The NWC Interivew: John Wood, Founder, Room to Read

The former Microsoft executive and founder of "Room to Read," a nonprofit promoting literacy around the world, talks about scaling up, his previous employer, and charity.

December 15, 2006

3 Min Read
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John WoodFounder, Room to Read

What position did you hold with Microsoft before you left to start Room to Read?

When I left in 1999 I was director of business development for the greater China region.

Some might find it ironic that a former Microsoft executive focuses on bringing books, rather than computers or the Internet, to the developing world.Nearly 1 billion people can't read or write in the developing world. We start with simple solutions like a school library, books in the local languages, and books in English.

We've now opened 3,300 libraries across the developing world, and will be at 5,000 next year. I can picture those libraries eventually having a computer lab attached as the children gain a baseline level of literacy. Maybe in 2010 or 2015 we can look at a massive build out of IT.

As a technologist do you think you approached the non-profit sector with a different perspective?

In the technology world, we think about scalability. Companies think about reaching tens of millions and then hundreds of millions and possibly billions of customers. I think scaling has been lacking in the nonprofit world. What we're trying to say is, "Is there a way we can build a network of 20,000 schools and libraries?" It's a big number, but I want to set a bold goal, because businesses that set bold goals attract bold employees.


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Epidemics, lack of clean water, lack of education--these problems have been around since time immemorial, and we have right now the financial resources, the brainpower and the bandwidth to solve these problems. We just have to think really big about the solutions.You've said you want to be the Microsoft of the charity world. In what sense? And isn't the Gates Foundation already the Microsoft of the charity world?

[Laughs.] They are certainly more well-endowed. I want to run Room to Read with compassion of Mother Theresa but the focus, efficiency and tenacity of a blue-chip company. In my mind we need to have a hybrid solution because in the charity world quite often the results aren't as impressive as they need to be.

We have a model now where we can open a school in Nepal for $11,000. We can build a school library in a place like Cambodia or Laos for $2,000. We can endow a girl's scholarship anywhere in the developing world for about $250 a year.

Do you miss the tech sector? Might you go back some day?

I certainly miss the tech sector around paycheck time! But I love what I do. Like visiting villages in rural Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge, as part of the genocide, burned down the schools and killed the teachers and burned all the books. We are going back and re-opening libraries and giving kids an opportunity to get an education.That's an experience no money can make up for. I don't think a lot of people at their jobs cry tears of joy as often as I do. It sounds hokey but it's true.

What do you think of Google's move to put the world's books online?

Anything that can be digitized and made accessible will make the world a smarter place. The majority of the effect will be felt more in the first world initially, but that doesn't mean it won't eventually be felt in third world.

Have you met Bono yet?

[Laughs] I have not. But he was about two tables away at last year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.0

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