A Conversation With John Wood
In the early 90's John Wood arrived at Microsoft as director of business development: little did he know that within a decade a simple visit to a small country of Nepal will alter the shape of his corporate life or his thinking. The story of this transformation is heartwarming. A 18-day trek along Nepal's Annapurna Circuit brought him face to face with a teacher at a village school . When Wood visited the school, he found a building devoid of books. Moved by this experience, he promised to send books and emailed 100 of his friends to donate books back in the US. The result was overwhelming ;3000 books were delivered at his door and Room to Read was born.
As Founder of the non profit, Room to Read that builds schools and libraries for children in Asia, John Wood is definitely a man on a mission. There are 1 billion illiterate people in the world, he says, "My goal is to help 10 million children achieve literacy by 2010."
I was recently made aware of Room to Read through local volunteer Jagathi Gururajan and was amazed at the organization's ability to achieve so much in so little time. Its work in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal has impacted the lives of over 120,000 children. To date, it has built 63 schools, established more than 700 libraries, donated more than 300,000 books, granted more than 412 long-term girls' scholarships and established more than 20 computer and language labs.
An ambitious task notwithstanding, seeing the man himself is like talking to a live wire. John Wood had just arrived in Boston from Washington DC to launch the group's chapter and attend a fundraiser titled InspirAsian. In our conversation, he outlined Room to Read entry into India and how it came about:
How did India feature in the map of Room to Read ?
Wood: Room to Read launched operations in India this year, making it the fourth country of our operation. It was Sabeer Bhatia who came up to me after a slide show of RTR at Marine County, shook my hand and said ;"I want you to think of coming to India. We had at that time established 300 libraries and 25 schools in Nepal and he handed me a check for $5000 and said, I will fund this project in Nepal as a goodwill measure. If you can achieve so much in so little time, I can't wait to see what you can do in India.
We were numbed by the challenge. I am not smart to figure everything out on my own. But I have this expertise behind me. Of course, we invited him to join our advisory board. We plan to launch only one program initially of setting libraries in order to develop local expertise. We are starting out in New Delhi and Rajasthan. Ms. Sunisha Ahuja joined us in April for the operations in New Delhi. Our work in India is being done in a joint venture partnership with the American India Foundation (AIF). When RTR raises money for the India program, we receive a matching grant from AIF. We plan to establish 100 libraries in the Hindi belt starting out with 500 books in Hindi and English.
You are a result oriented organization. What is the model you follow?
Wood: A key part of our model is we hire local people to support us. We offer library training and challenge grants. We make it clear that we will not fund the entire library and school. In Nepal for instance, the headmaster promised that every household would donate 500 rupees. The Challenge grant basically means we wait for the village to approach us. By offering challenge grants, Room to Read ensures that local communities have to invest their own resources in building schools/libraries. This also guarantees a long-term commitment to children's education. Thanks to our partnership with various local agencies and foundation like CRY and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation who help spread the word, we remain in touch with village development committees, districts, members of parliament and also the business community.
Have you thought of focusing on States with poor literacy rates?
Wood; I think there is the risk to do too much too quickly. RTR has a phased approach to expansion. In four to five years we hope to expand geographically to other States. The target for India is 100 school libraries the first year and 200 by the second year. We are planning to buy books locally. Unlike Nepal and Cambodia, India has a vibrant book market. There is a wide variety of materials.
How does RTR define Literacy?
Wood:To me it is being able to interact and gain employment in the modern world. I am not an academician but I believe there is inherent good in putting a book in the hand of a child.
Have you had support from local groups here?
Wood:We have had a lot of interest in New York and here. We are partnering with Asha and AIF, Our biggest asset is we keep our overheads low. Donors are cornerstone to our mission. We have an open line of communication with them and keep them abreast of their charity through conference calls. We encourage active participation from our Investors. We draw our strength from our advisory board. Take Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. That man is brilliant and I need him to give me advice
Do you envisage doing this for a long time?
Wood: I can picture myself doing this for several decades as the scope is so vast. How you react to these issues says a lot about our generation. The major issues facing our generation today are Health, Education and Peace. My own contribution will be in the field of education
John Wood was here recently to launch the Chapter in Boston with a fundraiser called InspirAsian to Promote Literacy and Education in Asia .The event raised more than $25,000 from auction proceeds and other donations, and qualified for two matching grants which were pledged by diverse sources, one from Chairman and CTO of Ember Corporation's Rob Poor, for $5,000 and another for $20,000. Sponsors for the InspirAsian event were Rob Poor, Chairman and CTO of Ember Corporation and Ming Tsai, and TV cooking personality on WGBH's Simply Ming show and Founder/owner of Blue Ginger, a Wellesley, MA bistro featuring a blend of Asian/Western cuisine.
To know more about Room to Read go to www.roomtoread.org
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Photo Credits:Connie Thompson
Auction items at InspirAsian
With John Howard, Boston supporter