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 organization. Under his leadership, more than 1.7 million children in the developing world now have access to enhanced educational opportunities. Room to Read to date has opened 725 schools and 7,000 bilingual libraries, and funded more than 7,000 scholarships for girls. Wood talked with Knowledge at Wharton about the launch of Room to Read, the book he wrote called Leaving Microsoft to Change the World and his personal definition of success.  

Knowledge at Wharton: Our guest today is John Wood, founder of Room to Read. John, thank you so much for joining us.

John Wood: Thank you.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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?

Wood: Certainly. 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. To me, it just seemed like a very cruel Catch-22, that you would meet people who say, “We are too poor to afford education, but until we have education, how will we ever not be poor.” 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 realized 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: So you started Room to Read as your response to this reality that you described? Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started and some of your initial challenges?

Wood: 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 organization itself is about eight years old. The challenge, of course, of starting a new organization is — there are so many of them. Where do you start? There’s the fundraising 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.

One of my heroes is Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie certainly had a lot to atone for, but one of the things he did really well was set up libraries across many parts of the world. When Carnegie grew up, books were not accessible to the poor and the poor were 95% of England or Scotland. That changed because Carnegie set up thousands of libraries. I looked around the world and I said, “Who’s the Andrew Carnegie of India? Who’s the Andrew Carnegie of South Africa? Who’s the Andrew Carnegie of Ethiopia?” And I didn’t see work being done at a scale that would bring books to kids. It just seemed that something fundamental was missing. 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: Initially, I think, when you wrote the book, you had given away 1.2 million 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?

Wood: Certainly. The book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, 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 organization, have quadrupled in size just in the last 2½ years on the strength of the book. By the end of this year, 2008, we will have expanded the girls scholarship program to about 7,000 girls now on long-term scholarship. Last year, 98.5% of them passed to the next grade.

Knowledge at Wharton: Congratulations.

Wood: We’re very proud of them. They’re doing great. It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it. These girls come, quite often, from marginalized groups. They’ve been freed from child trafficking. They come from lower caste families. They aren’t aware that they’re expected to fail. We tell them they’re going to pass and, sure enough, 98.5% of them do.

The other big growth for Room to Read has come in our school program. We have now opened about 725 schools. That’s our estimate by the end of 2008, using parental labor through our challenge grant model. And finally our flagship program, the library program, is very exciting. We are now up to about 7,000 libraries that have been opened. All of them are bilingual, so kids have books in their own language first. They all have trained librarians and they all have systems set up to do monitoring and evaluation, to make sure the libraries are being well-utilized and that the kids are hopefully taking full advantage of the fact that these libraries exist.

That network of libraries now has five million books, about half of which are in the local language, which we’re very proud of because we’ve had to publish a lot of books in languages that have never had many children’s books before. We estimate that that network is now accessible to over two million kids who have access to our schools and to our libraries. Finally, we’ve expanded our work onto the African continent. We’re now working in both South Africa and Zambia, setting up school libraries, publishing books in the local languages and funding long-term scholarships for girls, which is a very big issue in many parts of the world. There are parts of Africa where only one in five girls even starts 6th grade. If you think about that, why is there intractable poverty? Well, if 80% of your girls don’t even make it past 6th grade, that’s going to have such a ripple effect on the children and the grandchildren. I just feel like we live in a world that has a lot of resources. I think every kid everywhere should go to school. That should non-negotiable.

Knowledge at Wharton: It’s obviously a very ambitious goal and a very worthy one. For an organization to be able to pull that kind of thing off, though, you need a sustainable business model. I wonder if you can explain what the business model is that allows you to sustain what you do and also how some of your training and background in business contributed to that.

Wood: The main part of the business model really is to be very good at fundraising. 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 U.S. 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.” The same way that Muhammad Yunus turned Grameen into a worldwide movement. Why can’t we turn education for the poorest of the poor into something very similar?

So we’re heavily reliant on private capital. We don’t take government funding. We’re getting most of our funding from individuals and from corporations. 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: Obviously, there are a lot of NGOs in the world trying to do good things, while the number of philanthropic capitalists is limited. How do you position Room to Read vis a vis other worthy NGOs and how do you set yourself apart from them?

