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John Wood '89

John Wood '89

Transforming Lives

By Kevin Hoban based on the reporting of Matt Golosinski and Deborah Leigh Wood

John Wood didn’t go to Nepal looking for a life-changing experience.

The 1989 Kellogg School graduate says he just needed a break from the corporate life at Microsoft, where he had worked for seven years before he started experiencing burnout. What began as an exotic vacation put him face-to-face with the direst poverty he had ever seen.

Trekking through the cold Himalayan mountain passes that took him from one poor, remote village to another, Wood recalled the words of his one-time Kellogg professor, Gene Lavengood: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

The lesson hit home as he stared into the faces of children who rushed up to him as he entered their communities; children so poor they were beyond asking for money. They just wanted a pencil.

“These people were living on a dollar a day — I was amazed at the lack of resources,” says Wood. “Their schools were just collections of dead branches, sheet metal and dirt floors. What they called ‘libraries’ might have a total of 25 books for more than 200 kids. And the books were cast-offs from trekkers -- stuff children would never read.  It was not just that they were living in poverty, but also that there was poverty of opportunity.”

Experiences like this forced Wood into a deeper understanding of Lavengood’s adage.

“He wasn’t only talking about sharing material goods, but about an obligation to make a difference using your intelligence to help others,” says Wood.

The realization led him to quit Microsoft and, in 2000, he founded Room to Read, a San Francisco-based nonprofit devoted to building libraries and schools in under-developed countries such as Cambodia, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Laos.

Today, the organization has facilitated construction of more than 440 schools and established over 5,100 libraries and 155 computer and language labs throughout six countries.  It has stocked those libraries with over 4 million books. In most of these countries, young girls are the last to receive an education, but Room to Read has provided 4036 long-term scholarships to ensure that they have an opportunity to study and advance their futures.  Due to Wood’s fund-raising prowess and constant “circling of the globe to talk to those with resources”, nearly 3,000 girls will join the program this year alone

Most people, he says, don’t realize that nearly one billion people throughout the world cannot read or write. “I don’t see how we’re going to solve the world’s problems without literacy,” says Wood,. By the year 2020, Room to Read plans to have helped 10 million children gain the lifelong gift of education.

Wood says his organization operates by hiring “smart entrepreneurial” individuals who live in the countries that Room to Read serves. These entrepreneurs then locate and work with communities that need libraries and schools. The communities co-invest by way of land, volunteer labor and small cash donations. Room to Read supplies the bricks, mortar and blueprint.

“Fortunately, our model is so efficient that we can build a school for between $20,000 and $30,000,” Wood says. “We can set up a small library and support its’ development for just $4,000 with 400 kids accessing the library, that equates to $10 per child. I can think of no better long-term philanthropic investment than having a small amount of money create a change that will last for generations”

In October of 2004, Time magazine named Wood and the Room to Read team one of its 20 “Asian Heroes of 2004.” He is a two-time receipient of the Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and was chosen as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum at Davos.  He is also a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

With requests pouring in to Room to Read from across the globe, the organization’s success story is still being written as it expands to new regions.  “This is my destiny – to build one of the world’s most far-reaching and impactful NGOs, one whose effect will be felt long after all of us have left the earth.   The training I received at Kellogg set me up well to be a social entrepreneur, even if back in 1989 that term had not even yet been invented!”

Posted June 2008


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