Swapping Microsoft for Nepal

Former Microsoft exec John Wood gave up life in the software fast lane to create Room to Read, a San Francisco-based start-up dedicated to spreading literacy in the developing countries of Asia. Here's his story.

8 min read
John Wood was trekking through Nepal in 1998 when he had an epiphany: Few people in that impoverished Asian nation could read, let alone discern the difference between Windows 95 and Windows 98.

So the Microsoft executive began sending e-mail to friends and relatives, asking them to send books to Nepal as part of a grassroots literacy campaign. Microsoft's director of business development for the greater China region became so absorbed in his volunteer effort, dubbed "Books for Nepal," that he began giving short shrift to his day job.

He quit Microsoft in 1999, moved to San Francisco in 2000, and turned Books for Nepal into a non-profit called Room to Read. The company, which has one paid staff member and about 1,000 donors, has so far funneled nearly $1 million in books and cash to developing countries of Asia, mainly Nepal and Vietnam.

The 38-year-old Colorado native, who is hosting fundraisers this week in San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif., talked to CNET News.com about the effects of illiteracy in developing nations. He also talked about how he persuades Silicon Valley venture capitalists and tech executives to part with their cash to build libraries and schools half a world away.

Q: How did literacy in Nepal become a pet project for a guy making big money as a U.S. expat and Microsoft veteran in China?
A: I was looking for a good second act for my adulthood, with deeper meaning for helping the really, really unfortunate people of the world...I took a long holiday away from work and was trekking through a very remote area of Nepal and I visited a school. I was amazed at the lack of resources--and the fact that the teachers knew they were lacking resources and were so anxious to get help from someone--anyone, really--who could provide it.

So, just like that, you walked away from your day job?
It was a gradual process. I thought I'd just help this one school in a one-off project. I sent an e-mail to maybe 100 friends to help collect books. I figured I'd get 300 books. I got 3,000 books the first month in 1998. That's when I realized the power of smacking up a Web site and doing an e-mail campaign. At that point, I realized there was something more powerful and the idea could go beyond one school.

What ultimately prompted you to quit Microsoft, especially at the peak of the tech boom in 1999, when so many people wanted to join the industry?
Eventually there was a tension between the campaign and Microsoft. I was spending less time focused on my job and more time focused on helping schools establish libraries. At one point, I was doing both of those things poorly and knew I had to pick one.

My personal goal is to help 10 million children gain literacy by 2010. To date, we've helped 30,000 children. I have to double this business every year for eight years.
I was brought up with the adage, "To whom much is given, much is expected." I always took that to heart. I also wanted to build something myself. When you're at Microsoft, you know it's (Chairman) Bill (Gates) and (CEO) Steve (Ballmer) who made the company what it is. But with this company, if I don't drive it, it's not going to happen. And that's what makes it really fun. It's a start-up, but one whose end customers are poor illiterate people in very poor places in the world.

Do you run Room to Read the same way you ran the Asia-Pacific business development team at Microsoft?
Sort of. What we're trying to do at a macro level is combine the passion of the non-profit sector with the discipline of a really well-run global business. First and foremost, we're trying to set very clear goals. Many non-profits don't set clear goals; they say, "We're doing good things for the community and that's good enough." It's not. We're trying to approach literacy as a business proposition.

We know there are nearly 1 billion illiterate people in the world. Our challenge is to build a business that scales up to make a significant dent in that number. My personal goal is to help 10 million children gain literacy by 2010. To date, we've helped 30,000 children. I have to double this business every year for eight years.

You say that your costs are less than 5 percent of your total donations. Other than the fact that you don't get paid, how do you keep costs down?
We are taking full advantage of the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people looking for deeper meaning in their lives, and they're willing to work on their lunch hours, at nights and on weekends. We have more than 100 volunteers, and all of them have full-time jobs, but they do e-mail and help us out, even from their desk jobs where they're getting their salary.

