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Room to Read

More than 850 million people in the world lack basic literacy skills. A Kellogg alumnus aims to reduce that number. Significantly.


by Asa Church

“Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books,” the village headmaster suggested. John Wood, then marketing director for Microsoft in Australia, can still hear those poignant words reverberating in his head. It was 1998, and Wood (KSM89) was taking a well-deserved break from the frenetic pace of the corporate world by backpacking in Nepal. Amazed by the beauty and serenity of the place, Wood was also struck by the abject poverty of the villages that he encountered.

While visiting a small run-down school in the Lamjung district, in the Gandaki zone of north-central Nepal, he made a discovery that would alter the course of his life. He found, instead of a library, an empty room with just a handful of tattered books, cast off by trekkers and kept locked up because of their preciousness. Wood wondered how the schools of Nepal could ever teach their children to read without books. He promised the headmaster that he would return with his arms full.

Spurred into action, Wood immediately e-mailed a passionate request from the nearest Kathmandu cybercafé to every person in his address book, asking for financial support and book donations. Within a matter of months 3,000 books arrived at his parents’ home in Colorado. Accompanied by his father, Woody, Wood traveled to Nepal and delivered the books to the village — by donkey train — with the help of Kathmandu Lions Club volunteer Dinesh Shrestha. The schoolchildren and their teachers thanked them with hugs, handmade signs and garlands of marigolds.

The welcome made Wood realize the desperate need for books in Nepal. So Wood and Shrestha co-founded the organization Books for Nepal, which soon received hundreds of requests from schools. When Wood read a United Nations report that an estimated 850 million people worldwide lack basic literacy, he soon decided to expand the group’s focus to build schools and libraries throughout Asia and renamed the organization Room to Read.

Back at Microsoft, Wood was wrestling with a midcareer crisis. He was recruited to a new role as director of business development for the Greater China region and had only recently moved to Beijing. But in 1999 Wood quit the company for good in order to devote himself to Room to Read, now a global organization based in San Francisco.

To date, the international nonprofit has built more than 220 schools, established 3,300 libraries, donated more than 2 million books and provided long-term scholarships to more than 2,300 schoolgirls. But with millions of children lacking adequate access to books throughout the developing world, Room to Read has just begun.

Room to Read expanded to South Africa in 2006, and the organization will partner with several more countries in Africa this year. Room to Read plans to launch in Latin America in 2008. What began as a simple pledge to a dedicated headmaster became a dream, and that dream is becoming a reality in thousands of children’s lives every day.

Growing up in Athens, Penn., Wood was known for his voracious appetite for reading and an ambitious entrepreneurial spirit. As a child Wood convinced his local librarian to make a special arrangement for him, raising the lending limit from eight to 12 books. And when his parents forbade him from selling his paintings to his neighbors, Wood contracted a friend to sell them for him. “For every painting sold, he got 1 cent, I took 4,” Wood explains. “So I think being an entrepreneur has always been in my blood.”

After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Wood began to consider business schools while working in Chicago. “The reason I chose Kellogg,” says Wood, “was because it has the biggest emphasis on teamwork and general management, the key elements of a leader.”

One of Wood’s Kellogg School of Management professors, the late Gene Lavengood (see “In Memoriam,” News on Campus, winter 2006), had a famous classroom adage: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Wood took those words to heart. “He wasn’t only talking about sharing material goods, but about an obligation to make a difference using your intelligence to help others,” Wood said in a spring 2002 interview with Kellogg World.

Wood’s desire to think big and exercise inspiring leadership won him a coveted job with Microsoft during some of the most exciting moments of the ’90s tech boom.

Wood says that his time at Microsoft prepared him well for the challenge of founding and managing an international nonprofit. “The most powerful lesson I learned while at Microsoft can be summarized by CEO Steve Ballmer’s quote: ‘Go Big, or Go Home!’” says Wood. “From the very beginning [of Room to Read], we have taken a global view of our problem — there are 850 million illiterate individuals in the developing world. How, from a business perspective, with a limited capital base, can we reach this many potential ‘customers’?”

