John is the Founder and CEO of Room to Read. He started Room to Read after a fast-paced and distinguished career with Microsoft from 1991 to 1999. He quit Microsoft to go trekking in Nepal, saw a need, and within a year made the decision to devote "the second chapter of my adult life" to the quest for global education. With in-country, native staff, Room to Read builds schools, establishes multi-lingual libraries, and provides scholarships to enable girls to go to school. John was selected as the second recipient of the Draper Richards Fellowship and has twice been chosen for the Skoll Foundation award for social entrepreneurship. Room to Read is a four-time winner of the "Social Capitalist" award given by Fast Company magazine and the Monitor Group. In 2004, he was named as one of Time magazine's "Asian Heroes"—the only non-Asian ever selected to receive this award. He is the author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children.
tompeters.com asks …
I guess the title of your book says it all, John. You left Microsoft to change the world. You had a cushy, corporate job at Microsoft. What happened to inspire the change?
JW: I took what I thought was going to be a three-week holiday from work, and it ended up turning into more of a permanent holiday from Microsoft. During my three-week holiday, I went trekking in Nepal.
While in the mountains, I was asked by a headmaster if I would like to see his school, and noticed in the school library a complete absence of books. This school had 450 students. It had very few books. The few books it had were just backpacker cast-offs, you know, Danielle Steel romance novels and stuff like that that no kid would want to read. This is a problem around the world. There are 800 million illiterate people in the world. A lot of it has to do with lack of access to something that we take for granted—a library.
The headmaster noticed my concern as I asked him quite a bit about the conditions. He said to me, “Well perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.” I decided right then and there that I would try to be the equivalent of Andrew Carnegie. The Andrew Carnegie for small villages in the developing world. So everything that happened to me started from that first moment when I said, “Yes, I will do this library.” Things have really taken an interesting turn from there.
This was clearly a very difficult decision for you. You detail that very nicely in the book. There had to be something else in your background that allowed you to even consider making this decision; giving up the whole corporate thing, the driver, the nice digs, the expense account, the great salary, and basically throwing yourself out there.
JW: I think there are probably a number of things that caused me to do that. I’ll try to give you only the highlights rather than going into too much detail. My parents have always stressed the value of education. I think every one of us has an ancestor who somewhere up the line made that great leap from being uneducated to being educated, and taking their family and every subsequent generation out of poverty.
At a certain point in the world’s development, every single family lived in poverty. What has been, I think, the great equalizer for people is that at a certain point, they’ve crossed over. In our case, my father is one of seven children and he’s the only one who went to college. The only reason he went to college was the G.I. Bill.
All of a sudden, our family is ratcheted into the middle class. On top of that we’re living in a small town in Pennsylvania, not exactly an intellectual hotbed. But we had a school library and we had a village library. I visited both of those religiously from a very, very young age. My parents always stressed the importance of going to the library, checking out books and reading.
Everything I’ve done in terms of giving up all the perks of the corporate life has been out of a very firm belief that I should consider what my legacy will be. Will it be that I made a bunch of rich people richer? Or will it be that I helped millions of kids to start that journey and break that cycle of poverty for themselves and for their children and their grandchildren and hopefully every subsequent generation?
When you described your early library experience, it brought my own to mind. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Our local library was tucked away in a corner of this building that was formerly some person’s house and was called the Community Hall. I can still picture that place. I can see the lamps, the glow from the lights. I can still smell it. It’s a pre-Internet child’s first view into the wider world.
JW: Yes, I agree. I think so many of us grew up with books. I cannot imagine a world without books. I don’t think that anybody should have to imagine a world without books or a world without libraries. But unfortunately, that’s the reality when you go through the rural parts of India or South Africa or Ethiopia. You just don’t see something that is, to me, so basic.
In my view, if we want to make the world a better place, we need to not go for the short-term fixes and the band-aids. If we can get these kids into school and reading from a young age, from age four or five or six, that’s the long-term solution to a lot of what ails the world today. Education leads to self-sufficiency, to economic development, and to a much more peaceful world.
What exactly does Room to Read do? How do you operate?
