John Wood, Giving a Hand Up, Not a Handout

He had an executive position at Microsoft most would envy. A staff of 75. A company-supplied car and driver. Stock options. And then a trek through the Himalayas changed his life and the lives of millions of children forever.

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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 where there are 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 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 cast-offs, 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 stacked 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. On future trips, he upgraded to yaks. “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 quit my job and 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 mid life crisis,” he explains. 

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, lead to a brainstorming session and the name Room to Read was born.

Eight years later, 44-year-old Wood has created a flourishing nonprofit organization that has established over 7,000 bi-lingual libraries, donated and published 5 million books, built 730 schools, and funded over 7,000 long-term scholarships for girls. Room to Read has impacted the lives of over 2 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 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 who are not enrolled in school and more than 774 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write, Wood says he 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 over 1,000 schools and to have bestowed long-term scholarships to 15,000 girls. “You must have the courage to stand by your convictions. A lot of people will try to talk you out of your dream as they did me but I stuck with it. I preserved, listened to my internal voice, rather than critics. One of my favorite quotes by Oscar Wilde says, ‘Nobody ever erected a statue in honor of a critic.’”

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 14 A,” 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.” 

On any given day he may be in Nepal for a ribbon cutting, or in London speaking to a corporate group. “Leadership is all about getting out from behind your desk and embracing the world and telling the story. This is why Room to Read has grown so fast. 

Successful leaders set very ambitious goals. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer used to say, “Go big or go home.’ I love my home in San Francisco, but I love going big even more!” he explains. 

Popular on the speaking circuit, his speeches focus on the importance of rolling up your sleeves to “GSD,” an acronym for, “Get Shit Done.” Action is what the world needs right now, he asserts. His speeches also 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.” The keynote speaker at Starbucks annual marketing conference last year, Wood got the group so charged up that as they gave him a standing ovation an employee passed a hat around and collected enough money to endow a school in Vietnam. 

“This is a story of hope for the poorest parts of the world. We don’t have to pity those citizens, or objectify them. If we simply educate their kids they will one day escape poverty and have opportunities their own parents could have never dreamed possible.”

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.