Room to Read founder John Wood

The former Microsoft executive explains his mission to help transform the world by putting books in the hands of the world’s children.

John Wood quit his prestigious position as a Microsoft exec, at age 35, to fulfill his dream: to build libraries around the world and share his love of books. Since the 1999 founding of the award-winning nonprofit, Room to Read, he's impacted the lives of over 7.5 million children in 10 countries across Asia and Africa and aspires to reach 10 million children by 2015. Wood teaches at the graduate level at NYU's Wagner School of Public Policy and the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative's advisory board. In his new book, Creating Room to Read, he provides a business model and blueprint for doing good.


Tavis: John Wood quit his executive job at Microsoft to find practical ways to help transform the world for the better. He began with a very simple idea – put books into the hands of as many children as possible.

To date, his Room to Read initiative has provided more than six million children with access to libraries and schools in countries like Cambodia, India, Zambia, and Vietnam. He’s now written a book about this commitment called “Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy.” John, good to have you on this program.

John Wood: Good to see you again.

Tavis: Tell me why – I want to jump right in with why the fight for global literacy is so important to the future of the globe.

Wood: The main reason, I think, is that almost 800 million people in the developing world are illiterate today, almost a billion people. Think about that, how different your life would be if you couldn’t read something simple – a newspaper, a medicine bottle, a traffic sign. How disempowered would you feel?

It seems to me such a lost opportunity for five-year-olds or six-year-olds to be told you’ve lost the lottery of life. You’re not going to learn to read from a young age, you won’t get educated.

That’s, I think, one of the main reasons the poor stay poor throughout the world today, is lack of education, lack of literacy.

Tavis: What was the magnet that pulled you away from Microsoft to even do this?

Wood: A headmaster in Nepal who was so motivated. I was trekking in Nepal as a little bit of a holiday from Microsoft back in 1998. I met a headmaster who asked me to come visit his school. He had 450 children showing up every day in this kind of ramshackle little building with dirt floors.

He showed me the library, and it was completely devoid of children’s books. They didn’t have any books in the library, and I asked him why. The headmaster said, “Well, here in Nepal we are too poor to afford education, but until we have education, we will always remain a poor nation and a poor people.”

That just hit me at a gut level of how can you tell any child at that age you’ve lost the lottery of life, you’re not going to be able to get a chance to get educated? So the headmaster, thankfully, like me, was an action-oriented optimist. He said, “Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.” I told him, “I’ll see you. I’ll come back again. I’ll come back within a year.”

So I went back to that village a year later with my 73-year-old father in tow as my unpaid right-hand man, 3,000 books. We had six donkeys loaded up, and for the kids, it was the biggest day they’d ever had, because it was a day they actually, for the first time in their life, were looking at brightly colored children’s books.

Tavis: So that was a year after you first met him.

Wood: Yes.

Tavis: You decided to leave Microsoft when in this process?

Wood: I left about two months after that return trip to go set up that first library.

Tavis: So you went right back and said, “I quit.”

Wood: Well, it took me a little time to work up the courage, because I think so much of society, your status is who you are, what you do, what the title on your business card said, and so it was a difficult time to do that. 1999 was the height of the tech boom.

Microsoft was booming, Asia was booming, where I was living in China, things were going well, and a lot of people thought I was a little bit crazy, because I was leaving this title, and people were saying, “What are you going to do?” and I’m like, “I’m going to deliver books on the back of yaks in rural Himalayan village.” People thought I was a (laughs) little bit crazy.

Tavis: When you say it took a while, maybe it did from your vantage point, but two months after you go back, that’s only eight weeks.

Wood: Yeah.

Tavis: So it didn’t take that long to make that decision. But I’m glad you raised this, though, John, because there are – my granddad, put it this way, God rest his soul, my granddad used to always say to me, “Tavis, the best ideas in the world can be found in the graveyard.”

As a kid, I didn’t quite get that. The best ideas in the world can be found in the graveyard. What he meant was that too many of us go to our graves with good ideas that we never do anything with. We never implement or activate the good ideas that we have. We take them to our graves with us.

Wood: Yeah.

Tavis: Room to Read turns out now to have been a great idea that thankfully you didn’t take to your grave with you, but it does take some courage for people to move in the direction that they are being called in, because status and symbol does so much matter in our society. So I wonder if you might say even more about that.

Wood: Yeah, I would love to. Well thankfully, a lot of great people have joined me along the way, and that’s why Room to Read has gotten really off the ground and done as much work as we’ve been able to do.

But I think for me the whole point of leaving Microsoft when I was 35 years old, I always wondered what would I – I would never know what might have been possible if I stuck with my job and did the safe thing. I could have done this as a part-time hobby, but hobbies don’t scale.

