The Carnegie of Nepal

John Wood needed a break from his constant, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, business-warrior lifestyle. Nepal seemed like the perfect escape. He trekked for 18 days through areas with no paved roads, no cars, no telephones. Just the getaway he had yearned for.

What he didn't anticipate was that an invitation from a local educator to visit a school would change him forever.

More than 450 students were crammed into eight small classrooms, their floors— packed earth. No desks. No chairs. No shelves. It wasn't the obvious poverty that overwhelmed Wood. It was the poverty of opportunity.

"Their library consisted of only 20 books that were backpacker castoffs, completely inappropriate for children. I wondered, 'How can you ever break the cycle of poverty if kids don't get educated?'"

Wood promised to return to the school within a year with enough books to create a decent library.

Using the power of connectivity, he e-mailed everyone he knew asking for book donations. Within a month, there were 3,000 books in his parents' Colorado garage.

Wood and his father returned to Nepal, and on the backs of six rented donkeys, delivered the books they had collected. "The students just mobbed us. They couldn't wait to get their hands on these books. They had never seen such brightly colored children's books before. As I peered at their faces as they excitedly read these books, I thought, 'Game over. I can go back to my desk at Microsoft and make rich people richer or devote my life to these kids who have so little but who are so anxious and so eager to learn.'"

A sense of responsibility to Microsoft prevented him from quitting immediately, but he was a changed man. Although he continued as Microsoft's director of business development for the Greater China region, he juggled these responsibilities as he continued collecting books. He even cashed out $15,000 of his Microsoft stock to build his first school in Nepal, dedicating it to his parents in appreciation for his own education.

"I realized that relatively small amount of money was helping hundreds of kids. I imagined what I could accomplish if I devoted myself to fundraising full-time," he says. And that's exactly what he did two months later.

"It was a scary decision. I was 35 years old, and my entire identity was caught up in this idea of being a well-paid Microsoft executive. A lot of people told me I was crazy; that I was throwing my career away, that I was having a midlife crisis," he says.

From Corporate Executive to Unemployment

The original name for his brainchild, Books for Nepal, was not encompassing enough for what he desired to achieve. A dinner party, a few bottles of wine, and a few close friends from Google, Microsoft, and Netscape led to a brainstorming session, and the name Room to Read was born.

Eight years later, Wood has created a flourishing nonprofit organization that has established more than 7,000 bilingual libraries, donated and published five million books, built 730 schools, and funded more than 7,000 long-term scholarships for girls. Room to Read has impacted the lives of upwards of two million students in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, South Africa, and Zambia.

He is determined to break the cycle of poverty for as many children as he can. "Education is a hand up, not a hand out. It is the best long-term proven ticket out of poverty. Dropping off bags of rice doesn't do it, educating kids does."

With more than 250 million children not enrolled in school and more than 774 million adults who cannot read or write, Wood is only getting started.

"I think these statistics are a moral failure of our universe. Every day we lose is a day we don't get back. We need to give every kid in the world a chance to get educated. There are tens of millions of kids out there who don't have a school, a book, not even a damn pencil," he says angrily. "Look at the despair, the ruthlessness, the terrorism, the subjugation of women in the world. A lot of it comes down to a lack of education. There are over 500 million women who are illiterate. If each one has four children, you have 2 billion children growing up with an illiterate mother. That is not going to affect just that community; it is going to affect the whole world. This is not just some niche issue, it affects the future of all of humankind."

His goal? By 2010, to have built 10,000 libraries and more than 1,000 schools and to have bestowed long-term scholarships on 15,000 girls.

Globetrotter

His travel schedule is grueling. With 250 full-time Room to Read employees worldwide and more than 2,000 volunteers in 37 cities who have raised $20 million, Wood is on the road 80 percent of the time. "I feel as if I live in seat 14A," he says with a laugh. "There is no substitution for getting out there and seeing people. I travel a minimum of 250,000 miles a year, typically circling the Earth once every six to eight weeks."

Popular on the speaking circuit, he focuses his talks on the power of rolling up your sleeves to "GSD" ("Get Sh*t Done"). Action is what the world needs right now, he says. His speeches focus on corporate social responsibility and encouraging sales teams to "get out of their comfort zone, as you never know what might happen when you dare to take a different approach."

Not surprisingly, Wood cites Andrew Carnegie for having the greatest influence on his life. "With one decision, Carnegie gave millions of people in America access to books with no barriers," he explains. "You can travel days throughout sub-Saharan Africa and not see a single library. My question to the world is, if we view Carnegie's decision as one of the greatest philanthropic decisions of all time, then why haven't we done this for the poorest parts of the world? Why haven't we given them the same opportunity to read? Somebody must become the Carnegie of sub-Saharan Africa, of India, of Cambodia." That somebody has a name. It is John Wood.

Originally published March 1, 2009

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