Recap: John Wood in Edmonton

“Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books”.

One sentence would change John Wood’s life. It was 1999, and Wood was a rising star in Microsoft’s executive ranks. At the time stationed in Australia, Wood had achieved material and career success at a relatively young age. Taking his first vacation in years, he decided to spend three weeks backpacking through Nepal. Early on his trip, he stopped by a school in the remote mountain areas. The school was without books, at least functional ones that the students could understand. It was here that his guide, a school administrator, uttered the famous phrase.

John Wood
John Wood speaking at the luncheon in Edmonton.

Wood, an avid reader since childhood, had an epiphany. By that night he was putting together in his head the plan that would lead to Room to Read. At the end of his trip, he sent out an email to friends requesting their donation of children’s books or money to purchase books. The response was overwhelming; over 3000 books were collected, and the following year, accompanied by his 73 year-old father, Wood made the return trip to deliver books, as promised. The rest, as they say, is history.

I first heard about Wood two years ago, as his story was mentioned in Bill Clinton’s book “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World”. Intrigued, I borrowed Wood’s book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World”, from the Edmonton Public Library and enjoyed it greatly. Not only is it a great and inspirational story, but Wood is very balanced in telling it; he talks about the challenges and the trade-offs sometimes involved in pursuing your dreams.

Last November, the Edmonton chapter of Room to Read was formally launched. I got involved earlier this year, and have volunteered a couple of times (and plan on volunteering more). In conjunction with the University of Alberta, the chapter helped bring John Wood to Edmonton for two days of events. I had the pleasure of attending his luncheon on Monday.

Luncheon Guests
The Room to Read luncheon, featuring John Wood.

A couple of things quickly become apparent about Wood when he speaks. One, he is funny. Two, partly because of the previous point, he’s quite an engaging speaker. He made a number of jokes, starting with one about getting his book title (Leaving Microsoft to Change the World) before Bill Gates could.

Wood is a very good communicator. The luncheon was a fundraiser, and he took full advantage of the opportunity to sell the organization. He went over the history of the organization, and rattled off some impressive statistics from the 9-year history of the organization. Since it’s inception, Room to Read Has:

– Built 765 schools.
– Published 333 books in the native languages of the countries it works in.
– Provided 7132 girls with scholarships to attend schools.
– Built 7168 libraries.

This year alone, it will build 2000 libraries and 250 schools.

John Wood Presentation

It was also noted that there are 40 volunteer-run chapters throughout the world, and in 2008, they raised 25% of Room to Read’s overall budget. Focusing on the importance of the work Room to Read does, he talked about some of the problems that stem from a lack of education, particularly when girls don’t go to school, and touched on his own history as well.

Moving along in his speech, Wood covered the organization’s business model, based on a concept he calls “Collaborative Global Networks, at a Significant Scale”. In a nutshell, it involves partnerships, and buy-in from various stakeholders and groups. For example, the Room to Read head office in San Francisco coordinates the building of a school in Nepal, but funds are raised in various locations worldwide, a wealthy local donates land for the school, the community receiving the school commits to a number of volunteer hours to ensure it’s built, and the Nepalese Ministry of Education agrees to staff it with an appropriate amount of teachers. He also stressed the importance of working within the culture – 90% of Room to Read employees are local nationals. This is an approach I strongly approve of. It empowers the local community.

The local approach continues with their selection of books. Most of the titles are produced by locals, and are available in English and the local native language. Wood stated that the goal is not so much to bring Dr. Seuss to these countries, but to find “the Dr. Seusses and JK Rowlings of the developing world”. This is all part of an approach he called giving “a hand up, not a hand out”.

Media Interview

Wood closed by talking about the impressive and ambitious plans for the future. There are plans to open the 10,000th library next April in Nepal, and there are growth targets for 2015 as well (I can’t find the exact figures in my notes). The goal is to demonstrate that the social sector can scale up just like business. In fact, Wood noted that Starbucks opened just over 1000 locations in the 8 years after it’s IPO. Room to Read, in its first 8 years, built more schools and libraries than that.