Seven hundred and eight million illiterate people in the world – what a lost opportunity. I thought if I don’t go do this full-time with all of my heart and all of my passion, I’ll never know what might be possible.

It started very slowly – one library here, a second library there, a third library there. But around year three, year four, a lot of great people joined on, joined what we call the caravan. You kind of get more people involved. Today we’re up to 15,000 libraries we’ve opened. The first one in 1999, now we’re up to 15,000 libraries. Over six million children have access to them.

It’s still, I think, Tavis, just a drop in the ocean, still, even though 15,000 is more than I ever could have imagined. We don’t want to stop there. We want to make sure that every child, everyone in the world, has a chance not just to have books and libraries, but to gain literacy from a young age.

To understand the world around them, to be able to decode that. But I’m glad I quit. There were a few scary moments along the way, but so far, so good, and it’s full speed ahead for the next 10, 20, 30 years.

Tavis: Every time you and I talk and I hear you use the word “caravan,” I always think of a great R&B group called Isley, Jasper Isley, with a wonderful song called “Caravan of Love.” (Laughter) So it’s not just a caravan; what you have is a caravan of love, and Isley Jasper Isley have a great song about that.

Wood: Well, there’s an Urdu poet I quote in the book where he talks about setting off alone across the desert at night and feeling that loneliness, and then at some point looking back and realizing that there was a caravan behind him.

That’s, I think, the story of this book. My first book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,” a lot of that was first-person singular. I found my passion, I quit my job, I started this thing called Room to Read.”

This book (unintelligible) is first-person plural. It’s the story of we. It’s the story of that caravan, of all the great people who joined along the way. People, I think all of us have stories.

My father grew up a very, very poor person, only one of seven children to go to university. He always said to me – he got a scholarship, he went on a GI bill, and he said that was our family’s springboard into the middle class, in which case I had a good public school.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. A good school library, a great community library in a small town in Pennsylvania, opened in 1896. So when I saw that empty library in Nepal and I thought about how lucky I was to grow up in a small town that had a school library and a village library, no shortage of books.

Even if we didn’t have a lot of money, it didn’t matter. You had the bicycle, the library card, so wow, what a great opportunity to bring that to the rest of the world. In a certain sense, it’s not an original idea. We’re basically emulating one of my heroes, Andrew Carnegie.

Late in his life he decided hey, I made all this money, I need to give back. Let’s help the poor have access to books. Twenty-five hundred Carnegie libraries. We pay homage to Carnegie by really out-Carnegie-ing him. We’re (unintelligible) where Carnegie was right now. We’ve added on all kinds of great programs, like local language publishing, so kids have books in their mother tongue.

But I still feel, Tavis, like we’re just getting started. Twelve and a half years old – wow. I hope the next decade can be even bigger.

Tavis: Which raises this question for me – how it is that you sustain your hope even though you know that you’re doing righteous work – my word, not yours – righteous work. (Laughter) You’re doing work that’s laudable. And yet by your own admission, it’s still a drop in the bucket.

How do you sustain your hope when you look at what you’re doing but juxtapose it to what you’re up against?

Wood: Yeah. I think a lot about the students and the parents I’ve met along the way. I spend most of my time in the developed world, in the financial centers, fundraising. That’s my main role now at Room to Read, is being an ambassador.

But when I get a chance and I can go off to Cambodia and be in a small village and see post-Khmer Rouge that there is hope, that children are going to school, they’re learning to read in Khmer, their teachers are being trained by Room to Read to actually help kids to learn to be literate from a young age, that’s what sustains me.

We were on a trip to Nepal a couple of years ago and there’s a grandmother who held the hand of one of our staff and with tears in her eyes, the grandmother said, “I can die now knowing that my granddaughter is going to be able to finish secondary school with Room to Read’s support.” Those things really keep me going.

Tavis: You talked earlier about poverty, and I don’t ask this question out of any naïveté, but it’s always important for me, at least, to draw the links and to make sure that we at PBS and beyond connect the dots when we talk about poverty.

So say a word to me about the link, the direct link between poverty around the world and your literacy.

Wood: Yeah. Well, I think it’s a very direct link, because in the world today, as you and I both know, there’s a billion people who live on less than a dollar a day, and two billion people who live on less than two dollars a day.

So in a world with seven billion people, two-sevenths live on less than two dollars a day. So think about how little, if that’s all the money you had today for food, for shelter, for clothing, for medicine, for whatever you needed, there’s no money left over for things that in the developing world are considered luxuries – school fees, school supplies, school uniforms.

