Room to Read

In 1998, John Wood was a rising executive at Microsoft when he took a vacation that changed his life. What started as a trekking holiday in Nepal became a spiritual journey and then a mission: to change the world one book and one child at a time by setting up libraries in the developing world.

He left his career and made the unlikely marriage between Microsoft business practices and the world of non-profits to create Room to Read, an organization that has created a network of over 7,500 libraries and 830 schools throughout rural and poor communities in Asia and Africa.

The organization is now one of the fastest growing, most effective, and award-winning non-profits of the last decade. John Wood has been recognized as a “21st century Andrew Carnegie,” building a public library infrastructure to help the developing world break the cycle of poverty through the lifelong gift of education.


By the fall of 2001, our teams in Nepal and Vietnam were finding dozens of communities that wanted to work with Room to Read to set up new schools and libraries. We opened our 100th library and several press stories were written about our work. Some old friends from Chicago were starting a Room to Read fund-raising club and had convinced Erin and me to fly out to speak at their first event.

On that fateful day of September 11, 2001, I was in France. When I saw what was happening on television my only desire was to be home, immedi­ately, in my country. Shortly after my return to San Francisco, Erin and I debated what these events meant for our organization. We faced great un­certainty. We knew that the world had changed in fundamental ways. But nobody could comprehend exactly how it had changed. We debated whether our mission to educate children in the devel­oping world would still seem relevant to donors. We also questioned whether we’d be able to raise sufficient cap­ital to fund our growth plans. As we watched airlines laying off tens of thousands of employ­ees, and economists predicting gloom for the economy, we ques­tioned our ability to continue growing. We also worried about Americans turning inward, or possibly xenophobic.

Our new Chicago club had planned their first fund-raising event for September 23. On a call with the event’s host committee, we debated canceling the event. America was still a shell-shocked nation. This wasn’t re­ally a good time to be hosting a cocktail party and asking people to donate money to a cause halfway around the world, especially given the charity world’s current focus on raising money for the families of the deceased.

One week later, as I was setting up the projector and wondering how the crowd would respond to our slide show, I was interrupted by my old friend John Flynn. He introduced me to his friend Ben Shapiro who immediately gave me confidence that the evening would go well:

“I looked at your Web site and was really impressed. This work is exactly what America should be doing more of in the Third World. We are the richest nation on earth, and we want to sell ev­eryone our products like Coca-Cola and we want to benefit from the cheap labor that makes Wal-Mart’s low prices possible. But we don’t do that much in return, especially for the poorest countries. We’re doing globalization on the cheap. As one example, we should have been building schools in Afghanistan over the last decade, be­cause we’d have a lot fewer terrorists running around right now if we had only made an effort to set up an education system there. The United States decided that with the Soviets vanquished, America’s job was done. The U.S. could pull out immediately and leave the Afghani people, amongst the poorest in the world, to live amongst their piles of bombed rub­ble. The American government did not so much as buy them some brooms to help start the cleaning.

 “This was such a major strategic error on the part of our govern­ment. There was the need to rebuild the destroyed buildings, including the hospitals and the schools. The Soviets had been merciless in their attempts to intimidate the Afghani people by bombing them back to the Stone Age. The U.S. did not stick around long enough to help in the rebuilding, because our reason for being there was not pro-Afghani, but rather anti-Soviet. So the Afghan government needed help in rebuilding, and the Iranians and the Saudis were only too eager to help.

“They each made a big commitment to constructing schools. The only problem is that these were not secular schools. They were ma­drassas, or religious schools, that taught a very hate-filled version of Islam.  We lost our opportunity to rebuild those schools, and we will be paying the price for decades to come. You can continue to count on me to support you. I don’t want our country to keep repeating the same mistakes.”

A few dozen guests were streaming into the club prior to the event’s 7:30 start. People were obviously saddened and furious over the events in New York. They were also in a mood to take action. Many said it was the first time they had done anything social since September 11. Erin and I delivered a brief slide show highlighting the need for schools in rural villages in Vietnam and Nepal. We explained our challenge-grant model and our low overhead.

We raised enough money to fund two schools which made us proud of our fellow citizens. It would have been easy for this group of Chicagoans to justify turning inward and adopting an us-versus-them mentality. They instead displayed resilience and generosity of spirit.

We simply must create the spaces in which concerned citizens are offered a way to take action.

John Wood


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