While the speech’s primary focus was on promoting the organization and raising funds, it’s hard not to feel inspired afterward. John Wood is someone I’ve admired greatly since I first read his book. Hearing him speak about not just the accomplishments, but the goals and motives that drive them towards the accomplishments. As I said when writing about Craig Kielburger’s keynote at the Global Youth Assembly, the inspiration is less in the specific initiative and more in seeing someone discover their passion and how to pursue it. Wood is someone who walked away from a successful career and the material comforts that came along with it to pursue something risky that he believed in. Many of us talk about doing that, but few do. He deserves to be commended for taking the risk, and seeing his dream through to fruition.

After his speech, emcee Carrie Doll asked him if he was living his dream. With a smile on his face and no reservations, he responded with an enthusiastic “yes”. Not all of us want to build libraries and schools in the developing world. But we all have passions and we all have dreams. People like John Wood remind us that we can reach them.

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

You can see my full photo gallery from the event here.


Music Monday: 25 Songs About a Girl(‘s Name)

I’m trying something different with Music Monday today. I didn’t attend any concerts this week, foolishly skipping Jason Mraz Saturday evening and turning down Elliott Brood tickets Saturday night on account of an early (and long) day Sunday, so I have no reviews to pass on. Instead, I’m going to pass on some song recommendations.

It would be too easy to just pick an assortment of songs, so I picked a theme. While listening to Elvis Costello this week, I began to think about the best songs whose title is a girl’s name (inspired by his two amazing songs “Veronica” and “Allison” More on them later). I wondered if I could construct a full list. To limit it further, we’re only taking songs titled that consist solely of a name, so no “Anna Begins” by Counting Crows, much to my chagrin. Here’s what I came up with instead.

Here are 24 of my favourites, with an additional song thrown in because it inspired the title of this post. I’ve even assembled these songs as a playlist on for your listening pleasure.

Happy Monday! Here are the songs. with blurbs and bonus links for a few of my favourites.

The Academy Is… – About A Girl
This great pop-punk song inspired the title of the post, so it gets a bonus inclusion. Worth a listen in any case.
Arkells – Abigail
Ben Folds Five – Kate
Two Hours Traffic – Jezebel
Jack Johnson – Taylor

Love the guitar work throughout this, especially at the beginning.
The Allman Brothers – Melissa
Elvis Costello – Veronica
Franz Ferdinand – Jacqueline

A great song with a great guitar riff; probably my favourite off of their eponymously titled debut album.
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
When I was running in a student council election back in my university days, I was out campaigning and I introduced myself to a girl who told me her name was Rhiannon. I responded “have you heard the Fleetwood Mac song “Rhiannon”, to which she replied, tersely, “everyone says that to me”. Suffice to say, I’m pretty sure she didn’t vote for me. True story. If you’re reading this, sorry about that, Rhiannon.
The Kinks – Lola
Death Cab for Cutie – Cath…

Having listened to it a few times recently, I can say that ‘Narrow Stairs’ is a totally underrated album.
Ray Lamontagne – Jolene
Just a beautiful, haunting song. I also recommend Hannah, but I couldn’t find a good version of on Instead, YouTube comes to the rescue. Check out this great version.
Simon & Garfunkel – Mrs. Robinson
Going old school! Great lyrics, great tune, from a great movie (The Graduate). I especially love the part about Joe DiMaggio.
The Lemonheads – Mrs. Robinson
Great cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic.
The Allman Brothers – Jessica
The lone instrumental. Such great work from the Allman Brothers here. If this song doesn’t pick up your day, nothing will.
Fenix TX – Phoebe Cates
Metro Station – Kelsey
A surprise inclusion? This song sounds to me like a synth-pop Third Eye Blind tune. A marriage that works quite well in my books. Don’t judge until you’ve listened.
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
I was at a shopping mall on a random Saturday this summer. I walked into a store and “Billie Jean” was on. I stopped, and thought to myself, “this is a really good song”. I had forgotten, not having listened to much MJ for so many years. Five days later, the King of Pop was dead and we all rediscovered his music.
Bonus “Billie Jean” covers: Mos Def and Steven Page/Danny Michel.
Blink 182 – Josie
I became a Blink fan listening to ‘Dude Ranch’ in Grade 10. This is one of my favourite tracks, an homage to an excellent girlfriend. How can you not love a girl who stays up late watching “Vacation”.
The Police – Roxanne
Goo Goo Dolls – Iris
Rod Stewart – Maggie May
Barenaked Ladies – Jane