We have people at Cisco (Systems), Oracle, Sun (Microsystems), start-ups, public relations firms--we basically just want to harness 5 to 10 percent of the brainpower that exists among tech professionals. I don't need a full-time staff if I've got hundreds of people working on this part time. It's almost a distributed-computing model for volunteers.

Give me an example of how someone volunteers with Room to Read.
We have one person in Seattle who said, "I want to build a school." She's throwing a cocktail party at her home, inviting 100 people and each (person) is paying $50. I do a presentation to let them know about our work, and with $5,000, that's enough to build a school in a rural community in Nepal. Hundreds of people do a small bit, but the end result is that more than 200 children will be able to go to school from grade one.

This school will be named after the Seattle donor--or she will somehow be connected to this particular school?
Yes, and that's a key part of the model--connecting the donors with the results. Too many non-profits ask you to give money, and that money goes into a general fund. You don't know if your money went to airline tickets, a copy machine or a school.

But we can say, "If you raise X dollars, we can build a computer lab at a school in Vietnam." We can send you JPEGs (digital photos) as it's built and you can even tell your friends that you built this. We want to create that direct relationship between the customer-slash-donor, so they feel happy they spent their money with us, (so) they want to do this again.

It's fashionable right now in the tech industry to become involved with philanthropy. Are you merely taking advantage of the economic slowdown, collective burnout or some other factor that's motivating people?
I've definitely noticed this trend, and we're certainly trying to motivate those people to get involved. But frankly, if the only reason people are doing it is that they're bored or they're unemployed and have nothing else to do, and if they're going to stop doing community service and are back to their tech start-up as soon as the economy picks up, that's not a sustainable model. So we're looking at the people who were dedicated during the boom and are dedicated now. Otherwise you're just a counter-cyclical organization--and that's never a good idea because in most years the U.S. economy is up.

Software marketing and literacy volunteerism might strike some people as disconnected. How are the first two acts of your life connected, if at all?

Too many non-profits ask you to give money, and that money goes into a general fund. You don't know if your money went to airline tickets, a copy machine or a school.
Most people who have made money in the tech economy realize it's because they've received world-class education from a very early age--usually when their parents bought them their first book at age 3. There's also the acknowledgement that a computer won't solve a problem in a village that does not have clean water or schools, but by investing in that infrastructure, they can create a place where IT can be applicable. Look at India. The IT boom there wouldn't have been possible if those 16-year-olds now doing Java code hadn't learned...English (at) a very young age.

What's been your biggest frustration or disappointment in the past two years?
The biggest frustration is that we see a lot of donors who are putting money behind problems that would never have occurred if we had invested first in education for youth. A lot of solutions are Band-Aids that wouldn't have been necessary if people grew up with education and had taken control of their own lives.

For example?
Women who are abused--I don't disagree with helping people in that situation. However, if women grow up with education from age 5, their status in society increases, malnutrition decreases. Infant mortality decreases 8 percent for every year of education. If we could just give education to girls early in life, they will solve or prevent many of their problems. I'm not saying we shouldn't do anything to help adults now, and I am not against programs for abused women. But we need to reapply some of our funds.

Many of the books in the libraries you build are in English, and most of the schools you help build teach kids to speak English. Why this cultural bias?
Our goal is to help communities develop an educational infrastructure using a government-mandated curriculum. Of that, English is one part. But it's being taught as a second language. The majority...is still in Nepali or Vietnamese, or Khmer in Cambodia. With the exception of North Korea, every country in Asia wants kids to learn English because it's the lingua franca of trade and tourism and technology.

But keep in mind that it's maybe only a half-hour every day. We view it like the Dutch school system. Dutch children grow up learning three or four languages, yet they don't lose their own language.

What do you most miss about Microsoft?
Being handed a team and a large budget and being told to go solve a problem with it. Right now I've got the problem, and I have to build the budget and team organically. It would be very nice to have the resources at my disposal--the 40-person team to attack the problem with me.

What do you miss least about Microsoft?
The thing I miss least is the feeling that I was working for something I didn't play a part in starting. I started well into Microsoft's growth curve. Now I'm working at a place I built from the ground up, and it's a great feeling.