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Former Microsoft Exec Gives World's Children 'Room to Read'

In 1998, John Wood had a staff of 70 and was in charge of marketing throughout Asia for the giant U.S. software company, Microsoft. Although he enjoyed the challenge of his job and its financial rewards, he was restless and looking for greater meaning to his life.

Discovering His New Calling

The Colorado native set off to Nepal on an 18-day trek and discovered a new calling when he visited a village school attended by 450 children. None of them had a single book.

In fact, the 20 books in the school library were considered so precious they were kept locked up. "There were so few of them the headmaster was worried about the children damaging them." Wood recalls. "I said, 'You know what, I can come back some day with literally hundreds of books and give your kids access to their first proper library.'"

Sending e-mail appeals for donations to 100 colleagues and friends, Wood soon collected more than 3,000 books. The following year, he returned to the village to deliver them. On that journey, he decided to leave his job for good. He was 35 years old.

Own Love of Reading Shapes Mission

"I thought to myself: how can we live in a world that has so much material abundance yet be lacking something as fundamental as a school library where kids can go to read from a young age?"

Wood says his parents instilled in him a love of education and reading a young age. "It was a ritual in our family to go to the library and check out books. And my goal in leaving Microsoft was to bring that same gift of education and access to books to kids across a wide, wide swath of the world."

To achieve that goal, John Wood founded the non-profit organization Room to Read in 1999. "I certainly heard from people who said, 'You're crazy. You're leaving Microsoft, and you're going to devote yourself to setting up libraries in Vietnam and Cambodia and Nepal and South Africa? Why are you going to do that?'" he recalls, adding, "there are, unfortunately, too many people out there who will tell you why something can't be done."

Wood suggests, "much of human progress has happened because of people ignoring their critics and ignoring those people." Ignoring his critics, John Wood and his Room to Read operation have helped set up 3,000 libraries and 200 schools in countries across Asia and Africa.

Community Support

All of the funding comes from private sources, from large corporations and individuals in the United States and abroad. Wood is quick to point out that none of the facilities would have been built without the support of the local communities. "We don't actually build the school or library for the village. We ask them to co-invest with us."

He says that usually means villagers donate the labor needed to build a school a library. "And in many of these villages, people are already working long days out in the fields tending their crops," Wood says. "But then they are also coming in at night or in the early morning, digging the foundation or carrying the bags of cement from the roadside, two hours up a steep mountain path to their village."

He says he never ceases to be inspired by parents who are willing to work those long hours because they want their children to get an education.

Once a school or library is built, it is up to the community to run it, but Wood says Room to Read keeps in touch and frequently adds to the library's collection.

The organization works with local writers and illustrators to print children's books in native languages. Wood says Room to Read has put an estimated two million books in English and native languages into the hands of children in Nepal, Cambodia, India, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and South Africa.

Scholarships for Girls

Recognizing that, in much of the world, two-thirds of the illiterate population is female, Room to Read began offering scholarships to girls last year. "I think a boy not going to school is a tragedy," Wood says, "but I think a girl not going to school is almost an even bigger tragedy, because it's quite often the women who educate the next generation."

Room to Grow is currently providing scholarships to about 2,000 girls to cover the cost of school fees, uniforms, supplies, tutoring, transportation, medical check-ups, lunch money and field trips. The organization has made a long-term commitment to support each student's education through secondary school as long she attends classes and gets passing grades.

Looking to the Future

For his part, John Wood took a little time away from Room to Read to publish his own book this year, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Like any successful corporate executive, the CEO of Room to Read stays focused on the "business," and he is looking to expand. "We are trying to take the same approach to literacy that a company, be it Microsoft or Starbucks or any big company, would take to say if there are millions of people who want our product, we need to think big about getting out there," he says, adding his goal would be "to help at least 10 million children to get access to schools and libraries."

That may be ambitious, but Microsoft's former marketing executive says, "If a company can serve millions of customers, why can't a non-profit educate millions of children?"

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