Families cannot afford those things. But if you think about this and you take kind of a 20-year view of the supply chain of poverty, a lot of it starts with the five-year-olds, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds being told you’re not going to get to go to school. You were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think one of the reasons the poor stay poor, it’s not because they’re lazy. Simply surviving in some of the poorest parts of Africa and Asia takes incredible stamina and incredible work ethic. They’re not poor because they’re dumb. You and I and everybody else in the world, we’re all born with the same gray matter.

The question is what happens from a young age. What most excites me about what we do is in the developing world, money goes so far. We can put a girl in our long-term education program for $250 per girl per year, and one of the reasons we’ve come so far so fast is not because of somebody dropped a billion-dollar check on us and said, “Hey, go do good for the world.”

It’s literally one library at a time, one school at a time, one girl at a time. People supporting us to say, okay, let’s just move the ball a little closer to the goal line each and every day.

Tavis: I wrote these down right quick because I wanted to make sure I got these right. I’ve only got two minutes to go here, but I want to mention them right quick, get you to say a final thought about this.

You talk not just about the work that you’re doing at Room to Read, but you really are challenging the philanthropic world to reboot, the nonprofit world to reboot about how they do – to reboot as it relates, rather, to how they do what they do.

There are four things that you’ve said they have to start to talk about in the nonprofit world – never call it a charity, number one. (Laughter) Number two, never ask for donations, number three, run it like a business, number four, no Range Rover – be as efficient as possible. Can you kind of wrap that up for me?

Wood: Yeah. We never call Room to Read a charity. We just think that’s such an old-school kind of term, as with donations. We look upon ourselves as an organization that’s focused on education for the poorest of the poor.

We ask for investments, because literally this is what this is, is an investment in a child who would never otherwise – and it’s a karmic investment. Your return is going to really come to you in feeling good about knowing a school’s open somewhere in rural Nepal, or knowing that a library’s opening in Cambodia under your family’s name.

The no Land Rover thing really for us was just this symbolic idea I had in the beginning of saying you go through a developing world and you see all these organizations buying $75,000 Land Rovers. Well, when a girl can go to school for $250 per year, one Land Rover costs 300 girls the right to go to school. More than one Land Rover costs a lot more than that if you have a parking lot full of them.

So Room to Read’s model is very much one of saying let’s find ways to cut costs out of the equation so we can spend money on the good stuff, on the books and on the literacy and on the girls. So we rely, here in L.A., on donated frequent flyer miles, we have hotel partnerships, they give us free room nights. We have free office space donated by companies like Credit Suisse.

Some people talk about greedy bankers, but we get a lot, a lot, a lot, not just of money from very generous bankers, but also, a lot of bankers give us frequent flyers miles.

They say here, here’s some miles, fly for free. Now, this stuff adds up over time to the point where we have shaved from what the world tells us our overhead should be, we’re actually much lower than that. We’re about 17.5 percent overhead, so we actually deploy 83 cents on the dollar to the programs, using this very much of a low-overhead model.

It’s just through a lot of business partnerships – Lenovo gave us 600 ThinkPads. One ThinkPad donated means four additional girls can go to school for a year.

Tavis: Yeah.

Wood: Six hundred ThinkPads goes a lot, lot further than that.

Tavis: I’ll close on this note. First of all, I appreciate the work that you are doing in more ways than I can express, but I take your point about those greedy bankers. Not every banker is greedy, but it’s always important for me, though, to make the distinction.

Their charity, their philanthropy notwithstanding, there is a big difference between charity, philanthropy, and justice.

Wood: Yes.

Tavis: It takes – you are being benefitted by their charity and by their philanthropy, but what you’re really after is justice, trying to get justice for these boys and girls, and those are two very different things.

Wood: Yeah.

Tavis: But I take your point, though.

Wood: No, no, but I think a lot of it is that people in the world, whether it’s you or I, who have education, realize without education you’re not you, without education we’re not here having this conversation.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Wood: So this is just for us, Room to Read is just one great way for us to say let’s give that same gift, let’s pay that forward to a kid in the developing world, and the whole notion of any child being told born in the wrong place at the wrong time, therefore no education, we believe that idea belongs in the scrapheap of human history, and that to me, Tavis, that will be justice, when every child everywhere in the world can go to school from a young age and get literate.

Tavis: We agree. That’s why I made that distinction. We agree on justice for these boys and girls.

The book is called “Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy,” written by John Wood. John, thanks for your good work, and good to have you on here.

Wood: Great to see you again. Thank you.

Tavis: John Wood is doing some good. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 30, 2013 at 10:54 pm