Ben Folds – Gracie
Elvis Costello – Alison
Saving the best for last. Probably my favourite tune on this list. Everything about it is top-notch. The tight, melodic sound. Elvis’ voice. The words, a combination of resignation and a final plea. So, so, so good. My favourite Elvis tune of all time.

As a bonus, here he is playing it on his first ever television appearance. Enjoy!

Recap: Akbar Ganji in Edmonton

Sunday afternoon, I went to see Akbar Ganji speak. Ganji, a well know Iranian journalist and dissident, was in Edmonton to deliver the closing keynote address at Towards ‘the Dignity of Difference’ conference being held at the University of Alberta.

The Audience
A view from near the back of the room.

In his youth, Ganji supported the Islamic revolution, later serving in the Revolutionary Guards Corps. He eventually became disenchanted with the regime, turning to journalism. He came to prominence investigating the murder of dissident authors in Iran. He was eventually jailed by the regime, and gained worldwide attention for his 80 day hunger strike in 2005, while in prison. He was released the following year and now lives abroad.

Speaking in Farsi (with a translation delivering his remarks in English), Ganji delivered a talk titled “Iran and the West: Confrontation or Dialogue?”. Conference organizers handed out a supporting paper, which I have loaded here. Ganji remarked earlier on that he was deviating some from the advertised topic, and focused more on the situation in Iran, and the history since the revolution 30 years ago.

Akbar Ganji

Regarding dialogue between Iran and the west, he outlined some problems (such as the Green Revolution’s view of the government as illegitemate), but argued for engagement from the west regardless. He made an excellent point, noting that isolation of countries such as Cuba and North Korea hasn’t brought about change, contrasting this with the approach of the European Community with Turkey. By bringing Turkey into the fold, they can exert pressure and demand higher standards in terms of human rights, for example.

Ganji then continued to make a well thought out argument for a secular government in Iran. 30 years ago, Iran lacked the pre-conditions for a successful transition to democracy; he believes they exist now. He also believes in opening up Iran to foreign investment; he pointed out how China opened their economic borders 30 years ago and have led the world in economic growth since.

Akbar Ganji

In essence, he is arguing for a true liberal-democratic state. Secular, with free elections and the respect of human rights as a foundation. He issued critiques of governments in the middle east and the west, arguing that the fundamentalists in Iran, Israel, and the United States (until this year), in effect, kept each other in business. His claim that you can’t have dialogue between fundamentalists prompted the professor sitting behind me to audibly utter “bullshit” to his two colleagues beside him.

While most of his arguments on Iran were standard fare from academics, he made some salient points. He reminded us that the problems in the Middle East cannot be solved in isolation. What happens in Gaza affects the situation in Iran, and vice-versa. He argued for the value of social networks, which he sees happening in Iran. Without a trace of irony, given the location, he argued against filtering these social networks through a single political party, since that would be detrimental to the political culture. His most poignant criticism came at the end, when he criticized groups like Hamas and Hezbollah for winning an election, then changing the rules so future elections wouldn’t be competitive. In his words, “democracy has an expiry date”. You must be able to go to the polls and have confident that your vote will count and the government may change.

I would have enjoyed this talk much more had Ganji focused on his personal story, particularly his journalistic efforts and his time in jail. Most of the talk consisted of standard points and arguments on Iran. If there’s a takeaway from that end of his talk, it’s a re-emphasis of the value of dialogue, and of understanding the culture you’re trying to interact with and understand. I just wish Ganji had gone more in depth with that, and told us more of his story. That would have helped us understand Iran more than his general arguments did.