It was like a "literacy-palooza" with kids "stage-diving for books." That was the scene that John Wood describes as his "game-over moment," or the moment he decided to quit Microsoft and pursue his non-profit organization, Room to Read, full-time.
Wood had gone on a hiking trip in Nepal and witnessed conditions of extreme poverty. The deplorable conditions were particularly pronounced at a school in a remote village. Not only were 80 or so kids crammed into a single classroom without desks, their library had no books.
"We're too poor to afford education," the school's headmaster told Wood, "but until we get education we'll always be poor." Wood left the country determined to change all of that. After witnessing the initial book-drive-literacy-palooza referenced above, Wood became a man on a mission.
We know that educated people live longer lives. We know that educated women earn more money and are healthier. We know that educated men are less likely to fight in civil wars or commit acts of terrorism. And yet, we also know that 780 million people are illiterate in the developing world. To put it another way, 98 percent of the people in the world who are illiterate live in the poorest parts of the world. Wood, who did well for himself at Microsoft but did not have the resources of an Andrew Carnegie, faced an uphill battle. How could he get other people to help him reverse the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy in the poorest countries in the world?
In the video below, Wood describes how he developed a co-investment model that paired "mini-Carnegie" investors with people in the local communities. So rather than dumping surplus goods in the form of "hand-outs," Wood developed a self-help model in which parents who realized that education is a ticket out of poverty had skin in the game, making the "hand-ups" sustainable.
John Wood is the founder and board co-chair of Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization focused on literacy and gender equality in education in Asia and Africa that has reached over 6 million children. Wood described his experience of founding Room to Read in his book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children. He is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative's Advisory Board and is a frequent lecturer at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and NYU's Stern School of Business.