Live: Amazon Product Event Prime Sale Lenovo Duet 3 Windows 11 Update HP OLED Laptop Gift Card Deal Bluetooth Boom Boxes Huawei Mate XS 2
Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?
No, thank you

Ex-techie's nonprofit Room to Read has room to grow

CEO John Wood plans to expand nonprofit that taps wealthy donors to help build schools and libraries in developing countries. Photos: Building Room to Read

Last month, work took John Wood to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, New York City and even to a breakfast stop at the White House.

The travel pace might not be unusual for one of the leaders of Microsoft's international units. But, the thing is Wood left Microsoft more than seven years ago.

These days, instead of selling software, Wood is selling schools. Wood is founder and chief executive of Room to Read, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that taps wealthy donors across the globe to help build schools and libraries in developing countries.

Wood left Microsoft in 1999 with a goal of building school libraries in Nepal. Since then, the organization has built 287 schools and several thousand libraries, and expanded to seven other countries in Asia and Africa, with more than 4 million books now available in a mix of English and local languages.

The organization has also expanded into funding scholarships for girls to attend school and, more recently, into building school computer labs.

Although computers are his background--he helped run Microsoft's international efforts in Australia and China--Wood said he was a little leery of moving into technology.

"Leading with technology is really putting the cart before the horse," Wood said. "If we can get the basics right, then computers make sense as an add-on. But we really have to get the basics first."

But in Vietnam in particular, the agency started to encounter places that had the basic infrastructure, but often had insufficient access to computers, with students usually getting just a couple of hours per week to practice their skills.

"When I asked how much they would like to practice, the kids told me that they would not sleep if that's what it took, as they were so eager to learn," Wood said. "For me, that sealed the deal."

"Leading with technology is really putting the cart before the horse. If we can get the basics right, then computers make sense as an add-on. But we really have to get the basics first."
--John Wood, CEO, Room to Read

Room To Read opened its first computer lab in 2002. Where Room to Read has started adding computers, it typically builds a lab with 15 to 25 computers, though even that is not enough to meet demand. "We literally have two to three children in front of them," Wood said.

The machines in Room to Read's labs are doing just the basics, things like Microsoft Paint and running CD-ROM software, like encyclopedias. Most don't even have Internet access, Wood said, though the company is in discussions with Qualcomm in hopes of being able to start adding connectivity within the next year, Wood said.

Another area of particular focus for the organization has been ensuring that girls get equal access to education in the places it is building schools and libraries.

"One of the biggest issues in the developing world is that two-thirds of those who are illiterate and not in schools are girls," Wood said. Because, the mothers typically raise the children, Wood said, it "almost guarantees the next generation won't get the fullest possible education."

Funding girls' educations wasn't an initial goal of the program. But Wood said that shortly after the organization started opening schools and libraries, it noticed the ratio of boys to girls was disproportionately high. He quickly learned that families often could afford to only send a single child to school and would pick a boy.

"This is not an expensive problem to solve," Wood said. "It costs $250 per girl per year. That to me is not only the biggest bargain in philanthropy, it is also the biggest bang for the buck long-term."

Listen up

Podcast: Building many rooms for reading Ex-techie's Room to Read builds libraries and schools; LG Rumor is a rumor no more; and how much online time is too much for kids?

Download mp3 (3.9 MB)

He points to studies that show that for every year a girl remains in secondary school, her wages increase 10 percent to 20 percent. Infant mortality decreases by 8 percent for each year a woman stays in school, while educated women have fewer children, and children who are healthier and more likely to get an education themselves.

So far, Room to Read has given out more than 4,000 long-term scholarships. Its students are guaranteed a scholarship throughout their schooling as long as they maintain passing grades, with Wood pointing out that 98.5 percent of the scholars hit that mark last year.

Plans to expand to Latin America
Despite the hectic travel schedule, Wood continues to be happy with the quest that he started by accompanying eight donkeys on an uphill trek to outfit a library in Nepal in 1999. The organization has grown at a torrid clip, with plans to enter Latin America next year and be operating in 15 countries with more than 10,000 libraries by 2010.

That has meant some adjustment for Wood, who used to brag that only 5 cents of every dollar donated went toward fundraising and administrative costs. Last year, overhead ran 12.5 percent. Wood admits that bulking up is still hard. "It is a little bit, because I want to have every dollar go toward education," he said, adding that Room to Read's overhead is still about a third of the charitable average.

Wood is not alone in forsaking a career in high tech for a nonprofit venture. Most notably, Wood's former chief, Bill Gates, plans to shift to part-time work at Microsoft early next year so that he can focus on his charitable endeavors. Wood jokes that he's glad he grabbed the book title "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" before Gates could.

But he said that despite an era that has created huge numbers of wealthy individuals, few are giving back in the way that Gates and Warren Buffett have done.

"I see some movement in that area, but I don't see enough movement," he said. "I think we are going way too slow."

As for his former company, Wood said Microsoft appears to be facing many of the challenges common to companies as they mature. One of the things he praised, though, is that it has not lost a willingness to take risks.

"They are not afraid to take on big things," Wood said. "Some of their efforts have not been as successful as they (would have) liked but I think it's interesting that they are still willing to throw everything at it. It's still a very, very ambitious company."