a national and global scale. The data collected indicates that programs are largely achieving planned objectives and that Room to Read is making progress toward our program goals.
*compiled by Erin Hogan, executive assistant to John Wood