Interview With Room to Read Founder John Wood
John Wood joined Microsoft in 1991 and went on to successfully run the company's business operations in Asia. In 1999, he left the software giant wealthy but "burned out" to start a nonprofit literacy program called Room to Read. Here, Wood talks with FRONTLINE/World's Senior Associate Producer Sachi Cunningham about the trip to Nepal that inspired him to start the program that is now helping educate millions of the world's poorest children.
Sachi Cunningham: You've been to Nepal many times -- tell me about your impressions of the country?
John Wood: Nepal is a country of absolutely spectacular beauty, but it also has a lot of problems. The mountains create their own unique issues. It's hard to grow crops at 15,000-feet altitude. When there are no roads, it's hard to have commerce or trade and the people often suffer from that.
John Wood with Nepalese schoolchildren.
Why is there such a gap in educational opportunity in Nepal?
There are schools, but not enough of them. They may be a two- or four-hour walk from the village, so the parents who rely on the kids as farm laborers don't send their children to school. The illiteracy rate is about 70 percent. People are living on less than $1 a day.
So as I understand your story, you first went to Nepal on a trek and met some people who changed your life.
Yes. During my second day trekking, I met a gentleman named Posupati Neopani, who was the district resource officer for education in this remote mountainous area of Nepal with no paved roads. He explained to me, "I have no resources." He was wearing tennis shoes that had holes in them and had a little satchel on his back. He spent all his time walking from school to school -- to 17 schools in the district. When he got to a school, they kept telling him about the need for textbooks. He said, "I can listen, but I can do nothing." He invited me to go see one of the schools, and I thought to myself, "This will be great because it'll be a chance to see the real Nepal, not the trekkers Nepal." Also, I made a lot of money at a young age and maybe I can do something for this gentleman. We walked for two hours up donkey paths to a little school that ended up changing my life forever.
I made a lot of money at a young age and maybe I can do something for this gentleman. We walked for two hours up donkey paths to a little school that ended up changing my life forever.
The school had a sheet-metal roof that leaked during the rainy season; dirt floors that turned to mud; 80 children crammed into a room that probably should have held 20. They had no desks -- the kids were lined up along benches and were balancing their notebooks on their knees. The chalkboard was probably the size of a postage stamp. The room had no light, and I wondered, "How could we have something like this in [a place] where so many kids were eager to learn?" Their parents were eager to send them to school, yet the facilities were so bad. Then, it got worse.
The headmaster of the school invited me to see his library. I got excited because, as a kid, I was a library nerd. I was always in the library checking out books. I was always lobbying my parents to [let me] stay up late reading. So I thought, "OK, the library will be the high point of the tour. There'll be kids in there reading books with smiles on their faces." We got to the school's library, and it was an empty room. It was a room where, theoretically, a library could've existed, but they had no desks, no shelving, and -- most importantly -- no books.
I didn't want to be obnoxious, but I had to ask, "Where exactly are your books?" The headmaster pointed to a cabinet in the back of the room with a padlock on it and explained, "We have so few books. We cannot let the children destroy them." They found the teacher who had the key to the padlock. He showed me their treasure of books -- probably 20 in total.
Wood's organization, Room to Read, plans to build a further 140 schools in 2007.
Now, this school had 450 students, and the books were all backpacker castoffs, things pulled out of a backpack and left behind. Danielle Steel, Umberto Eco, Hermann Hesse -- stuff that no 5- or 6-year-old child is going to read. The headmaster noticed my concern and he spoke a sentence that forever changed my life: "Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books."
What did you say to that?
Perhaps I was naive, but I couldn't imagine that kids would lack access to something as basic as a school library. I told the headmaster, "I will come back within a year." One of the teachers with him was polite but skeptical: "Many people come here and tell us they will help us, and we never see them again." I shook his hand and said, "I'll be back within a year. I promise you we will meet again."
So what happened next?
At the end of my trek, I went to a cybercafe in Kathmandu and I [opened my Hotmail account]. I looked at my address book and had 125 or so friends. I sent an email pleading, asking, requesting, demanding that people send books to my parents' house in Colorado.
My parents didn't quite know what they were in for when they agreed to be part of this book drive -- people really responded to the mail. We thought we'd get 100, maybe 200 books in the first month. We got 3,000. People at Scholastic were emailing me, "We're gonna clean out the supply closets at Scholastic headquarters in New York and give you as many books as you want. Get ready for a deluge of books."
My parents didn't quite know what they were in for when they agreed to be part of this book drive. We thought we'd get 100, maybe 200 books in the first month. We got 3,000.
And you kept your word.
Yes, I did keep my promise to that teacher and the headmaster in the village of Bahundan. Within a year, I was back with eight donkeys loaded with books. When my father and I got to the school, there were 400-plus children lined up to greet us. They had strung marigold garlands and were hanging them around our necks, saying "Namaste."
I thought this was going to be just a small project that I kept my word on, but I began to realize it was something bigger. I loved what I was doing at Microsoft. I loved the company, yet I felt as though I was making rich people richer, and here in this remote village of Nepal, I thought, "This is more of my destiny than sitting at a desk selling software." I happened to join Microsoft during a very good time, and it wasn't because I was smart. It was just serendipity and, in my mind, I needed to do something with those lottery winnings to pay back the world. And maybe this library would be the first step.
Coming from a computer background, do you think the computer generation is turning people away from books?
