His Bottom Line: Educating the World's Kids

John Wood, a former Microsoft executive who left the company to found Room to Read, celebrates with students at the 2003 opening of a preschool in a Vietnamese village.
John Wood, a former Microsoft executive who left the company to found Room to Read, celebrates with students at the 2003 opening of a preschool in a Vietnamese village. (By Robert Poor -- Room To Read)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

How to put this gently? John Wood is making the rest of us look bad.

Oh, he doesn't mean to. The founder and CEO of a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization called Room to Read, who's just published a book called "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World," doesn't blame us for not quitting our nice, secure jobs pushing paper or marketing digital widgets, as he did seven years ago at age 35, and throwing ourselves into planet-enhancing philanthropy.

He knows that few people have the ability or the desire to drop everything else in life for a chosen cause -- in Wood's case, sending millions of books to village children in places such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Vietnam; building thousands of libraries and hundreds of schools; and funding more than 2,000 long-term scholarships for education-deprived girls.

But Wood also knows that some of us wish we could. He's living our fantasy life. Which can be a wonderful fundraising tool.

He strides through Union Station, a tall, fit-looking man with a Boy Scout's smile and a salesman's focus. He's in town, he explains, to help expand the network of folks, many from the local tech community, "who can't quit their day jobs, who didn't get the lucky break with the stock options package" -- but who want at least a bit part in the world-changing dream he's living.

Fantasy lives come at a price, of course.

Wood has paid it.

But to hear the emotion in his voice, as he recalls the reception he got while delivering his first shipment of books to Nepal, is to think: He got himself a pretty good deal.

* * *

A documentary of John Wood's childhood would look so much like a series of Norman Rockwell paintings that it comes as a relief to discover -- though he's not indulging at lunch this day -- that the guy has been known to drink an occasional beer.

Rockwell No. 1 might show 5-year-old John trotting up one of his Connecticut neighbors' walks, primed to hawk his paintings of sailboats for a nickel apiece. His mother, Carolyn, soon forbade this door-to-door entrepreneurship. No problem: He subcontracted the sales effort to a friend, who got a 20 percent cut.

No. 2 in the series might show him as an underage paperboy in Athens, Pa., chatting up customers or schlepping their empty trash cans in from the curb unasked. Wood's mom remembers getting a call from a woman who wanted her to know that John had used his paper route money to buy the woman's hospitalized mother a box of candy.


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