Exec finds room to grow in NGO

Businesswoman Erin Keown Ganju wanted to make a difference more than money

by Natsuko Fukue

Microsoft executive John Wood has made a name for himself as the founder of nongovernmental organization Room to Read, which has built more than 5,600 libraries in developing countries. Less well known is his right-hand woman, Erin Keown Ganju, who has been flying around, working closely with local staff to keep the projects running.

Ganju, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, Unilever and venture corporations, has been RTR’s chief operating officer since 2001. Starting next year, she will serve as its CEO, Ganju said in a recent interview.

Established by Wood in 1999, RTR provides educational opportunities to children in developing countries — including Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, South Africa and Zambia — by establishing libraries and computer labs, publishing children’s books in local languages, building schools and offering scholarships to girls. It will start a program in Bangladesh next year.

The NGO is known for its management efficiency — spending nearly 90 percent of its funds on its programs — and is considered a successful model for other NGOs.

RTR’s funds come from companies and individuals, with 37 chapters in the world’s major cities, including Tokyo, helping in fundraising. Its fundraising activities have proved successful because of transparency: RTR shows exactly how much is used for each program so donors can see clearly where their money is going.

Wood hit on the idea for RTR while on a trip to Nepal, where a local school headmaster took him to a school with very few books in its library, he wrote in his book, “Leaving Microsft to Change the World.” The headmaster asked him, “Perhaps, sir, you will some day come back with books?” So Wood did.

Ganju met Wood when she was searching for something in life other than just making money.

In 1997, she returned to the U.S. after working overseas for several years and helped a couple of technology startups. She said she became exhausted from the long hours and started thinking about how she could find a more meaningful existence.

“I wanted to do something I cared about, not just . . . making money,” she said.

While on sabbatical in 2001, her friend suggested she meet Wood.

At that time, the NGO, called Books for Nepal, was focused only on projects in Nepal.

When Ganju met Wood, she asked if she could do a similar project in Vietnam, where she was going to attend a friend’s wedding.

Having worked in Vietnam for two years, Ganju knew that the people have a strong work ethic and a thirst for education.

“I knew the RTR model would work well in the country and break the cycle of poverty,” she said.

After talking with friends about her plans, she managed to meet Vietnamese government officials to discuss the projects during a six-week stay in Vietnam.

A few months later, she started working at RTR, flew to Vietnam for the second time and found a community in need of a school through a partnership with Ho Chi Minh City.

Since the project in Vietnam, Ganju has stayed involved in selecting countries, hiring local staff and designing programs.

Ganju’s link to Asia dates back to when her mother taught English in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, in the 1950s.

“My mother exchanged letters with her Japanese friends. I remember getting letters from Japan and was fascinated by the connection she had,” she said.

Having a mother fluent in Japanese and who loved the country’s culture and people, Ganju said she grew up with an interest in Asian culture and was passionate about traveling and exploring the world.

Her family moved to Hong Kong in 1985 when her father got a teaching position at a university there. She went to a British school, where she took Chinese lessons. She said she even made trips to mainland China, which was a rare opportunity in the 1980s.

After leaving Hong Kong, she came back to Asia in 1991 to study Chinese in Taipei for the summer. She then worked at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong and Singapore in 1994, and moved to Vietnam to work for Unilever for two years.

“I spent my whole life living between Asia and the U.S.,” she said.

Her Asia connection also brought her in touch with her husband, who grew up in Bombay and came to the U.S. for graduate school.

Just back from her first trip to India to look at establishing RTR, she met him in San Francisco, and they talked about India and her work.

“He’s a wonderful supporter to allow me to travel and do this work at RTR,” she said.

Ganju’s lifestyle has changed since she became a working mother.

She used to spend half of her time on the road for RTR projects, but now with a 2 1/2-year-old daughter named Julia she has cut that back to 20 percent to 30 percent.

“It’s a tradeoff for any working woman, or working parents, to be working and raising children,” she said.

“I think about what role model I want to be for my daughter as my parents influenced me a lot in values and interests I now have.”

She said it’s impossible to do everything and not be exhausted. According to her, the key to finding a balance in life is time management and setting priorities.

She said she learned from her former boss to decide every morning on three important things to accomplish that day, which helps her focus her energy on the most important things.

“I look forward to when my daughter is old enough,” she said with a smile. “She can actually come with me because I go to visit schools and meet children.”