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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)

As things worked out, he didn't end up pouring drinks. But he still recalls a conversation with a Microsoft buddy he ran into in the Singapore airport. The guy showed not the slightest interest in Wood's new venture.

"He gave me the five-minute download on his life," Wood says, with a hint of uncharacteristic bitterness. "And then he goes, 'Are you still doing that thing that you were doing?' "

At the time Wood started doing that thing, according to U.N. reports, an estimated 850 million of the world's people lacked basic literacy, meaning they couldn't write or read a simple sentence. "I had to read the number three times," he writes, "to convince myself that it was not too large to be true."

Over lunch, he puts Room to Read's efforts in statistical context. "We've reached, so far, 800,000 kids," he says, calculating the total number of children benefiting from the organization's library- and school-building programs. By Room to Read's 20th anniversary in 2020, he hopes, that number will be 8 million.

The Room to Read Web site notes that more than 120 million children of primary school age are not in school. Eight million would be less than 7 percent of that figure -- which would make Wood's efforts either an amazing accomplishment or a discouragingly small start, depending on your point of view.

But nothing can undercut Wood's congenital optimism. He's totally a "glass-half-full kind of person," says Room to Read Chief Operating Officer Erin Ganju, another refugee from corporate life who talked her way into a job as Wood's first U.S.-based employee because she admired what he was doing and wanted to help him expand.

Expand he has.

In the early days, Wood's father says, he served as Room to Read's treasurer and bookkeeper -- but it was soon "too much for me to handle." Microsoft had taught his son to think big, to be data-driven and to focus on "results, results, results."

His entrepreneurial worldview appealed to funders from the high-tech world, among them big-time venture capitalists William Draper of Draper Richards and Don Valentine of Sequoia Capital, who provided crucial seed grants. After he worked for free for four years, Wood's board of directors insisted he start taking a salary (at $105,000, it's less than he made the year after he got his MBA).

Wood has the same attributes venture capitalists look for in for-profit entrepreneurs, says Valentine, whose firm was an early investor in Apple and Google: He's "an evangelist" with the "passion and personal charisma" to sell others his dream. Valentine also likes Wood's intense frugality, as well as the way Room to Read gets "buy-in" from the cash-poor communities it helps -- requiring investments in the form of labor or land.

What Room to Read does not do, despite its tech-oriented backers, is focus on high-tech solutions.

"These kids in rural Cambodia can't even read yet," Wood says. "What are they going to do with a computer?" A small rural library serving 400 kids costs $2,000 to set up. Five dollars a child. Computers are far more expensive. There are places and times when computer labs can be helpful, Wood says, and Room to Read will fund about 30 this year. But "we'll do 900 libraries. We'll do about 85 new school construction projects."

Another way Room to Read differentiates itself is its focus on educating girls. Early on -- with encouragement and funding from Valentine, his wife and their daughter Hilary, now co-chair of the Room to Read board -- Wood decided to offer long-term scholarships so that girls who otherwise might have to drop out can keep studying.

He explains this decision on a number of levels. There's basic justice: Two-thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women, after all. There's large-scale pragmatism: "How can you have a big effect? Get the girls in school, because they pass on knowledge to the next generation." And there's a fundraising pragmatism as well: In many wealthy families, Wood points out, charitable decisions are made by wives.

All true, says Hilary Valentine, but there's something else to think about when it comes to Wood and girls' education:

"For him, it's emotional," she says. "His mother read to him. That bond formed who he is. He can't imagine a child without that."

* * *

Lunch is almost over. Wood has places to be. He may be leading a fantasy life, but it doesn't come with a lot of personal downtime.

Before he heads out, he talks about a few of his heroes. There's Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, the force behind the international push for micro-credit. There's former president Jimmy Carter, whose insistence on thinking big greatly reduced the scourge of Guinea worm disease. Most important, there's literacy champion Andrew Carnegie.

"To build that many libraries," he says of the robber baron turned philanthropist, "that's just the most fantastic legacy." He found it "amazing and slightly appalling" that no one had tried to replicate Carnegie's work on an international scale.

Wood doesn't confuse himself with Carnegie, and he hopes bigger players will emerge. He's not waiting around, though. So far, the organization has concentrated on Asian countries, but Africa is next: There are plans to go into South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia and probably Mozambique. Latin America likely will follow.

"Passion sells," he notes in "Leaving Microsoft," and he's right: It's hard to be around him for an hour without reaching for your checkbook. Does he see himself, he is asked, building Room to Read, 24/7, forever?

No hesitation is detectable.

"Mmm hmm," Wood says. "Pretty much. Yeah."

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