In the Wood – A US Entrepreneur’s Mission To Educate The World’s Children

[Here’s another primer for my work with Humaneity mentioned recently.  Really getting excited about lighting that fire for inspiration once again.  This was a feature piece,  originally published in June 2012 in Humaneity Magazine.]

If you think about some of the biggest names in the American (as well as global) technology sector over the last 30 years – Allen, Gates, Grove, Hewlett, Moore and Packard – you’ll notice that many have parlayed their business acumen and professional success (and wealth) to become great philanthropists.

By providing leadership, and certainly seed money (or directly underwriting a majority of the initial funding), these professionals founded non-profit foundations to provide resources in areas of their interest and where they felt attention was lacking. Most philanthropists begin their philanthropic endeavors in the waning years of their careers. John Wood, however, didn’t wait that long.

As an up-and-coming marketing executive for Microsoft in the early years of the company’s booming growth, Wood was on the rise as a key commercial leader for Microsoft as it expanded in the Pacific region. During and in the wake of a trekking vacation in the Nepalese Himalaya, he identified two key factors that would change his life: There was a dramatic and urgent need for education that was going unaddressed in places like Nepal, and he wanted to do more with his life than sell software. That was in 2000.

Twelve years later, the organization he founded as result of this twin epiphanies, Room to Read (RTR), has opened 1,556 schools and 13,152 libraries; published 707 books and distributed 11.3 million more; benefited six million children, including 15,388 girls that have participated in educational programs specifically for them (these statistics are updated quarterly and found both in John Wood’s email signature and on RTR’s website). These successes have taken place in Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Tanzania and Zambia. Not resting on its laurels, RTR aims to extend its reach, improving literacy for 10 million children by 2015.

Given his travel schedule (which you’ll read about below), it was no easy feat connecting with Wood for this interview. However, thanks to e-mail, the Internet and great coordination from his office, we were able to connect for a virtual discussion about his work and RTR’s journey:

First off, I was pleasantly surprised about your earliest efforts with your father, his membership in his local Lions’ Club, and how that channel helped with the initial shipment of books via the Lions Club in Kathmandu.

Has RTR maintained a connection with the Club in Kathmandu? Given core themes of “co-investment”, sustainability and community involvement, one would think these are good channels for long-term support.  

Yes, we have remained in contact with the Lions’ Club and many [Lions’] members in Nepal have become RTR volunteers. Being a Lion myself, it was no surprise that the network had been helpful to the cause of this fledgling effort, but good to hear about Lions’ in action all the same!

What is RTR’s approach to interacting with the Governments in the countries in which you operate? Do you have partnerships? What have been the challenges? And what strategies do you employ to deal with what’s often a thick web of bureaucracy?     

We act as a non-governmental charitable organization. Because we work in public schools, we partner with Governments to implement our educational projects, but we are not involved in the politics of these Governments. After creating and testing our approach to education in Nepal, we began to identify other countries in the world that faced similar educational challenges and for which our programs are well-suited to address.

Together with our partners in the field, we work closely with local and national Governments to help shape educational policy. For example, recently, RTR successfully lobbied Cambodia’s Ministry of Education to adopt nationwide school library standards that included minimum material criteria and increased salaries for librarians.

We balance indicators of a country’s need for our programs (such as high rates of poverty, high inequality and low literacy) with a gauge of a basic threshold level of peace and stability that are necessary for us to effectively conduct our work. Additionally, we prioritize countries where the Governments have demonstrated a commitment to education so that we can help support and augment their positive efforts. We then supplement our high-level analysis with on-the-ground research and conversations, networking with other organizations, and meetings with in-country officials to determine our final country selections.

The core of volunteerism to keep RTR running is the people network. Can you share how you and your management team keep volunteers motivated?