JW: We operate in partnership with communities across the developing world. We have local employees in each country. We don’t send ex-pats. We hire great Vietnamese staff in Vietnam and great Indian staff in India. They work in partnership with local communities to build new educational infrastructure. That can be schools, libraries, computer labs, or scholarships for young girls who are often left out of the system.
That partnership is all about the communities co-investing with us. We don’t give the community every single thing they need to build a school. We will buy them the bricks and mortar, and the community will donate land. The community will donate labor. The community will pick up the shovels and dig the foundation. If the community is not willing to do that labor and co-invest, we will not work with that community. We don’t want to make this school or library a free gift. We want to challenge them to do their part.
What’s most incredible is that these communities, 98 percent of them, respond immediately and are eager to prove that they’ll work. They’re not afraid of hard work. They want education for their kids and they will do anything they can to make sure that their community gets that school.
There are actually a few that don’t agree to those conditions?
JW: Yes, there are. On occasion, our representatives will visit a village, ready to bring the bricks and mortar, and they don’t see a hole dug in the ground. They say, “Why is there no foundation dug?” If they’re told, “Well, the community didn’t rally behind the challenge grant,” then we say, “Okay. There are a lot of other communities that will.” So we walk away. Now fortunately, that only happens in a very, very tiny number of cases.
It seems you’ve become a raging success with fundraising in this country. You go to cities, set up volunteers, and all of a sudden, you’re collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is it because so many of us have this visceral connection to books? It also seems that you’re providing purpose and meaning for a lot of people here in the U.S. outside of their own work. Do you think that’s the case?
JW: I do. I think there are a lot of people out there who either don’t want to quit their job and do this full-time or maybe who can’t afford to take that risk. I was lucky enough that I had the safety net from my Microsoft stock that I could take the risk.
We have literally hundreds of volunteers around the world who work by day for JPMorgan Chase or Accenture or Microsoft or Goldman Sachs. They volunteer their time with Room to Read and throw fundraising events in their cities. This year alone, we will raise about four million dollars, which is almost half of our budget, through those volunteer fundraising chapters.
That is a great outlet for people who don’t want to quit their day job to still change the world. Quite often, they will plan their annual vacation around going to Sri Lanka to see the schools that we’ve built in the tsunami-affected communities, or go to Nepal to meet the scholarship girls. Information about our chapters, which are always looking for new members, can be found at www.roomtoread.org/involvement/chapters.html.
I am speaking to you from Boston or very close thereto. In the book, you describe coming to Boston for a fundraiser that becomes an “awareness” raiser instead. You realize you won’t even recoup the cost of your airline ticket.
JW: Rather than the promised 120 people in the room, there are only 40 to 50. And then after my talk, which is usually followed by clapping, no one makes a sound. The first question from the audience is “Can you explain your unified pedagogical theory?” and I am wondering what the hell that phrase even means. The next is, “How can you guarantee that these kids will have jobs when they finish school?” Answer: No guarantee. Just like your parents could not guarantee that you’d get a job, yet they took the leap of faith anyway, because the only guarantee is that the absence of education makes it harder to succeed. Frown from the questioner. And then, “It says in your bio that you went to business school. How can you do this work without having a Ph.D. in education?” It didn’t get any better after that.
What is it with Boston? [Laughter] Boston takes a beating in this book.
JW: I’m not sure that’s the word I would use. It’s just that everyone was so eager to prove they were smarter than me. I was thinking, “Yes, I admit it. You’re smarter than me. I’m just trying to do what I can to help kids and I don’t want to get into a long debate about it. Can I go get a beer now?” Fortunately, there were two wonderful women in the audience—Pam and Jen—who felt sympathy for me. Not only did they buy me a beer, they also threw an event at Pilot House six months later that raised $40,000 for Room to Read. So every story can eventually have a happy ending if we persevere and attract great people!
Chicago comes out smelling like roses. I need Boston to sit up and take notice. You say Chicago is the leading fundraising city in the U.S. for you. Is that still a fact?
