In 1998, John Wood was a dedicated Microsoft executive who needed a vacation. That year, while trekking through Nepal, he encountered a village so bankrupt of reading material that he vowed to come back the following year with as many books as he could carry. Soon thereafter, he founded the Room to Read, an organization that builds libraries in the developing world. GOOD recently phoned Wood to hear his personal thoughts on global literacy, why he left Microsoft to found Room to Read, and which big-red-dog book most moved him as a child.
For our readers who are unfamiliar with Room to Read, can you explain what it is?
We do three things: We build schools. We establish multilingual libraries and fill them with thousands of books. And we provide long term scholarships for girls because girls are often left out of the education system. Basically, we're a group that is committed to reaching 10 million kids across the world with the life-long gift of education. In education lies the key to self sufficiency--and the best long term ticket out of poverty.
What does a $20 Donation do for Room to Read?
This is a perfect price point. Twenty dollars is sufficient to sponsor a girl's scholarship for one month. We can also print 20 local-language children books in languages that have never really had children's books before. It's one of the reasons there's such an illiteracy problem in the developing world--there's just no children's book industry.
What initially moved you to found this organization?
I was on an 18 day trek through some very rural, mountainous areas and I visited a school that had this terrible condition--a dilapidated school. The library was this big, empty room with no desks, no chairs, no shelves, and most importantly, no books. They had 450 kids in the school. I thought, how can you have a school and not have books in the library. That just seemed wrong to me. But it really was a reflection of schools I'd seen everywhere. I'd seen it in Vietnam, I'd seen it in Cambodia. I talked to the headmaster and he spoke a sentence that forever changed my adult life. He said, "Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books." And I decided, you know what, dammit, I will. Sign me up. So I went back a year later and, seeing what it mean to this village and to the students to have their first children's books, I was like, OK, game over. Exit Microsoft. Start doing thousands of libraries.
How do you determine where to build each school/library?
I don't. Our local teams do that. We believe very much in a model of local empowerment so we hire strong entrepreneurial local people and then they look at the conditions. We challenge the parents and say, "if you want a school, we'll help you, but you have to be willing to help yourselves. You have to dig the foundation. You need to carry the cement two hours up the donkey path." If we're doing a library, we'll ask the local residents to prove to us that they will financially support the librarian's salary. And, really, we call it the Challenge Grant. We want to make sure the community has skin in the game. We don't want to use the old model of aid where we go in and we do everything for the people. We want to do things in partnership with them. We really respect the fact that they have great work ethic and are willing to do whatever it takes to get their kids educated. Parents are the same everywhere. They want their kids to have a good life. Most parents realize that without education, that's not going to happen. They're willing to roll up their sleeves and work. There are villages that don't rally around a challenge grant, but the good thing for us is, if they don't want it, we're not going to force it on them.
What's the toughest obstacle that you face?
Turning countries down that want Room to Read. There are 800 million people in the developing world who are illiterate, and there are 110 million kids of primary school age who are not enrolled in primary school. We have requests from all over the world. What kills me is having to say no to those requests because we simply don't have a big enough budget. But that just annoys me because every day we miss with these kids is an opportunity that we've forgone. We're not going to get it back. Next year or next decade is too late for these kids. They need access to education now.
What's the most rewarding part of your work?
That's easy. I just had it three weeks ago in Nepal. Being in a village on the day they cut the read ribbon on a new school where we open a new library. You see the looks of pride on the faces of the parents and you see the smiles and the excitement on the faces of the students who are going to their new school or library. To me, if I have one of those moments a year, it's enough to keep me going 364 other days.
What nonprofit, other than Room to Read, interests you? Why?
One that people don't know about is One Acre Fund. It's fairly new and operated by a guy named Andrew Youn, who is a very passionate young guy whose concern is that all these kids in Kenya are malnourished. He's working with farmers to help them find ways to increase their crop yield. He's thrown himself into this quest with the same degree of passion and excitement that I threw myself into Room to Read back in 1999.
When did you first get a library card as a kid? What were the first books you checked out?
My family had just moved to a small town in Pennsylvania. I was six years old. And we went to the library and got my card and started checking out books. One of the first would definitely be Clifford the Big Red Dog. I loved it.
Finish this sentence: A world without libraries is...
...just plain wrong. Some people are like, why do kids in Cambodia need books? Why can't you just give them a computer and have them teach themselves. Would you want your kids to learn that way? That's just crazy. If kids can't read, forget all the rest.
What's your personal definition of good?
It has to do with my favorite quote: To whom much is given, much is expected. We live in the greatest era of wealth creation in human history. We need to prove we're worthy of that.
You can donate to Room to Read by subscribing to GOOD here.
Learn about John Wood's memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, here.
For more, go to GOODMagazine.com.
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