Social Capitalists: Profile
By Michael Prospero
Room to Read 
San Francisco, California
Budget: $2 million
In 1998, while on a trek through Nepal, Microsoft executive John Wood was dismayed to find a 30% literacy rate, few schools, and barren libraries. He returned two years later, this time as the founder of Room to Read, an organization that since then has helped build 700 libraries, 63 schools, and 20 computer labs, and has shipped more than 300,000 books to villages in Nepal, India, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Room to Read has also given 412 scholarships to girls in those countries who couldn't afford to go to school otherwise.
"Andrew Carnegie created 1,700 libraries in the United States," Wood says. "The chance to do something like that for the Third World is very exciting."
An uneducated and non-English speaker will earn about $53 month, says Wood, quoting labor statistics in Asia compiled by Ernst & Young. However, they can make $200 a month if they speak English and have computer skills. On one of his most recent trips to Nepal, students talked about computers, programming, and the Internet, and often stayed long after school to work on computers.
Wood's desire to improve education stems from his own childhood. "My parents could never afford all the books I wanted to read," he says. "I don't know what would have happened to me if I didn't have a library in my life."
Part of Room to Read's success lies in the involvement of participating villages, who must first ask for Room to Read's help and provide half the resources for the project, financially and labor-wise.
"It was harder for them to come up with 500 rupees than it was for a U.S. donor to come up with $5,000, so there's a real sense of pride," he says.
Perhaps the greatest measure of Room to Read's success has been, ironically, school overcrowding. In villages where it was estimated that 30 children would go to the school, more than 100 enrolled. "We had to start planning additions," Wood says.
Wood estimates that Room to Read has reached a quarter of a million children so far. That's not nearly enough, though. "My personal goal is to help 10 million children to gain an education," he says. "To do that, we have to create 25,000 schools and libraries. I don't see any reason why we need to think small about this."
John Wood, Founder and chairman
John Wood gave us his executive position with Microsoft to found Room to Read. He holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Business, at Northwestern University, and a BA from the University of Colorado, with concentrations in finance and economic theory. He has been the recipient of the prestigious Draper Richards Foundation Award and the Gleitsman Foundation's Award of Achievement.
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