In 1999, John Wood was enjoying some enviable perks as a senior executive at Microsoft: stock options, business-class travel, a swish apartment, car and driver in Beijing, where he was spearheading marketing and business development.
But he gave up those to pursue a dream to “reverse the lottery of life” for children denied education because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Reeling off statistics he has committed to memory, he says there is a pressing need to help the hundreds of millions who are illiterate and do not go to school, two-thirds of whom are girls and women.
“It strikes me as the cruellest irony for any child to have their fate decided for them before the age of five. Two billion people are living on less than US$2 (S$2.60) a day. They’re not living on this because they are lazy but because they didn’t have access to education,” says Mr Wood, who was in town last month to attend a special lunch hosted by Credit Suisse.
It’s not just a humanitarian issue but an economic one, he says.
“For instance, if we want to see continued economic growth in Asia for the next five decades, there’s nothing better we could do than to help the tens of millions of kids who will otherwise not be educated.”
The lanky 54-year-old then quips: “I didn’t make enough money to give it all away or start a John Wood Foundation. But I made enough money to start a cash-strapped charity.”
He is being modest. Since it was set up in 2000, Room To Read – which focuses on girls’ education and children’s literacy in Asia and Africa – has built about 20,000 libraries and 2,000 schools, and introduced literacy programmes that have benefited more than 10 million children.
PHOTO: Room to Read
Among the multiple accolades heaped upon Mr Wood and the charity he founded are Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, Time Magazine’s Asian Heroes award and Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent evaluator of charities, has given the non-profit outfit the coveted four-star rating for sound fiscal management, and commitment to accountability and transparency for the last 12 years.
Charismatic with an affecting good-guy vibe, the youngest of three children of an engineer and a homemaker grew up in Pennsylvania, in a small town called Athens.
“When I was eight, my parents bought me a bicycle. Kids today take such things for granted but it was a big deal then because it was my magic vehicle which transported me to the community library.”
He was a voracious reader who devoured more than eight books a week.
“Stories about dogs, The Boxcar Children, The Happy Hollisters,” he says, referring to two classic series of children’s books. The first is about four orphaned children who live in an abandoned boxcar in the forest, while The Happy Hollisters chronicles the adventures of a family that loves to solve mysteries.
“I was sitting in a little town and reading about boys who were exploring Alaska and the South Pacific. It really opened my eyes to the world; I wanted to travel and see all the places I’d read about.”
If books were his passport to the world, education was his ticket.
“My parents told me that good grades and a good education were things that nobody could take away from me,” says the top student who went on to graduate, magna cum laude, in finance and accounting from the University of Colorado.
“My dad told me I had to understand numbers so that people could not lie to me. I also wanted to keep score,” he says with a laugh.
A stint at auditing and consulting giant Deloitte followed, before he enrolled for an MBA programme at Kellogg School of Management.
Although he realised his dream of becoming a globe-trotting banker in Chicago, the job was not what he envisioned it to be.
“I had this creative gene which didn’t get exercised in commercial banking. I’ve nothing against bankers but the job is not for me,” he says.
Fortunately, serendipity gave him a helping hand.
One of his good friends from Chicago bumped into another mutual friend, then working as a recruiter for Microsoft, in Seattle.
Upon hearing that Mr Wood was not happy in banking, the latter suggested that he apply to join the computer giant.
“I got a call and flew out to the Microsoft campus in Seattle, where I saw people my age wearing shorts and throwing frisbees around,” he says, referring to the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond.
“There was a basketball court and a sandpit for volleyball. It was as far from banking as it could get.”
Mr Wood aced the interview, and in 1991 joined the organisation as a product manager. His job was to get Microsoft Office off the ground.
The gig, which included international marketing, was a dream job. For one thing, it satisfied his wanderlust.
“Many times, I’d be in a meeting and someone would go, ‘We need someone to go to Taiwan or Johannesburg or Dubai to do a press briefing.’ I’d put up my hand since most of my colleagues were married with kids and weren’t too keen to travel.”
The job afforded him many opportunities to explore Asia, which was then beginning to boom.
“The future of the global economy was being written here then. I remember Rupert Murdoch’s launch of Star TV making the cover of The Economist and I told myself, ‘I have to be there.’ ”
Driven and quick on his feet, he quickly climbed the corporate ladder, with postings to Australia and China.
In 1998, the sporty and adventurous soul – who has completed 15 marathons – went on a life-changing trip to Nepal.
While hiking the Annapurna circuit, he met a local headmaster who offered him a tour of his school in the village of Bahundanda.
“The school was typical of many in the developing world – hopeful and sad. Hopeful because the kids had their uniforms on and were ready to learn. Sad because there were no materials for learning.”
