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.


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