Our chapter network, the enlistment of 10,000 volunteers in 59 cities who are committed to fundraising and raising awareness about RTR, helps ensure we use every dollar contributed as efficiently as possible. Many of our chapter members are seasoned business professionals who have read my book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World”, and looking to find a way to pay it forward and give back. We continue to be thankful for their tireless support and contributions, and view this network as an extension of the RTR staff.

I have made a habit of sending what I call, “glory mails”, to praise and give timely and public thank-yous to volunteers that have achieved a victory for RTR.

Each year, we gather our chapter leaders for a Chapter Leadership Conference, providing a retreat for these members of the RTR family to be updated on our programs, messaging, organizational growth, fundraising strategies and share best practices among their fellow chapter members. I’d encourage your readers to get involved, starting with checking out our chapters’ network and my book You can also check out the organization via Facebook:

Last year, RTR celebrated the 10,000th library opening in the place where RTR began, Nepal. How does RTR manage the many stakeholders engaged in the 10 countries to maintain not only the brick and mortar of the buildings, but also the management, volunteers and personnel?

RTR feels it is important that communities have complete ownership of the schools and libraries, and we have a strict selection process to ensure that schools are likely to maintain the facilities and sustain them on their own.

We work with schools for three years to help train librarians and support the infrastructure. We implement libraries in schools that have committed school management, ensure that there will be a library period, and support having a librarian in the library. Anecdotal evidence indicates that our schools and libraries continue to be used beyond our funding period, sometimes with additional support from the communities themselves. We are now conducting a study to examine what happens to RTR libraries when our three-year funding period ends.

You spend 300 days a year on the road and you’ve been at it with RTR for more than 10 years now, doing what you love. You shared some personal reflection in the “Life’s a Mess” chapter in your book. So, how have you changed to stay fresh, passionate and let’s not forget, take care of yourself?

Running a global organization requires an incredible time commitment, with management responsibilities piled atop a frantic travel schedule. I work more today than I ever did at Microsoft; I fly 150,000 miles a year. At the same time, I receive much more fulfillment from my work. Being in a rural village on the day the parents, elders, students and teachers come together to celebrate the opening of a library or school; I don’t think anything could be closer to Nirvana for me.

Exercise plays a critical role in my wellness routine, whether I’m in Tokyo, London or San Francisco, I schedule time for running and exercise.
What are your top three cities/routes to run around the world?

Running is a key part of my routine in any time zone. When I’m home in New York, I love to run along the Hudson River Greenway with a view of the Statue of Liberty. In Tokyo, I run by the Imperial Palace and in Hong Kong, I enjoy trail running (especially with Martin Cubbon, CEO of Swire Properties, who is a great tour guide!). All of these running sites are equally inspiring and provide a great atmosphere to reflect on next steps for RTR.

Can you share what your management style is?

I lead by example and strive to be proactive and productive – always getting things done. I believe that those that join RTR appreciate my work ethic and are inspired to emulate it.

[WRITER’S NOTE: As noted earlier, passion is another characteristic that Wood stresses as key to sustained effort, long-term success, and work satisfaction. “Passion for the mission”, as he puts it. This feeling translates to employees that care deeply about every facet of the organization’s operations, and thus immerse themselves in the details to accomplish the established goals.

Coupled with the passion to achieve results, Wood also shared another key trait he adopted from his time at Microsoft and committed to instilling in RTR from the beginning:  loyalty.   

As he explained in his book, “my own ways of showing loyalty to employees are simple and straightforward, and will never win me any awards for innovation. I believe collectively, however, they show everyone working for Room to Read that I am looking out for them.”]  

What is RTR’s strategy on social media?

When RTR first began our social media odyssey, our first stop was Twitter, as it had selected us as its first Corporate Social Innovation partner in 2009.  Since then, it’s become the cornerstone of our larger social media strategy, which includes Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn. We also host the RTR blog (

Social media has allowed us to deepen engagement with current supporters by making it easier to share stories of impact and organizational “wins” in real-time, but it’s also helped us to connect with like-minded individuals around the world that may have never heard of RTR before. We are proud to have been named one of the top 20 non-profits on Twitter and have amassed over 560,000 followers.

