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Finding purpose in Room To Read

Former senior Microsoft executive head John Wood gave up his high-flying career to bring literacy to children in Nepal

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LIFE-CHANGING JOURNEY: Founder of Room To Read John Wood in Laos

AS A SENIOR Microsoft executive based in Asia in the 1990s, John Wood relished the life of an expatriate. Business was booming; weekdays were spent in air-conditioned meeting rooms. On weekends and holidays, he would travel the more exotic corners of Asia.

One of these holiday jaunts changed his life. In 1998, on an 18-day trek in Nepal's Annapurna mountain range, he chanced upon a headmaster, who offered him a tour of the local school. The school's library was dilapidated and devoid of books. The headmaster in Nepal told me: "We're too poor to afford education and until we get educated, we'll always remain poor." That struck me as the cruellest irony. Here I was making good money - I probably spent US$1,000 just on my backpack, hiking pole and high-tech gear, and US$1,000 can buy hundreds of children's books.

"What strikes me the most is how kids are penalised ... through no fault of their own. To whom we are born and where we are born are completely random. Yet those are the most important factors in our lives on the question of - do we or do we not get educated?"

The following year, he returned to Nepal with 3,000 books on the backs of six donkeys. It was, he recalls, the happiest day of his life. It was also then that he confronted the question of his life's work thus far. "One library is a drop in the ocean in the world of 780 million people who are illiterate. I faced a dilemma - I could go back to Microsoft where I was in charge of business development for Greater China, and I could make Room To Read my hobby. But the problem is hobbies don't scale. I wanted to do this in a big way - go big or go home.

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"I'd have to quit my job and do it full time. I literally threw myself off the Microsoft plane and prayed the parachute would deploy."

The non-profit organisation he founded, Room To Read, is dedicated to transforming the lives of millions of children in low-income countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Since it began in 1999, its literacy programme has benefited nearly 11 million children, distributed more than 20 million books, and trained over 8,700 teachers and librarians.

But equally impressive is that its broad outreach was achieved on the back of an enviable level of professionalism that surely inspires confidence among donors and goes a long way towards ensuring the sustainability of its model.

Room To Read has achieved 10 four-star ratings from Charity Navigator since 2007, outperforming most other charities in the US. A four-star rating recognises sound fiscal management, and commitment to accountability and transparency. Eighty-four cents out of every dollar goes directly towards the programmes.

Says Mr Wood: "We, the founding team, decided we needed to take a very business-like approach. I looked at the charity world and thought it was often very chaotic, badly run and not scalable. It wasn't even run professionally. If I'm going to ask the Credit Suisses of this world, and Goldman Sachs or the Hiltons, I have to prove that the money will be well deployed, that we'd have a data-driven approach, that we'd collect data to test the efficacy of our work.

"We needed to show that we'd spend their money not on overheads, but on education programmes. So we always had from day one a low overhead approach."

Mr Wood was in Singapore earlier this year at the invitation of Credit Suisse. The bank's chief executive for Asia Pacific Helman Sitohang mobilised a consortium of foundations, corporations and individuals in 2014 to support and kick-start a Room To Read Accelerator in Indonesia. This was a two-year project to set up school libraries and publish children's books in the local language.

In the 1990s, when Mr Wood mulled the question of whether to give up his job to dedicate himself to Room To Read, there was a distinct and wide divide between the worlds of business and charity or social impact.

Today, that line is blurring, and it is a development Mr Wood applauds. His latest book Purpose, Incorporated exhorts businesses to take the higher ground and incorporate purpose into their so-called DNA. Those who fail to do so, he argues, will find themselves uncompetitive.

"The world is starting to shift, and the goal of the book is to get it to shift faster and get more people involved. Eighteen years ago if you wanted to create change in the world, the way to do it was to quit corporate life and join a NGO (non-government organisation) full time. Now the lines are blurring and my purpose in the book is to get them to blur more and faster. The smartest companies today are realising they can use purpose for their competitive advantage."

Millennials, in particular, show a preference not only to consume products that have a social purpose, but also to work for such companies. "The generation behind the millennials is even more purpose-driven. So you can't stick your head in the sand on this issue."

Meanwhile, Room To Read continues to expand its horizons. "Right now we reach 800,000 to one million additional children per year. The challenge from here is quite simply to double that, to begin to reach two million children a year. It will take us a while to get there. We're going to have to raise more money, hire more staff.

"But I believe when it comes to education, we face a real sense of urgency. Every day we lose is a day we can't get back. If that five-year-old-child doesn't have a library, doesn't have trained teachers, we can't tell him to wait 10 years and we'll get back to him. He's going to be an illiterate, frustrated 15-year-old ... We're going to try to double our footprint and impact." W

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