Wood: First of all, my hope is that the pool of capital that goes to philanthropy does not need to be static. My hope is that it continues to expand. Recent events notwithstanding, we live in the greatest era of wealth creation in human history. There are literally trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines. At the same time that those trillions are sitting there, there are 200 million kids who woke up this morning and didn’t go to school because there wasn’t a place for them. So I don’t think the pie necessarily needs to be static. I think that the more an NGO or charity can prove that it’s spending money efficiently and getting results, I think that should attract more capital. We’ve certainly found that.

There are companies that we work with that have never before invested in this area of developing world education. But when they see our results and they realize that Room to Read can open an entire school library and train the librarian, and it only costs $5,000 and 500 children benefit, that’s literally $10 a child to bring a kid access to books, wow. That is almost a no-brainer for people to say that they want to support that, especially because, as I’ve said earlier — and I don’t mean to sound like a broken record — that education is a hand-up, not a hand-out. You and I are both examples of that. We’ve been educated, now we’re peaceful, prosperous, well-off citizens. I think if we can give that same gift to kids across the developing world, I hope that they can never need aid again. If you educate somebody, that’s the ticket that they need. I think that our goal should be very ambitious. It should be to eliminate poverty. But we’re not going to eliminate poverty unless education gets a lot more focus.

Knowledge at Wharton: 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?

Wood: The biggest challenge I faced really was launching a charity in 2000 with no endowment. The stock market was crumbling. September 11th 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 Valentine, the founder of Sequoia Capital. He and his wife Rachel endowed the girls scholarship program. They funded it for the first three years. People like Jeff Skoll and his team at the Skoll Foundation, people like Bill Draper and Robin Richards Donohoe and Jenny Schilling Stein at the Draper Richards Foundation which gave me a fellowship that helped me to get Room to Read off the ground. Those, to me, are the real heroes because they took a chance and believed in Room to Read at a very, very early stage.

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.

Knowledge at Wharton: That’s wonderful. Apart from all the corporate funding that I hope you do get, what about young people in high schools? If they wanted to get involved in supporting Room to Read, what could they do?

Wood: We have a wonderful program called Students Helping Students and it was launched in the aftermath of the tsunami. Room to Read was rebuilding schools in Sri Lanka. With the help of students at 250 schools around the world, we raised enough money to rebuild 40 schools by the one- year anniversary of the tsunami and 80 schools by the two-year anniversary of the tsunami. Direct, immediate action. The student campaigns around that were really fun to watch.

Students did very creative things. We had a Montessori school in London where the students sold their parents something called the Sponsored Silence. For five pounds an hour, per child, the parents could actually buy silence. They raised 5,000 pounds in a week through that. The Students Helping Students program has grown out of that. We want the students to be involved in turning this into a movement. It’s always good to do disaster relief. That’s very important. But we also have to confront the everyday disaster of illiteracy. So our program, Students Helping Students, which is on our website at, gets students involved in many ways.

One of the metrics we give students is: If you raise $250, a girl in the poorest parts of the world can go to school for a year. That’s a no-brainer. The other metric: $1 is enough to fund one local language children’s book in a language like Nepali or Sinhalla or Vietnamese or Khymer.

I’ll give you one example. My sister works as a school librarian in a small town in Colorado, where 46% of the students qualify for free school lunch. It’s that poor. She said to her students, “Being poor is no excuse for not being generous. Even if you can give a penny, that’s going to mean something.” This school collected 100,000 pennies. It was “only $1,000” but that was enough for us to print 1,000 local language books. And I made it a point, despite my busy schedule, to go and speak to her students. Well, one because she’s my older sister and if I didn’t to speak to her students, she would have beat me up. But more importantly, it was to say to them, “This feels every bit as good as a million dollar donation because I know how much you guys put into it.”

I had a student last week come up to me in Calgary, where I was speaking at a 400-person business lunch. This girl had sold her Halloween candy and she brought me six Canadian quarters, $1.50. I said to her, “That’s enough for me to print one book.” I think students can definitely get involved. The thing is, it’s fun. You learn about geography. You learn about how kids in the rest of the world learn. Students learn to appreciate their own education, not to take it for granted. Because once students learn that there’s a billion kids out there who don’t have access to books, they decide they want to take action.

Knowledge at Wharton: That’s really inspiring. Just one last question, John. How do you define success?

Wood: 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.

Knowledge at Wharton: Thanks so much for joining us today.

Wood: Thanks for having me.