John Wood, Founder Of Room To Read: Changing The World, One Word At A Time

Asian Scientist Magazine speaks to John Wood, founder of Room To Read, a remarkable social entrepreneur who has built more than 13,000 libraries to improve literacy in the developing world.

AsianScientist (Apr. 2, 2012) – He headed to the Himalayas to find peace, but instead found his passion in a little school with an empty library.

He then returned home, resigned from a comfortable job as a marketing executive at Microsoft and spent the last decade bringing millions of books into the lives of underprivileged children, earning himself and his organization Time Magazine’s “Asian Heroes” Award, two Skoll Foundation Awards for Social Innovation, and a place on Forbes Impact30 List of the top social entrepreneurs.

He is John Wood, 47, founder of Room to Read, and best-selling author of Leaving Microsoft To Change The World.

Change the world he did, through the establishment in 1999 of a non-profit organization aptly named Room to Read, which is committed to improving literacy in the developing world where an estimated 770 million people are illiterate.

To achieve this, the organization runs five solid programs–construction of schools and libraries, reading and writing, girls’ education and local language publishing.

Its results have been impressive – now in its 12th year, it has built over 13,000 libraries and over 1,550 schools in Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, and the African continent.

On top of this, it also financially supports 13,500 impoverished girls who might otherwise be denied an education. To give an idea of the organization’s expenditure on these projects, it costs US$8,000 to build a school alone and $10,000 to build a school with a library. On a smaller scale, $250 covers a girl’s annual education costs, including uniforms, books and even a bicycle.

These accomplishments have been possible in part due to Wood’s corporate background, which sees him run Room to Read with a businesslike efficiency and a watchful eye on finances, winning it the coveted four star rating for its sound fiscal management every year since 2006 by Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent evaluator of charities.

Asian Scientist Magazine had the honor of speaking to this remarkable social entrepreneur who has built five times as many libraries as the legendary philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Playtime in a classroom in Vietnam (Source: Room to Read).

How did Room to Read come to be?

I was trekking in Nepal, seeking a reprieve from my fast-paced career at Microsoft, and was invited to visit a school with over 450 students. I asked to see the library and was brought to an empty room with a sign above the door that said, “Library.” There were no books.

I asked the headmaster why. He said: “In Nepal, we are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor.” This to me seemed a very cruel situation. And one that deserved to be eliminated.

The headmaster then said: “Perhaps, Sir, you will someday return with books,” and I made a vow to help. At that moment, the seeds were planted for Room to Read. I decided that I’d use some of my own energy and wealth to change the situation. From there, I wrote to everyone in my address book an email asking for help. I encouraged people to send new and used children’s books to my parents’ house (I was living abroad at the time). Over 3,000 books arrived!

My father and I returned to Nepal a few months later to help establish ten libraries. This trip to Nepal was one of the happiest moments of my life as I watched the smiles and the joy on the faces of the children, and also the teachers. I soon decided that I’d no longer focus on making rich people richer, but instead would help kids in the developing world gain the lifelong gift of education.

Room to Read has been awarded the coveted four star rating for its sound fiscal management every year since 2006 by Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent evaluator of charities. How has this feat been accomplished?

Room to Read was set up with a clear business model based on sustainability and efficiency. We keep our overhead incredibly low by employing our “cheap and cheerful” motto – watching our expenses and using in-kind donations of airline miles, office space, services and materials whenever possible.

For example, Credit Suisse provides office space in London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Tokyo. The Financial Times gives us office space in New York. Bankers from Barclays Capital and Goldman Sachs have given me more than five million frequent flier miles so that I can travel around the world at no cost.

We take great pride in our financial efficiency, our accountability to donors, and our transparency. Because we believe the best way for projects and programs to succeed is to have them run locally, we maintain offices in each of our countries to do the work in the field.

We also ask that the communities themselves invest in the projects, whether through labor, supplies or services – that approach keeps our expenses lower, but also ensures a local buy-in which makes the libraries and schools a real part of the community.

Our chapter network, the enlistment of 10,000 volunteers in 59 cities who are committed to fundraising and raising awareness about Room to Read, also helps ensure we use every dollar contributed as efficiently as possible. I’d encourage your readers to get involved, starting with checking out

Nepali schoolboy reads to himself in a quiet corner (Source: Room to Read).

How has your background in marketing and sales equipped you for this present job?

The biggest lesson I learned at Microsoft can be summarized by a Steve Ballmer quote: “Go Big, or Go Home!”

I want Room to Read to scale up massively, as there are literally 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. We are now establishing libraries at a rate of six per day!