JW: Chicago is one of the leaders. Now Seattle, San Francisco, and New York are all giving Chicago a run for its money. Our San Francisco chapter just announced an event on November 9th. They are going to raise a thousand years of girls’ scholarships. It’s only $250 per year to get a girl in school and keep her in school. So they’ve actually announced the goal of raising a quarter million dollars and sponsoring a thousand years of girls’ education. That will be a very, very fun event.
I really enjoy the events that have an impact statement to them. Our last New York event was the official launch party for Room to Read South Africa. They told people, “When we hit this dollar amount, we’re going to be able to announce the exact number of libraries in South Africa we’re sponsoring.” I think it’s great for people to know exactly what the money’s going to do. I’d love to share the fun with Boston if we could just get a chapter going there.
Yes. That’s a theme that runs throughout your book. It ties back to lessons you learned at Microsoft. Can you talk a little bit about that, the data-driven part of your management style?
JW: Yes. My goal with Room to Read is to create a direct causal link between what our overall goals are and how the donors’ investments in us help us to reach those goals. I use the word “investment” because I don’t like the word “donate.” We don’t have donors. We have investors. What they’re doing is investing in the future of these kids in the developing world.
That’s a great distinction.
JW: Our model is built around the idea that an investor can come to us and say, “I want to do thing ‘x’ in country ‘y’,” and we’ll say, “Great. We need a certain number of dollars to do that project.” So somebody can come to us and say they want to sponsor a school in Nepal. That’s an $11,000 project. If they want to sponsor a girl’s scholarship and they want to do a whole ten-year scholarship, that’s $2,500. If somebody wants to sponsor the creation of a new local language book in a language like Khmer or Vietnamese or Nepali where kids lack access to books in their native language, it is a $10,000 project to create the book and to print 10,000 copies of it. A dollar a book, you can dedicate the book to a loved one on the cover, you get copies of the finished product, and you feel like Dr. Seuss. We think it’s a great deal!
All those projects are also dedicate-able. A corporation can dedicate a local language book to its customers, and then give that out as a holiday gift or an appreciation gift. A husband or a wife can endow a school for $11,000 and honor a loved one. We literally have had couples who’ve gotten married and rather than buying an engagement ring, they have endowed a school. My female staff members thought that was crazy, but I applauded it!
I like that your email signature usually has the up-to-date figures on how many schools or libraries you’ve built or how many women have been educated. Is that still a fact?
JW: Yes, it’s still a fact. Right now my signature file is actually all about the book, but the other 20 team members here have that signature file. I think right now it says we’re celebrating the launch of our 3,000th library. We now have 2,000 girls on scholarship and 190 schools we’ve built. We have hit the milestone of two million books. That goes into people’s signature files in every single email we send. We update those numbers on a quarterly basis.
That struck a chord with me. I participated in the Pan-Mass Challenge this summer, which is a fundraising bike ride for cancer research. When I get emails from them I don’t see anything like that. I’m going to suggest that they read your book and to take the easy, quick step of putting more information about what they’ve accomplished in their email signatures.
JW: Yes, I think it’s dangerous that charities just assume that people know what they’re doing or what their results are. I always encourage people to think about that. If you’re doing breast cancer screenings and that’s the raison d’être of your charity, great. Why don’t you brag about how many of them you’ve done and then be accountable for those results?
Why did you write this book now?
JW: I just didn’t have enough else going on, and I was bored. Seriously, the main reason I wrote the book is that so many people have come to me over the years to say, “I’ve thought about making the big switch to follow my passion rather than following the money,” or, “I don’t necessarily want to quit my job, but I do want an element of my life to be about making the world a better place. How did you do it? What advice do you have for me?”
I think after seven years of this, I have a lot to say. This book is my advice for people who may want to either, a) follow their passion or, b) keep doing what they’re doing but build some element into their lives of changing the world.
I think you do a really great job. In fact, I haven’t cried so much reading a book in a long time. It’s very emotional to read about both your own struggles and the stories you tell of your travels. Your outlook is wonderfully optimistic. Take the young boy in Vietnam, Vu, for example. See, if some kid comes up to me like he did to you in a foreign country, I think he’s trying to figure out how to roll me or whatever. You always see the positive. For you, he’s your first scholarship. As with many of these things, you funded it out of your own pocket.
