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Alleviating poverty, one book at a time

There are those individuals out there who’s work, or personal experience can be so inspiring. They see the world, its contents and all her inhabitants from a different perspective. They are perfectly embody the notion of what impossibility is often just that… a word!

I have a few inspiring people who I admire. One of them is John Wood, Founder of Room to Read. A former Microsoft executive whose life direction changed dramatically after a fortunate hike in the Himalayas. There he saw the simple life, where school children were happy with the few books they had to share amongst themselves, where they appreciated the little material things they had and the opportunity to attend school and dream of a better tomorrow.

He returned to the US and was determined to do his part. He started a campaign to collect used books from family and friends, which quickly snowballed into a much greater effort, as people flooded in to help.

This then led to John’s establishing a non-for-profit organization, Room to Read, authoring a book about his life-changing experience, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” (2006), and the rest… as they say, is history. Here’s John’s story as appeared in Men’s Journal. And if you ask what became of his Microsoft career, he decided to leave and dedicate his life to helping provide books to disadvantaged school-age children around the world, and promote the love of reading.

Social Entrepreneur: Wood hands out books to children in Pokhara, Nepal. His nonprofit Room to Read has distributed close to 5 million books around the world.

In life, most people take care to not burn their bridges. Others prefer to detonate them, all at once, in a career version of shock and awe. John Wood falls into the latter camp. Wood, 44, had been a successful exec at Microsoft, heading up the software giant’s business development in the greater China region and leading a comfy expat life with a high salary. He threw it all on the bonfire after returning from a life-changing trip to Nepal. On a trek in 1998, during a rare break, he came across eager-to-learn children in a village who had few books. Wood made a simple promise: He’d find them some. He tapped his network of friends, family, and colleagues, and returned later that year with 3,000 books saddled onto the backs of eight donkeys. “I watched the reaction of the kids, and it set something off in my head that I could really make a difference,” Wood remembers. “It didn’t take much effort, but it made a huge impact on their lives.”

Microsoft had taught him to think big, and so Wood did just that. He decided to leave the company altogether and start a new life running a charity full-time. Thus began his organization Room to Read (roomtoread.org), which has since established more than 5,600 libraries in developing countries and put close to 5 million books into the hands of kids.

Though Room to Read has become a resounding success, at the time he started it, Wood wondered if he was certifiably nuts. He turned to advisers to bring him up to speed on the basics of the charity world, such as applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the IRS. He hired a right-hand woman and an office manager but paid himself nothing at first, eating away half his savings until grants and donations started to come in.


Wood says it was a terrifying time, especially when it looked as if the organization was not going to fly. His mental approach was to turn the self-doubt into an asset. “This was how I could really be tested, to see if I really believed in this or not.” He also made the conscious choice to not overthink his decision, since simple logic would probably talk him out of it. When things were at their bleakest, Wood would just book a trip to Nepal or Vietnam or Cambodia, to witness his charity’s work firsthand. “There’s nothing so energizing as being in a rural village the moment their new school opens,” he says. “You come back saying you’ll work even harder.” And what began as a one-man operation now employs 220 people worldwide.

Wood often reminds himself that, while previous generations worked for decades bound to a desk, today anyone can change the world with little more than a laptop, a Web connection, and an e-mail address (and a few book-carrying donkeys). “It’s never been more possible to reinvent yourself.”

Inspiration: Men’s Journal

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One response

  1. Pingback: Grassroots Innovation | Alleviating poverty ~ one bike at a time « F R A N G I A

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