One innovative use of social media has been our International Literacy Day Twitter campaign in September. The campaign’s goal is to give the twittersphere a glimpse of what the world looks like to the 793 million people worldwide who cannot read or write. In order to do that, we began circulating an “illiterate” tweet the week of International Literacy Day with the hashtag #RTforLiteracy, and an embedded link that allows readers to view the unscrambled message on our website. We have had a corporate sponsor in the past donate US$1 for every tweet or retweet that includes the hashtag and have raised substantial funds to support our programs. We’re always looking to engage with more supporters, so follow @RoomtoRead, @johnwoodRTR and @ZakNepal!

[WRITER’S NOTE: RTR’s Facebook page has had nearly 25,000 hits (“Likes” in the FB vernacular), the organization’s YouTube channel has 49 videos posted, and their LinkedIn page has nearly 2,000 followers.

It all comes together in one goal: getting things done in some of the most impoverished countries on the planet to improve literacy, given children a better opportunity for education, and thereby improve the world we live in.  No doubt that’s happening. The fundamental differentiator for RTR and John Wood is the relentless pursuit of positive results and using every donation dollar to maximum benefit. It’s all about the results.] 

If you could change anything over the last 10 years of RTR, what would it be?

I am not sure that I will ever be certain that my impact has been significant enough. We’ve reached over six million students thus far, but that is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider that there are nearly 800 million people in the world today lacking basic literacy. In the early days of RTR, we should have hired more people, more quickly, though that is tough when you have no endowment and no budget at the beginning. We also should have started local language publishing projects earlier. There are millions of villages that would love to work with us. To reach them, we need a lot of capital. We have the model, we have the people, we just need capital. That sounds simplistic, but just because it’s simple does not mean that it’s not true. If we had the capital, we could build a lot more schools, establish more libraries and endow more long-term girls scholarships.

Name three people you emulate and why?

My role model in philanthropy is definitely Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie used his good fortune to create a network of libraries that has impacted countless lives across several generations. We are building a similar, larger network clear across the developing world. Carnegie did just under 3,000. We are over five times that number and counting.

I’m also a big fan of Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health. I have not met him, but after twice reading “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, he’s become one of my heroes.

Finally, I admire Sandor Teszler, a great mobilizer of social change in whose honor I recently received an award at Wofford College. Teszler, an immigrant who escaped a death camp during WWII, was one of the first in the textile industry to desegregate mills in the US. Late in life, he attended college and his passion for education established his legacy in academia.

What succession plan do you have (if any), for RTR’s leadership to remain strong and stable, long into the future?

In 2009, I transitioned from CEO and stepped up into a new role as co-chair of RTR’s board of directors. This decision was a mark of strength and confidence in the leadership within the organization. Erin Ganju, co-founder and former chief operating officer, seamlessly assumed the role of CEO and has been successfully overseeing the day-to-day operations of RTR and expanding our reach.

I believe the sign of a good founder is to get out of the way when the organization has grown to a certain point in its evolution. The management restructuring has accelerated RTR’s growth and global expansion to fulfill our promise of educating millions of the world’s children.

I now focus all of my efforts on traveling around the world to raise awareness and funds for RTR, long-term strategy, global board development, and public speaking. Due to this succession plan, I have been able to build new regional and advisory boards around the world – in the UK, New York, Australia and Asia-Pacific – to augment RTR’s trajectory.

(WRITER’S NOTE: After concluding the virtual interview with Wood, I came away with a few fundamental values that define who he is: Keep your commitments, be creative and maintain a positive attitude towards making a difference in the world, and think big along the way. These maxims can surely carry the day if we let them do so.

The question is, “What is your inspiration?” Whatever it is, take specific actions in pursuit, and you’re sure to get results. Wood is living proof that approach works wonders!)

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