From the very beginning, we have taken a global view of our problem – there are nearly 800 million illiterate people in the developing world. How, from a business perspective, with a limited capital base, can we reach this many potential “customers”?

My hero Andrew Carnegie opened 2,500 libraries in his lifetime. We have opened over five times that many already and we are just getting started.

Leaving a presumably comfortable job at Microsoft to found Room to Read must have had a significant impact on your life. How has the transition from high-flying executive to children’s literacy advocate been for you and have there been moments when you regretted that decision?

I have to say, one of the biggest adjustments for me upon founding Room to Read was receiving my monthly bank statement and reading the declining bottom line. It got to the point where I stopped opening the statements, as I did not want to lose focus on my work with Room to Read.

On the other hand, I find my current work to be incredibly satisfying in ways that Microsoft never could be and I have no regrets about my career change. While the extravagant vacations that I once took are no longer feasible, some very generous donors and friends who manage hotels offer their ski houses and other great opportunities to unwind.

Sure, I am 48 and still a renter, but my situation is still better off than the majority of the world’s population, so I can’t complain. Also, I have the best job in the world, so money matters less to me than it did in the past when it was often used as “psychic compensation.”

Storytelling time in Laos (Source: Room to Read).

Any advice for people thinking of making the leap from the corporate jungle to join a social enterprise?

The world has a need for great thinkers and doers. Social entrepreneurship is a path that attracts business minded people with a passion to affect change. I have always referred to myself as an action-oriented optimist. I know that there are many others out there like me and the world could use more of us on the front lines. Being a social entrepreneur delivers an unparalleled sense of purpose and the Return on Investments is exponential.

Detractors claim that there is little empirical evidence to show that Room to Read and similar programs that donate education materials improves literacy. How does Room to Read respond to this?

The first thing I’d say is that it’s the easiest thing in the world to be a critic. Are those people actually doing anything themselves to improve the world?

Room to Read is committed to ensuring primary school students become independent readers with the skills and habit of reading. We do much more than just donate materials. We engage in reading & writing instruction to improve the teaching of reading in primary grades through the training of teachers.

Additionally, we create resources and materials that enhance and supplement the existing curriculum, and last year won UNESCO’s Confucius Prize for Literacy for our local language publishing program. This assures that children will, usually for the first time in their young lives, have books in their mother tongue.

We also make substantial investments in research, monitoring & evaluation to collect information about our program activities and results from a variety of sources. For instance, throughout the year Room to Read and its partners continually visit project sites to gather information about program effectiveness using a variety of methods, including surveys and interviews with students, teachers, and administrators. The data collected during our monitoring visits is used to help countries identify best practices and provide better support to projects.

Each of our programs, including reading & writing instruction, has global indicators – measures that show progress towards our program objectives and provide a reliable basis for assessing achievement, change, and performance. Our global indicators are specific to Room to Read’s objectives and are vital to tracking the progress we have made on a national and global scale. The data collected indicates that programs are largely achieving planned objectives and that Room to Read is making progress toward our program goals.

What does the future hold for Room to Read?

We’re just starting our second decade, and I can say that I’ve never been more excited about Room to Read than I am now. We’ve got an incredible team of leaders and staff that will take the organization to a new level of success. I’m confident that we will reach millions more children with our projects and raise awareness of the issue of literacy to people around the globe.

Room to Read’s long-term goal is to help over ten million children to gain the lifelong gift of education by the year 2015. We have recently expanded into our 10th country of operations, Tanzania, and have plans to expand into Indonesia in 2013. We’re leading a movement – a movement that is certain to make a dramatic change in the world.

Lastly, could you tell us what inspired your children’s book Zak the Yak?

Wood's latest book, Zak The Yak.

Zak the Yak tells the story of a yak who delivers children’s books to a Nepalese mountain village with the help of two young Nepali sidekicks. Zak’s adventures are based on my own experience of delivering the very first books to Nepal, and so when I finally took the time to develop his character, it was so much fun.

Working with Abin Shrestha, a talented illustrator from Nepal, we brought Zak to life exactly as I wanted. The response to Zak has been great and has opened up an entire new audience of budding social entrepreneurs. The Republic of Tea stepped in and generously sponsored the printing and distribution of the book – and even gave Zak his own tea! This way, all profits generated from the sale of the book can be donated to Room to Read.

I’m looking forward to sharing the next chapter in Zak’s adventures in the recently released, Zak the Yak and His New Friend Quack! Details can be found on

To read more about Room To Read, visit:


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.

Rebecca Lim is a Singaporean-born medical doctor practising in Melbourne, Austraia. She earned her MBBS degree from Monash University, Australia.

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