Yes, indeed, you can find happiness on the back of yak.
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children is a stunning reminder of the great big world that exists outside the boardrooms, frenetic searches for new strategic partners and quarterly results.
John Wood earned his MBA at Kellog School of Management, worked several years in banking and then joined Microsoft in 1991. Wood ascended rapidly through sheer determination and countless hours of work to serve as Microsoft’s Director of Business Development for the Greater China Region.
Stressed from the demands of his job, he took a vacation trek through Nepal, on the advice of a friend who told him, “If you get high enough in the mountains, you can’t hear Steve Balmer yelling at you anymore.”
And then luckily for the world and thousands of children, after that trip he decided that it was time to change the world one book at a time. One of the more extraordinary things about John’s decision is how young he was and that he left a prestigious position behind to literally deliver books on the back of a yak to a Nepalese school.
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World is Wood’s story of his founding of Room to Read and changing his life’s focus to helping children break the cycle of poverty through the lifelong gift of education. Room to Read is a non-profit organization that promotes literacy in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Africa and the list is growing.
Taking all the lessons he learned at Microsoft, John has successfully applied them to helping reduce the growing problem of basic literacy in the world.
John was kind enough to do a short interview about his book and the non-profit. Read it and you might just find some truisms about business that apply to every venture.
Nettie: Can you talk about how important it is for all children to have books available to them in the world?
John: Our belief at Room to Read is that world change starts with educated children. Part of that education is access to books. Education is the key to self-sufficiency. Too much of charity is a Band-Aid, or a free gift to the poor. I know this will sound like a cliché, but education is a hand up, not a handout. Books are absolutely an essential part of education.
Nettie: What has been the most surprising and rewarding part of Room to Read’s efforts thus far?
John: I have been really excited about how fast Room to Read is growing. In a few short years we have grown from ten libraries in Nepal to operating five programs in seven countries. To date we have opened over 3,300 bi-lingual libraries with more than 2 million books. We support over 2,300 girls with long-term scholarships and have established more than 220 schools. By our estimates we have affected the lives of over 1.1 million children through our programs and every week these numbers go up!
Nettie: What inspires you to continue your organization’s remarkable work despite setbacks and obstacles?
John: While setbacks and obstacles periodically frustrate us, we have seen so many positive results from our work and know that it is making a real difference in over one million lives. With numbers like that, it is hard to slow down or focus on setbacks.
Nettie: What was your favorite book as a child and how did books influence you in your life?
John: I read every Dr. Seuss book my parents put in front of me!
Nettie: Early in the book you refer to Kierkeggard’s quote, “There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.” What does that quote mean to you now that you’ve changed your life from Microsoft exec to school and library builder?
John: I felt this way when I was opening those first schools in Nepal and saw how many students were going to have the opportunity to read and learn. Since those early days in Nepal Room to Read has grown and expanded at a rapid rate as we have become a global organization. Our growth has stemmed from our pursuit to understand what we are capable of doing and becoming.
Nettie: How is managing this venture similar to what one might do at any company?
John: I learned many important lessons while working at Microsoft. The most powerful lesson I learned while at Microsoft can be summarized by CEO Steve Ballmer´s quote: Go Big, or Go Home! I want Room to Read to scale up massively, as there are hundreds of millions of children lacking the most basic educational infrastructure. Much like a business will grow quickly if they see a lot of potential customers out there, I feel that the NGO world needs to do the same.
From the very beginning, we have taken a global view of our problem — there are 800 million illiterate individuals in the developing world. How, from a business perspective, with a limited capital base, can we reach this many potential "customers"?
Nettie: Thanks John.
It was Thomas Merton that said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
Imagine never even holding a book in your hand. Never having the opportunity to read one page. Here’s your call to action – hit RoomtoRead.org and see how you can help.
Don Valentine, founder of Sequoia Capital said, “Room to Read is one of the best long-term investments I have made.”