When Mr Wood asked to see the library, the headmaster pointed to a cabinet secured with a rusty padlock. “The headmaster told me, ‘We have so few books that they’re precious to us and we must protect them from the children,’ ” he recalls, shaking his head.
The few books turned out to be those left behind by backpackers and included works by Italian novelist Umberto Eco and bodice rippers.
“It was stuff no child would want, or be able, to read.”
The episode reminded him of his 1994 trip to Cambodia, where a tourist guide showed him a school burnt down by the Khmer Rouge.
“I remember asking him, ‘How’s Cambodia going to rebuild itself if they don’t give children access to education?’ ”
Before Mr Wood left, the Nepali headmaster expressed a wish.
“Perhaps one day, you’d come back with books, he said. I told him I would. Then a teacher said, ‘A lot of you backpackers said you’d help us but we never see you again.’ ”
Mr Wood assured them they would. The vision of him returning with books stayed with him as he continued his Annapurna trek.
“I always kept a journal and at the back, I started writing my pitch letter to friends, telling them about the school and asking them to send books,” says Mr Wood, adding that while he had “occasional bursts of altruism”, he had never committed himself to regular charity or volunteer work prior to his Nepal trip.
His book collection drive netted over 3,000 books from donors, mainly in the United States and Australia, where he was then based.
Three months after he was posted to Beijing the following year, he and his father flew to Nepal to deliver his promise.
Through his town’s Lion’s Club, the older Mr Wood enlisted the help of Mr Dinesh Shrestha, a member of the Kathmandu chapter of the international service organisation.
“Dinesh told me not to give the 3,000 books to just one school, and to share the ‘wealth’,” Mr Wood says of the man who was to become his co-founder and is now Room To Read’s director of field operations.
In Bahundanda, he found the headmasters of several other schools waiting for him with formally written letters. They had heard about his book drive and come to “petition” him to do the same for their schools.
“Bahundanda was going to be a one-off, but it wasn’t until I visited and met the other headmasters that I realised what I did was a drop in the ocean compared to the need. One library wouldn’t be enough, five libraries wouldn’t be enough, probably 1,000 wouldn’t be enough.”
Leaving the village to go back to Beijing, he says, was an emotional experience.
“I was leaving what I loved to go back to a job I no longer wanted and a relationship I no longer wanted to be in… There was nothing wrong with my girlfriend then. I was the one who had changed,” says Mr Wood, who is now married to a hotel executive.
The way he saw it, he had two options: “I could do this as a hobby and stay in Microsoft or in tech, or I could jump out of the airplane and pray that the parachute would deploy… But hobbies don’t scale; the only thing that scales is commitment.”
His decision to leave his full-time job was met with wildly different reactions. His parents were incredibly supportive but most of his colleagues thought he was having a mid-life crisis.
In 2000, he co-founded Room To Read with Mr Shrestha and former Unilever executive Erin Ganju.
The trio set themselves the “crazy” goal of helping at least 10 million children by 2020. They have already surpassed that figure.
Room to Read has helped over 10 million children. PHOTO: Room to Read
“I personally said that if I were going to sacrifice millions of dollars to do this, it had to be big. At Microsoft, we used to say, ‘Go big or go home.’ ”
Their strategy was simple: Hire and empower strong local teams that will, in turn, empower their communities.
“We need communities to be co-investors; we require their sweat equity and labour for each project,” says Mr Wood, who wrote the book Leaving Microsoft To Change The World in 2008.
The other key? Building a world-class brand.
“The charity world is one where a lot of brands go to die and we definitely do not want that,” he says.
Now based in Hong Kong, his job mainly revolves around convincing “people in the money centres” to come aboard their mission of helping those in the developing world.
Room To Read’s growth has been phenomenal. In the first four years, it opened 1,600 libraries, more than the 1,000 outlets Starbucks opened in the same period.
Not long after, the non-profit, which has a global network of 15,000 volunteers, also started publishing its own books because it found that books published for rural communities were hard to come by.
Some of its other achievements? More than 50,000 girls enrolled in its education programme, more than 20 million books distributed, and nearly 9,000 teachers and librarians trained.
Mr Wood, meanwhile, has gone on to write three other books, including a children’s title Zak The Yak, about a yak that sets out to bring thousands of books to a rural village in Nepal.
His latest volume, Purpose Incorporated, hit bookstores last month and explores how companies can marry purpose and profits.
Room To Read’s work, Mr Wood says, is not done.
“I’m lucky. I am who I am because I had access to education. I could have stayed in the comfort zone, be an overpaid expat and retain the car and driver and stock options.
“But then, I would not know what is possible. I would also have let a lot of kids down. I don’t want them to be the next uneducated generation while I stayed in my comfort zone and they stayed in their discomfort zone.”