“I’m a senior person here, and I’m the biggest idiot,” Erin Ganju, CEO and co-founder of Room to Read, reflected on how she felt about her experience working in manufacturing for Unilever in Vietnam, back in the 1990s. She loved the work, but it was so clear that the local Vietnamese team was “so much better at getting things done.”
That lesson stayed with Ganju, when she returned to the U.S. to co-found Room to Read, a nonprofit with a budget close to $50 million per year that builds libraries and educates girls, and has scaled its impact throughout Asia and Africa with a team of 1,300 employees across 10 countries serving 10 million children per year.
As CEO, she attributes her success to building communities, investing in relationships, hiring and empowering local leaders to own the design and implementation of the solutions for their countries. “We’ve really held to having our country directors be local nationals, and 88% of our staff worldwide are all local nationals–from country management teams through the programming and field staff.”
This is not the norm for most multinational companies or nonprofits. Whether out of assumptions about unqualified local talent or a need for control, the conventional model is to “hire expatriates, who take on all the senior roles, so you find that your country director, your key leader, is American or British, working in Africa or Asia.”
Ganju’s alternative approach offers a distinct advantage. “A library shouldn’t look the same in Tanzania and Sri Lanka. You want it to be very contextualized, and there are certain key components, but a lot of it comes with the ingenuity and the creativity and the innovation of our staff. The key is to make our libraries work within each country’s education system.”
When she flipped the model from an HQ-driven to a field-driven organization, it required developing practices that left her open to criticism in the nonprofit sector and international aid community.
“There are only so many webinars that we can do to keep us connected,” Ganju says. As a result, travel is one “our most essential budget items, despite all the technology that exists out there.”
Every year Room to Read hosts a five-day country conference and rotates it between the countries in which they operate. It enables their teams, including accounting and finance, in every country to see the work their colleagues are doing in a different setting. They focus on how “we are supporting each other, and how do we, as representatives of Room to Read, feel aligned and empowered as a global organization.”
Though the cost is significant for a nonprofit, Ganju says the ROI has been tremendous. Teams in individual countries are deeply passionate about their work, but when they connect with peers doing the same work in another country all of their passion gets amplified. “There’s no way to translate that in any other way than from coming together and having those bonds as humans doing this work.”
This has been at the core of the organization’s success: incredible team loyalty, resilience, and grit. It has enabled Room to Read to keep evolving and ready to take on the next challenge.
For the past six years, Ganju has taken her daughter, now 10, and mother to live for one to two weeks inside one of the communities they serve. For her, it has been a powerful way to build relationships, make an impact and grow. “I just learn a lot about myself, and I learn a lot about the organization when I’m traveling.”
When she visits one of their offices, Ganju always sets aside time for an agenda-free talk with anyone in the local office who wants to join in. The conversation ranges from strategy to career advice to personal storytelling.
Ganju sees herself as leader of a movement who empowers her colleagues rather than someone who is directing others from the top and telling them what to do. In a similar vein, she sees Room to Read’s mission as one of empowering local communities by creating opportunities—unique spaces—for learning.
Her strongest asset might be how she approaches her job: focusing on relationships and fearlessly forging alliances with everyone who has a stake both inside and outside her organization.
Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and authority on social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation. His book, The Purpose Economy, is now available as a paperback.