John Wood is in too much of a hurry to revel in the splendor of a fall morning in San Francisco. The 38-year-old Microsoft alumnus (he was the company’s director of business development for China before he left) is driving to work at his organization’s new headquarters in the Presidio. Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge are visible in the distance, but Wood, like any impatient founder, is more concerned with the emails he has to answer, the meetings he has to arrange, the presentations he has to make.
And he’s concerned with one more thing: the fact that more than 850 million people around the world can’t read. Wood is the founder of Room to Read, a nonprofit group that builds schools and libraries for children in Asia. “There are nearly 1 billion illiterate people in the world,” says Wood. “My goal is to help 10 million children achieve literacy by 2010.”
Without question, he has a long way to go. But it’s hard to argue with the results so far. In just three years, Room to Read has established 300 school libraries, built 25 schools, donated more than 140,000 books, set up 11 computer rooms, and awarded 100 scholarships to fund the education of young girls. Most of this work has taken place in Nepal, but Room to Read is also building schools and libraries in Vietnam, and there are plans to expand into Cambodia and India. As Wood speaks, a cargo ship steams from San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City, carrying more than 30,000 books such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and Math in Action. In a few weeks, Nguyen Hoai Nam, Room to Read’s program director for Vietnam, will meet the ship and, in partnership with the city’s Department of Education and Training, deliver books to schools.
Still, 10 million children? Wood is unfazed. Achieving that goal means doubling the number of kids his organization reaches every year for the next eight years. “Why is that not possible?” he asks. “Microsoft doubled every year in its early days. Cisco more than doubled every year. I worked in a lot of different organizations at Microsoft that doubled year to year, and none of us thought it was incredible.”
As John Wood is starting his day, more than halfway around the world, Bala Krishna Shrestha is finishing his — and putting Wood’s work to good use. Shrestha is headmaster of Pashupati Kanya High School, a 600-student, all-girls school in a bustling mountain village called Charikot in northeastern Nepal. The school is on a long slope of land, in the lap of one of the highest mountains in the Himalayas, next to an army camp and surrounded by a dense forest.
Today, like many other school days during the past year, a handful of students arrive a good half hour before school starts at 10 AM. “They come for the books,” says Shrestha, whose teaching career spans more than half of his life. “There is no public library. Our little room of books is the only place where the students can go to widen their knowledge. They are very curious, and they like the colorful pictures in the books. They have never seen anything like this.”
Man on a (New) Mission
This is the time of year when successful executives pause long enough to question the meaning of their success. If I’m doing so well, why aren’t I happier? If I’ve achieved so much, why don’t I feel a greater sense of satisfaction? A few weeks after the holidays, though, the questions begin to fade, replaced by more businesslike concerns. Will our new product ship on time? Why is our stock underperforming?
John Wood asked himself the big questions and then answered them with action. He spent most of the 1990s at Microsoft. It was the era when the company sealed its dominance and began minting millionaires (more than 7,000 at last count) almost as fast as it shipped software. Wood was director of marketing for Microsoft Australia, where he oversaw the launch of Windows 98 and planned for a visit by Bill Gates to the World Economic Forum in Melbourne. Wood had 70 people reporting to him and was, by all accounts, at the top of his game. “I had achieved a certain definition of success,” Wood says. “But I wasn’t going to stick around to see if I could continue to run up the score on stock options.”
Wood was 34 and single enough to be able to travel the world for an indefinite period of time. But he didn’t take a leave of absence; he quit. “Microsoft wanted to give me a three-month sabbatical, but I knew that three months would not be enough time,” he explains. “If you want to figure out your path in life, you can’t have an end date on the exploration.”
Wood set off on a whirlwind backpacking trip and began searching for the “second act” of his adult life. He didn’t expect to find it so quickly. Two days into an 18-day trek along the popular Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, he struck up a conversation with a schoolteacher and was invited to visit a local school in a village that was a two-day walk from the nearest road. He was shocked by what he saw. “They gave me a tour of the ‘library,’ and it was just this big empty room,” he recalls. “I looked around and didn’t see any books, and I said, without being obnoxious, ‘This is a great library, but where exactly are the books?’ “
It turns out that the books — all 20 or so of them, castoffs from backpackers — were locked up in a cabinet. “The school was worried that the kids would damage them. The irony of that never escaped me.”
