How John Wood Left Microsoft to Change the World — through Books (Including His Own)

In 1998, Microsoft executive John Wood decided to take a rare and hard-won vacation. Eager to get as far away from work as he could, he chose to hike alone in Nepal, where, he hoped, he would not be able to hear the legendary yelling of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s ubiquitous and loudly inspirational CEO.


Warming himself in a ramshackle roadside inn one evening, Wood — who has written about his experiences in a book titled, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children — meets a regional school inspector. They drink beer together, discuss Nepal’s 70% illiteracy rate, and agree that on the following morning, Wood will accompany the inspector to visit a remote rural school.


They set off at dawn, hike for hours on steep, switchback trails, and eventually arrive at a tumbledown grade school packed with hundreds of students eager to learn — and no books for them to do it with. The school has no desks. Its roof leaks. It owns one antiquated map — so old that it depicted the Soviet Union, East Germany, Yugoslavia, and other countries that no longer exist. And its library houses a grand total of four books: an Umberto Eco novel, the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia, a Danielle Steele romance and a copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. These are kept locked in a cabinet, lest the children damage them.


Noting Wood’s shocked reaction to the school’s paltry resources, the headmaster says something that will change Wood’s life: “Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.”


Back at Microsoft, Wood cannot stop thinking about his experiences in Nepal. He begins collecting book donations from friends, and he weighs the value of his corporate life against the potential rewards of devoting himself to helping Third World kids read. He reviews the statistics: More than 850,000,000 people in the world lack basic literacy; 2/3 of these are women; more than 100,000,000 school-aged children don’t go to school. And he examines his life — the cushy expense account, the designer girlfriend, the jetsetting rhythms of the executive expatriate.


After a particularly heartening experience delivering books to the school that had originally inspired him, and a particularly disheartening experience trying — and failing — to prep Bill Gates for an important interview in China, Wood makes up his mind. He quits his job, leaves his girlfriend and commits himself completely to bringing books to disadvantaged children in Nepal. He takes no salary, living off savings and the occasional sale of Microsoft stock. He works around the clock cultivating donors and volunteers. He hires a small, tireless staff. And, gradually, his work expands — from Nepal to Vietnam to Cambodia, India, Laos, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. Today, Room to Read, Wood’s foundation, has established nearly 3,000 libraries in the developing world and has stocked them with more than one million books.


“Commando Lifestyle”


Part spiritual biography and part business manual, Wood’s book combines two kinds of stories that are usually seen as diametrically opposed: the personal memoir of one man’s search for fulfillment, and the hardboiled account of corporate acumen. The tale of personal quest tends, in our culture, to take shape against a cold, inhuman corporate backdrop. The business world is routinely portrayed as hostile to the human spirit. But Wood sees managerial skill as the key to making his dreams come true. His ability to think outside the box –to see congruence where others see conflict, to use his business smarts to facilitate a spiritual journey — makes for compelling reading. It also makes for some provocative, useful insights about what it takes to succeed at charitable work.


“I had adopted the commando lifestyle of a corporate warrior,” Wood says of his days at Microsoft. “Vacation was for people who were soft. Real players worked weekends, racked up hundreds of thousands of air miles and built mini-empires within the expanding global colossus of Microsoft.” The irony is that leaving Microsoft does nothing to temper Wood’s “commando lifestyle.” As the founder of Room to Read, he works longer hours, has less time off and racks up even more frequent flyer miles than he did as a top executive –all to build what he calls “the Microsoft of nonprofits.”


Wood devotes much of his book to explaining how he has modeled Room to Read on key features of Microsoft’s corporate culture. Noting that most nonprofits lack a hardline approach to managing costs and leveraging outcomes, Wood offers Room to Read as an example of how a well-run NGO should raise money, market its work and maximize results.


He is especially intent on data-driven accountability. For Wood, a successful nonprofit must answer to donors, who deserve to know where their money goes. He is careful to publicize Room to Read’s results continuously: Even his email signature file documents how many schools have been built, how many libraries have been established, how many books have been donated, and how many girls have received long-term scholarships to allow them to stay in school.


