In 1998, John Wood was a rising star in the executive ranks of computer giant Microsoft. In only seven years time he had managed to work himself up in the company from trainee to director of Marketing Australia to Director of Marketing for the entire Asia-Pacific region and finally to the position of Director of Business Development for Greater China. Crazy working hours, too many jet lags, an overdemanding and always yelling Steve Balmer and no holidays in those seven years took its toll on an overstressed John and he decided he deserved a holiday.
John Wood opted for a trek in the Himalayas with the Annapurna circuit in Nepal being his main objective. While trekking, he met the “resource director” for some of the schools in the Annapurna Circuit, with whom he visited a primary school that had 450 children and only a handful of books—none age-appropriate. Wood was astonished by the dilapidated state of the classrooms and the lack of books in particular. He was shocked to see that the few books this school possessed –a Danielle Steele romance, the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia, and a few other backpacker castoffs–were so precious that they were kept under lock and key…to protect them from the children!
Upon seeing Wood’s reaction to the lack of books, the school’s headmaster suggested, “Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books?” This inspired Wood and he immediately decided to solicit book donations from family and friends via an email sent from an Internet cafe in Kathmandu. Little did John know that this e-mail would change his life forever.
When back from his holiday Wood got caught up in the every-day corporate rat race again. He completely forgot about his promise to deliver books to the school he visited.
Only two months later Wood got a phone call from his Dad asking him what he should do with all those books in the garage. “Which books?” Wood asked. “The books that all your friends and colleagues sent to our house for that school in Nepal. There is a couple of thousand of books here by now. We should do something with them”.
A year after his last visit, John and his father, accompanied by a train of eight book-bearing donkeys, returned to the village in Nepal delivering 3000 books. Seeing the faces of the children with the books convinced John to leave the corporate world and devote himself to helping these poor and forgotten children in their educational needs.
In late 1999, John quit his executive position with Microsoft and started the charity Room to Read. Beginning in Nepal, John and his Nepali Co-Founder, Dinesh Shrestha, started by working with rural communities to build schools (School Room) and establish libraries (Reading Room).
Initially John struggled with his new life, away from the money and glamour of a corporate executive position, but slowly the Room to Read movement gained momentum.
Only a year after its foundation Room to Read celebrated its first major programmatic milestone by opening their 1,000th library in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The publication of John’s impressive book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World in 2006 became an important vehicle for sharing the Room to Read story. It’s a great mix of adventure and travel that accompany Wood’s charity efforts. The book received extensive media coverage and is now available in 18 languages throughout the world. An appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show further raised Room to Read’s profile. Ever since Room To Read has been one of the fastest growing non-profit organisations in the world and have created a network of over 7,500 libraries and 830 schools throughout rural and poor communities in Asia and Africa.
One of the amazing things about Room to Read is that John Wood managed to apply his successful Mircosoft business practices into the world of non-profits: clear and transparent reporting, goal driven and maximum cost saving. With an overhead of only 17% Room to Read is the most efficient operating non-profit in a world where a 35% ratio for charities is normally considered excellent practise.
John has been recognized in the worldwide media as a “21st century Andrew Carnegie,” building a public library infrastructure to help the developing world break the cycle of poverty through the lifelong gift of education.
Kickass guy that John Wood. The world should be glad he went hiking in Nepal!