I don't think there's such a trade-off between high-tech and low-tech learning in a developing world because the kids don't have either. They don't have a computer. They don't have books. They don't have libraries. Basic literacy is needed before kids can move to computers and have them be meaningful.
Reporter Sachi Cunningham with scholarship student, Sabina Timilsina.
When I talk to people at technology companies, I say I can identify almost a billion people for whom your product will never be relevant. If you want to make sure you're continuing the growth of your company three or four decades out, you should be joining hands with us to make sure this generation in the developing world gets literate. Otherwise, a Dell computer, Microsoft software, Google -- all that stuff's going to be completely irrelevant to this generation in the developing world.
What do you think you would be doing if you hadn't taken that trip to Nepal?
If I hadn't gone to Nepal, I don't know where I'd be today. I know that I would not be nearly as happy as I am. Starting an NGO from scratch, knowing nothing, having so little experience in this area -- it's been an incredible adventure. It's been exciting for me, as somebody who has only worked for big companies. On day one, I sat at my desk [in my back bedroom with] six mechanical pencils, a pad of paper, a cell phone, a computer, and I thought, "Now what? The phone is not ringing. Nobody's emailing me. How do I create an educational organization from ground zero?"
Why do you think your program has been a success?
We talk about the importance of education and the opportunity that education provides for people to break the cycle of poverty. And when you're talking to people who are educated, people who are wealthy, they inherently get it.
You have to make people aware that 800 million [individuals] in the developing world lack basic literacy. But you can't wallow in the problem. You have to move quickly to the solution.
You have to make people aware of the problem that 800 million [individuals] in the developing world lack basic literacy. But you can't wallow in the problem. You have to move quickly to the solution. We're building schools. We're setting up bilingual libraries. We're publishing books in the kids' native languages. We are endowing long-term scholarships for girls. And you get people excited about that solution. You get people to start visualizing, "Well, maybe my family could open a school in Nepal and combine that with a trek in the mountains."
What did you learn at Microsoft that helped prepare you for the nonprofit world?
Microsoft used to say, "Go big or go home." In the charity world, we need more of that thinking. The problems facing the world are so large; we need solutions that scale. We need people to think in a big way. Not about digging one well for one village in one country. How can we get thousands or tens of thousands of wells dug? [I'm talking about the approach of] Muhammad Yunis [Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank, which specializes in dispensing microloans for the poor].
The earliest challenge for Wood's operation was the lack of Nepali language children's books.
Charities are taught to think small. They're taught to believe that the world has really limited resources -- I don't think that's necessary anymore. We have trillions of dollars sitting in the sidelines in the Western world, waiting to find a purpose.
What were some of your biggest hurdles in getting the Nepal project off the ground?
The biggest challenge was the lack Nepali language children's books. In Nepal, the parents are too poor to afford books, so the publishers don't see a business case for publishing them. From the very beginning, there's a vacuum. At Room to Read, we've started to find local authors and local artists who have story ideas. We pay them a commission, about $300, to write and illustrate books. And we've begun a publishing arm of Room to Read. We're trying to become the Dr. Seuss of Nepal or find a Dr. Seuss in Nepal.
So have you found your Dr. Seuss of Nepal?
We have found many, many Dr. Seusses in Nepal, in Cambodia, in Vietnam. People with absolutely wonderful ideas. When you walk into a market in a developing world, you see such incredible handicrafts and such skilled workers. We say, "Is there a possibility of taking these artists and transferring their skills from doing a painting they sell to the tourists to, instead, doing a book that will help their own country's children?"
We've done over 150 titles around the world so far. We're doing about 100 new titles this year alone. We're taking the program into South Africa, publishing in three South African languages. Taking the program into Zambia and this, to me, is getting it right from the beginning. If we want to teach kids to be literate, we have to step up to the plate and give them books that are culturally relevant in their own language.
We have found many, many Dr. Seusses in Nepal, in Cambodia, in Vietnam. People with absolutely wonderful ideas.
Wouldn't it also make sense to get children to write children's books? We're running Young Story Writers Competitions, where children come up with their own story ideas. It might be a tale that their grandmother told them about a monster living in the hills or about a little girl who neglected her studies and didn't do well in school. Every year, we pick some of the winners and publish an anthology of stories for children by children. It is so exciting to watch the girls and boys who are 15, 16 years old, as they proudly clutch the book they wrote as a youngster.
How did you also get involved in the building of schools in Nepal?
In 2000, I got an email from Dinesh [Shresha, Room to Read's country director] [telling] me about the need to build schools in Nepal. I learned from United Nations' reports that about 100 million children don't go to school due to lack of school infrastructure and trained teachers. Dinesh told me about two villages that wanted to have schools but could not afford them. He asked me if I would consider giving enough money to buy the materials; he would require the local village residents to donate land, dig the foundation, donate labor and help build the school. And it wasn't a lot of money to build these schools. We can build a school for around $15,000 in Nepal; that's because the local people donate their labor.
And so I thought, "Wouldn't it be a wonderful surprise to endow a school in Nepal to recognize my parents and their devotion to education?" The School Room Program started from that. Seven years later, we've opened 287 schools, and we're going to build 140 this year. Every one of those schools has a story behind it. We had one couple [that], rather than buy an engagement ring, decided to fund the building of a school. Now, certain members of my staff were like, "No, way! She's giving up the ring?" But there's now a school in Nepal with their name on it.