At the urging of the school, Wood left that day with a homework assignment: Get more books. Back in Kathmandu, he sent an email to 100 or so friends and colleagues. He described his experience and asked them to ship books to his parents’ home in Colorado. Within a month, more than 3,000 books had arrived (Wood’s father had to move his car out of the garage to make room). “I wish I had saved that original email,” Wood says wistfully, “because it turned out to be a seminal moment in my life. When I hit the ‘send’ button on that message, I put into play something that ended up being so much bigger than I ever thought it would be.”
But Wood didn’t reinvent himself immediately. Shortly after returning from his trek, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse and rejoined Microsoft, this time in China. He continued his work in Nepal, expanding beyond books to building schools. Then, in the summer of 1999, he made his third trip to Nepal. And at the first of two school-opening ceremonies there, he realized that it was time to turn his extracurricular activities into a full-time pursuit. “I loved my job,” Wood says. “I thought Microsoft was a great company, and I loved working there. But seeing those new schools and seeing the pride of the villagers — it was one of the most amazing moments in my life.”
He returned home and left Microsoft for good.
All Heart, All Business
At one level, a day for John Wood at Room to Read is a lot like a day at Microsoft. He works hard: 12-hour days and weekends at the office are not uncommon. His schedule is packed with speaking engagements and meetings. He spends several hours a day on email.
At another level, Wood’s world looks very different. His desk is a beat-up banquet table. His wall art is a map of Vietnam with pins — blue for schools, yellow for language labs, green for computer labs — showing where Room to Read has made its mark. His notepad is a red rice-paper journal that he bought at a women’s cooperative in Kathmandu.
This blend of the hard-charging world of Microsoft and the gentler work of social change runs throughout Room to Read. For example, Wood is a fanatic about minimizing costs. Until this year, overhead was less than 5% of total donations. Even now, as Room to Read ramps up for growth, overhead will account for less than 10% of total donations.
Amazingly, despite Wood’s big plans and impressive results, the group’s paid headquarters staff is exactly one: Erin Keown, who had co-led efforts to build a school while based in Unilever’s office in Ho Chi Minh City. Keown, who moved to San Francisco as part of the dotcom wave, is the organization’s executive director. (As founder and president, Wood collects no salary.) Keown is responsible for grant writing and fund-raising efforts, overseeing volunteers, and monitoring how schools and libraries get used once they have been built. “We want to go back to schools in six months and see handprints all over the books,” she says.
There’s another critical part of the Room to Read formula: maintaining high expectations for the beneficiaries. It takes $5,000 in outside contributions to build a school in Nepal — surprisingly little for a successful American executive but an unimaginable fortune for a typical villager in Nepal, who survives on less than $1 a day. But Room to Read “challenges” villages to pay for half of the project before it will begin work. The village has to raise money from its residents or contribute labor and building materials. In many cases, the process of meeting the “challenge grant” takes longer than the process of building the school. But Room to Read believes that it’s worth the wait. “It’s about ownership,” says Keown. “The challenge grants are as much about creating an educational infrastructure as they are about initiating social change.”
Wood has high expectations of his beneficiaries, but he encourages donors to maintain high expectations of him. His value proposition is simple: He presents the problem, the solution, and a price tag — and tracks results. Donate $5,000, and you are guaranteed that a school will be built. Better still, the school will have a dedication plaque that bears your name or whatever name you choose. And you’ll receive (via email) reports and digital photos that update you on construction, capture the dedication ceremony, and document how the children are doing. “We believe that if somebody gives us money, he is owed progress reports,” says Wood. “He deserves to know how his money is being spent.”
There’s a side benefit too. Donors who are excited about the impact of their money pass along the emails to friends, colleagues, and family. Their updates become a form of viral marketing for Room to Read. Wood himself composes a monthly email that goes out to more than 2,000 donors, volunteers, and supporters. They are partly letters from the road, partly reports on the organization. “Those emails inevitably lead to new volunteers and even to new donors,” Wood says. “They become an immediate feedback loop. We don’t send out paper reports, in part because of the expense, but also because it discourages viral marketing.”
Wood’s next report will be in November from Nepal, after he completes his first-ever trek with donors. “If you send someone an email with the subject line, ‘Greetings from Kathmandu,’ they’re likely to read it,” he quips.
So is Wood ready for a break from the dizzying pace of life after Microsoft? Not exactly. “We’ve helped 100,000 kids gain access to books so far,” he says. “That is one one-hundredth of 1% of the illiterate people on this earth. So congratulations. Get your ass back to work.”
Christine Canabou (email@example.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. Contact John Wood (firstname.lastname@example.org) by email.