JW: Yes. He was the first official Microsoft Scholarship for Promising Vietnamese Youth [Note: This is John’s terminology for digging into his personal finances]. He was too proud to accept my money, so I told him that “Bill Gates has allowed me to have the capital needed to endow scholarships for promising Vietnamese youth.” All technically true! He got tears in his eyes and promised me he’d get good grades. He not only finished high school and college, but he’s now pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. So far, I have spent less than $2,000 for all this, and it’s going to affect every subsequent generation of his family now that they have educated parents.
You have a friend who runs an education program in Nepal. She says, “When you educate a boy, you educate just the boy. When you educate a girl, you educate the whole family and the next generation.” I’m assuming this is why you have this Room to Grow Girls’ Scholarship Program as part of Room to Read.
JW: Two things. One is, it’s a basic fairness issue. Two-thirds of the illiterate population of the world today is female. Just by its very nature, when we build a school or we build a library, the boys are disproportionately represented in terms of the kids who attend. In order to right that imbalance, we also want to have a scholarship program to get more girls into the system. I think part of it is just basic fairness and equity.
The other part is that long-term effect that throughout the developing world, it’s been shown that when you educate women, the spillover effects to the next generation are substantial. There is increased health and nutrition for the family, increased income levels, increased education levels—even when you look at the microfinance projects. You can look at something like Grameen Bank and what they’re doing. When these women get some money from the small businesses that they’re setting up, one of the first things they will do is get their children into school.
So if you can get the mothers and daughters educated, that will have an effect on every single generation. Not to pitch, but I think that every one of us who had an educated parent should pay it forward and sponsor a girl’s scholarship in the developing world. The quote above comes from the woman who runs the Little Sisters Fund, which is also doing great work in Nepal and deserves support.
That’s a fabulous idea. On a lighter note, you paint a fairly grim picture of your social existence in the book. What about your social life? Has that improved?
JW: Yes. I think my work and my social life have had a complete and total, hostile takeover of each other and merged. My friends have become donors, our donors have become my friends, our volunteers have become family. As I travel the world, sometimes I just laugh because I’ll be trekking to a school in Nepal with a couple of friends and a couple of donors. I’m doing everything I like doing. I’m out in nature. I’m getting amazing exercise climbing Himalayan hills, hanging out with cool people, but I happen to be going to see a school that we’ve helped to fund. What is that? Work? Pleasure? To me it’s kind of like the two things have just merged.
It’s interesting how you detail that in your book. I think that’s really the new work model in many ways. In some ways, you’re the perfect embodiment of mixing all those things, as long as you’re not still wearing yourself out or working 18-hour days every day.
JW: Room to Read is on my mind for 18 hours a day, but a lot of times it’s on my mind because I’m at a party in New York with a bunch of really cool people who want to help build libraries in South Africa. So I don’t have that kind of, “Oh, woe is me. I have to work 18 hours a day,” mentality. It’s more, “Lucky me. I get to work 18 hours a day and be surrounded by great people the whole time.”
But way back when you left Microsoft, you also left a girlfriend at that time. You two were on diverging paths. Do you know what ever happened to Sophie?
JW: Yes. We still are in touch. She ended up getting married and having a wonderful young son named Jack. She’s still living overseas and actually, both she and her wonderful grandmother are donors to Room to Read.
We believe in fun here at tompeters.com. I was very encouraged to see that you insist that anyone you hire must have a sense of humor.
JW: Yes. I would not want to hire anybody who I wouldn’t want to go out with for a beer.
I think that’s a great rule for everyone to remember. I was so moved by your book. You’ve presented a very clear, moving, and passionate story. And I think you’ve done a great thing with your work.
JW: Thank you. I appreciate hearing that. I’m not the most confident writer in the world. It’s been great for me to hear good feedback from people. It makes me much more confident about starting the book tour.
I thought this was going to be lot of Microsoft hoo-ha and I was a little worried. You quickly changed that impression. I appreciate that.
JW: Excellent. I hope people will read this and join us in changing the world through the lifelong gift of education.
Email: jwood (at) – roomtoread.org