Bringing about world change through literacy

by Angela Jeffs

Imagine. You are a rising executive with Microsoft, with a corporate credit card and an associated lifestyle. Then one day, at age 35, you clear your desk, cash in your investments and walk away.

Meet John Wood, now shaking hands 31 floors above Roppongi Hills in central Tokyo. Totally at ease in the corporate splendor of a global investment banking firm, only his casual style of dressing hints that he’s not on the bankroll.

“Supporters provide me with office space,” he explains, tired but relaxed after a hectic day. “I’m here to launch the Tokyo Chapter of Room to Read at the South African Embassy tomorrow night. Lehman Brothers is my operations center. I’m so grateful.”

Room to Read — an awe-inspiring nonprofit organization promoting literacy throughout the developing world — has in six years had an impact on 1.2 million children throughout Asia and Africa.

How? By constructing 287 schools, establishing 3,600 libraries (5,000 projected by the yearend) publishing 147 titles in local languages, donating 1.4 million books, funding 2,336 scholarships for girls, and 147 computer and language labs.

It’s an amazing accomplishment, bringing management and marketing skills learned at Microsoft to change the face of volunteerism. And it was made possible by Wood, described on the back cover of his autobiography as having “the efficiency of General Electric and the compassion of Mother Theresa.”

“I can’t remember who said that,” he says with disarming honesty, “but I always enjoyed it and felt honored by it.”

Published by Collins, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” — a finely honed balance of business, travelogue and personal transformation — describes how Wood came to quit his job as Microsoft’s director of business management in China in 1999 to become a philanthropist.

With an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Wood says he was raised to work hard but always to follow his own path. “That’s why I dedicated the book to my parents, who taught me to love education, to take risks, to believe in myself, and to serve others.”

Wood was working in Australia when he took time out to trek in Nepal. Two days along the Annapurna Trail, he was shown around a local school by a middle-aged Nepalese who turned out to be the district resource person for Lamjung Province.

“Pasupathi told me that Nepal had one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world: 70 percent. Children were smart and their parents believed in education, but there were just not enough resources.”

There was a library, but it was empty. The few books the school owned — all backpackers’ castaways — were locked away as being too precious to touch. The irony did not escape him.

“I asked the school’s teachers if books in English might help. When they said yes, I promised to return with as many as I could collect. I sent out an e-mail from Katmandu, explaining and begging, and that was the beginning: Books for Nepal.”

A few months later he did return, assisted by his father from Colorado, to haul 37 boxes of donated books by donkey to the school. “The look on the children’s faces as they flicked through colored picture books and for the first time ever saw hippos and giraffes was reward enough.”

Wood found himself wondering if it really mattered how many copies of Windows Microsoft sold in Taiwan, if millions of children were without access to reading materials.

Despite an executive posting in China, he found himself at a crossroads. It took three tough months to make the decision to quit. “I had to redefine myself. Instead of John Wood of Microsoft, I became John Wood who founded and ran an organization that builds schools and libraries in poor communities in Nepal.” In 1999, Wood heard that the IRS had approved charity status for Books for Nepal. A major publisher had pledged a donation of 25,000 books; 100 existing schools were signed up for Wood’s library program; new schools were under construction.

“If there’s one thing I learned at Microsoft, it’s to think big. Most charities build one or two schools. I was thinking in terms of hundreds, thousands even.”

As much as he trusted his sales skills, he was not happy about asking for money. So he drew up five core principles to review before key meetings with prospective donors. “The more positive the response, the bolder I became.”

In 2001, thinking to expand into a second country, he went to Vietnam, where in Hue, he came across a 17-year-old student struggling to read Learning Microsoft Excel. As a result of Wood’s personal intervention, Nguyen Thai Vu is now pursuing a graduate degree in software engineering.

“There are millions of learners like Vu, all ready to study hard if given the opportunity of the lifelong gift of education,” Wood says with feeling.

With projects blossoming in Nepal and Vietnam, and moving into Cambodia, Books for Nepal outgrew itself. “We came up with the brand name Room to Read over a few bottles of wine. Everyone liked it, being literal, metaphorical and aspirational.”

The first libraries opened in Cambodia in 2002, followed by moves into India. After the tsunami of 2004, Room to Read received a flood of donations to build schools in Sri Lanka. Also, Wood began a scholarship program specifically to help girls who would otherwise not have access to education.

Wood has always believed that as an entrepreneur, he will only succeed if he surrounds himself with talented and passionate people.

Now based in San Francisco, which is where he says he keeps his clothes and books (needless to say he’s an avid reader), he describes the Room to Read office as being full of “smart and funny people, with laughter and good ideas bouncing off the walls.”

The unsung heroes are, however, Room to Read’s in-country teams, who ride motorbikes or take local buses along rutted roads for hours to reach projects and families who can’t afford school fees.

Describing himself in The New York Times magazine last year as a “not married, no kids, globe-trotting workaholic,” Wood acknowledges that his personal life has suffered to some extent. “And I miss my corporate credit card.”

Last year, Room to Read began work in South Africa. This explains the embassy’s readiness to host the launch of Wood’s work in Japan on April 21. Susan Lodge, director of Room to Read Tokyo, has since reported that 250 guests and supporters have already paid up the full amount of $220,000 in pledges.

While Wood is thrilled, he’s not surprised. “There’s so much good will I’m ready to plan my next trip back to Tokyo.”

Room to Read starts up in Zambia this year, and aims to be operating in four African countries by 2010 and three in Latin America starting next year. “Our expansion into Bangladesh is already confirmed.”

The year 2010 is an important date in Wood’s mind. “Our goal is to be helping 3 million kids achieve literacy. Another decade on? Ten million.

“By then I want professionals to be claiming they are Room to Read graduates with as much pride as saying they went to Harvard.”

World change starts with educated children, he declares. “We can’t wait for governments to do what needs to be done. We need to do it ourselves.”