Education is the key to self-sufficiency, Wood says. “Too much of charity is a Band-Aid or a free gift to the poor. I know this will sound like a cliché, but education is a hand up, not a handout.”

Room to Read empowers the communities that it works in through co-investment. If a community will commit to raising a certain percentage of building costs, often paid in the form of labor and materials, Room to Read will pay for the rest. Room to Read also invests in its partner countries by building from the ground up, hiring directly from the local communities it serves.

In addition to building and supplying libraries and schools, Room to Read is working to ensure that more girls are educated in developing countries. “A lot of times, people in these countries tend to send only the oldest son to school,” explains Muneer Satter (WCAS83), co-chair of the Room to Read board of directors. “We’ve put in place Room to Grow, a scholarship program to encourage parents to send their girls to school.”

Wood touts the efficiency and the cost-effectiveness of the Room to Read model and the results it produces. “We are doing something that has never been done before,” he says. “There is no Andrew Carnegie for the developing world. He built 3,000 libraries; we will have built 5,000 by next year.”

Rather than relying on the personal wealth of a few philanthropists, Wood has built a model of support composed of Room to Read volunteer chapters across the United States and in Asia, Australia and Europe. The chapters allow Room to Read to network with the world’s wealthiest citizens and win them over to its cause. Investors in Room to Read can sponsor their own school room (for $15,000) or library (for $8,000) and receive regular updates on its construction and use. At one Hong Kong chapter event, a volunteer raised $350,000 in a single night.

The vision of Room to Read is clearly contagious. After attending Northwestern on scholarship, Joni Rendon (C92), a freelance writer in London, wanted to find a way to help improve the education of less-fortunate individuals. When she heard about Room to Read, she eagerly volunteered. Dean Chan (KSM95) discovered Room to Read through a profile of Wood in Kellogg’s alumni magazine, and he now heads the United Kingdom division of the organization.

In fact, seven classmates from Wood’s graduating class endowed one of Room to Read’s first schools, seven classrooms in all. Outside of the Kellogg community, Room to Read has been recognized yearly as a premier nonprofit organization, receiving four Social Capitalist Awards from Fast Company magazine and the Monitor Group and recently earning a Social Entrepreneurship award from the Sand Hill Group Foundation in April 2006. Wood also recently published a book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World (Collins, 2006), an account of his vision and Room to Read’s route to success.

Wood is quick to deflect credit from himself. “My story is very closely tied to the Room to Read story, but it’s very important to realize that there is a real team behind me. Things would continue to fire at full speed, even without me,” Wood insists. Satter describes Wood as someone who “is deeply committed and passionate about helping the world, but on the other hand he’s not a rose-colored glasses do-gooder. This is a guy who gets things done.”

Room to Read’s frenzied approach to expansion seems to prove just that. Between countless investor meetings, media interviews and planning sessions with key leadership members, Wood is ensuring that more than a thousand schools and libraries open every year. “We have what we call the Starbucks test,” says Wood. “If they can open Starbucks at a rapid rate, why can’t we open schools and libraries at the same rate?”

Asa Church is a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior from Bellmawr, N.J.

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at

Wood delivers books by any means available, here with a yak-load on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal in 2001.
Wood delivers books by any means available, here with a yak-load on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal in 2001. Photo by Diane Ettelson
John Wood with students at the opening of Room to Read’s 1,000th Reading Room, in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
John Wood with students at the opening of Room to Read’s 1,000th Reading Room, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by Jason Coates
The Room to Read staff in Vietnam, based in Ho Chi Minh City, has established 161 libraries and 57 schools since its founding in 2001. Thuy Mong Pham, fourth from left, is the program director for Vietnam.
The Room to Read staff in Vietnam, based in Ho Chi Minh City, has established 161 libraries and 57 schools since its founding in 2001. Thuy Mong Pham, fourth from left, is the program director for Vietnam. Photo by Jennifer Wedekind (J06)