Moreover, for Wood, accountability doesn’t just satisfy existing donors — it creates new ones. An iconoclast when it comes to development, Wood doesn’t bother with direct mail campaigns or other standard trappings of non-profit fundraising. Instead, he relies on the human touch, travelling to fundraising parties organized by regional volunteers and convincing prospects, through an irresistable combination of personal charisma and a compelling business model, that their money will go places if they give it to him. This approach works with both individual donors — he once raised $150,000 in less than two minutes at a fundraising party when donors began matching one another’s gifts — and with foundations. One of Room to Read’s most generous and consistent funders is the Draper Richards Foundation, an offshoot of a firm run by renowned venture capitalists Bill Draper and Robin Richards Donohoe. Impressed by how Wood’s strong business sense had informed his non-profit mission, DRF finances Room to the Read to the tune of six figures a year.


Wood’s insight is simple, but transformative: Corporate savvy is not opposed to humanitarian aims, but may be used to assist them. Just because a charitable organization does not seek to make a profit, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t bring in as much money as it can, and manage that money well. To do any less is to shortchange the organization’s mission. There is also a crucial correlative here for Wood: While donors deserve to know where their money goes, the organization should not accept money from sources that could try to dictate organization policy. For that reason, Wood told The New York Times, “We don’t seek government funding here in the U.S. We don’t want to get into a fight with the U.S. government over whether we are allowed to teach kids about condoms or AIDS.”


Thinking Big, and Small


On a conceptual level, Wood advocates thinking big. “When I started Room to Read, I declared immediately that our goal was to help 10 million children gain the lifelong gift of education,” he writes. “Some people told me that this was hubris — how could a guy who had established only a few libraries set such a brazen goal?” For Wood, the answer is easy: Thinking big is the only way to get big results. He cites as his inspiration the example of Amazon.com. “When Jeff Bezos launched the company in 1995, the homepage boldly declared Amazon to be ‘Earth’s Biggest Bookstore’ even though they had yet to sell a single title.” Despite rampant naysaying, Amazon became what Wood calls a “classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.” He notes that, today, Amazon is not only earth’s biggest bookstore, but also its biggest record store.


On a managerial level, Wood advocates thinking small. His staff is deliberately tiny and close-knit. Bureaucratic bloat is non-existent, multi-tasking is routine, and close, constant communication is required. Wood encourages his staff members to voice their opinions, even when it means disagreeing with him. He values good ideas over individual authority, and knows Room to Read will be a stronger organization, with a happier, more loyal staff, if everyone is free to speak up when the need arises. More pragmatically, a generous benefits package sends employees the message that they are valued.


The business model that emerges from Wood’s twin emphases on spare, businesslike procedure and lofty, ambitious aims is at once effective and elegant: Room to Read maintains a remarkably low overhead (8%), getting much of its promotional and development work done through Third World partnerships and volunteer networks of fundraisers.


Room to Read also follows a funding model that gives a crucial feeling of ownership to both donors and recipients. Because a dollar goes a long way in the developing world, it’s often possible to build an entire school — library included — for around $12,000. It’s also possible to send girls — whose parents are less likely to pay for a daughter’s education than for a son’s — to school for about $250 per year. These numbers are well within the range of many individual donors, and allow them to sponsor specific schools and particular children — all of which personalizes the giving process by showing donors exactly where their money is going.


Likewise, Room to Read follows a modified challenge grant model, requiring impoverished communities receiving libraries and schools to donate to the project in whatever way they can–by contributing land, or building materials, or even labor. Local investment of that sort, Wood has found, goes a long way toward ensuring the long-term success of Room to Read’s work.


For Wood, a healthy nonprofit possesses an essentially corporate structure. What separates it from the for-profit world is simply the nature and significance of its work. The moral of Wood’s story, then, is not that personal fulfillment lies in abandoning the “commando lifestyle” that defines top-level corporate culture — but, rather, that immense fulfillment becomes possible when one approaches charitable foundation work as a “corporate warrior.” As far as Wood is concerned, that’s the only way to make a serious and lasting difference.

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