Today on The Cycle: Global Education

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Cover CreatingRoomtoRead
Cover CreatingRoomtoRead

“Tonight I propose working with state to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” President Obama said  this Tuesday night during the State of the Union. Thus, putting forward a new education policy that would benefit our country’s students. But, did you know that nearly 775 million people still cannot read even at a first grade level.

Joining the show today is John Wood, whose efforts have helped more than seven million children in Asia and Africa through the construction of more than 10,000 schools and libraries. He is the Author of Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy.

John Wood’s book features the stories of impoverished children whose schools and villages have been swept away by war or natural disasters. Be sure to tune in for the full conversation at 3:40pm and check out an excerpt from his book below.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Creating Room to Read by John Wood Copyright © John Wood, 2013

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new library. I am one small part of a very large crowd, one small light in a bright  and populated constellation. In addition to the hundreds of students, there are at least that  many  parents,  along with  teachers, the school’s headmaster, grandparents, government officials, and residents of the  village. Grandmothers with  pierced noses and  faces lined  with the crevasses formed  by harsh  sun and fierce Himalayan winds  clutch newborns. Fathers  hold aloft their three-year-old daughters, little girls eager to get a better look, anticipating the day they’ll be able to explore the  library’s  treasures.  the  students’  energy  level could  power  a vil- lage.

We’re all assembled in front of a freestanding building newly bathed  in an electric blue coat of paint.  It’s a small but cozy structure, about  three hundred square  feet. Across  the  door  is a taut  red  ribbon,  ready  to  be snipped by as many rusty scissors as the village can muster.  Above the door and running nearly the length  of the building  is a banner  celebrating  the opportunities that  literacy will bring to the village. It proudly  announces an event  that  is not  only game  changing  for the  community but  also a milestone  in my life:

Welcome  to  the  o pening  of  Room  to  Read’s

10,000th l ib Ra Ry


As I watch residents of the village continue  to stream into the open court- yard in front of the library, I contemplate that  number—ten thousand! I recall how  different  things  were just a decade ago, when  a tiny band  of volunteers  and I opened  our first five libraries in rural  Nepal. We had a tiny budget, no employees, and only a handful  of advocates.

From  a mere  five to ten thousand, in a decade: This is the steepest growth curve I’ve ever been involved  in, surpassing  even my  time  in the technology  industry. the number on that  banner  seems a bit sur- real to me.

I feel a familiar  hand  on my shoulder.  turning around, I am greeted by my mother, carolyn, a seventy-nine-year-old with a heart of gold, love of travel, and a crazed enthusiasm for the power of books. She is of hearty norwegian stock and  extremely  healthy.  not many  women of her age

Ten Years, Ten Thousand Libraries!    3

would  insist  upon  flying halfway  around the  earth  to  the  roof of the world  to celebrate her seventy-ninth birthday. She attributes this love of nature,  and of the cold, to having grown  up in northern Minnesota.

Her eyes are as deep and blue as the many lakes of her native state: ten thousand lakes in Minnesota, ten thousand libraries around the develop- ing world opened by her son and the organization he founded.  I like the symmetry. She hugs me and holds me. then she stammers through her tears: “I am so very, very proud of you.”

“Me,  too,”  interjects  my  eighty-four-year-old  father,  Woody,   as  he reaches out to shake my hand.  those two words are it for him. Like me, he is not one for overt displays of emotion;  that  short  statement, piggy- backed  on my mother’s  expression of pride,  is about  as good as it gets with him. Knowing  this makes his statement all the sweeter to me.

Pulled between the extremes of my two parents, I gravitate toward my loquacious mother. Her words and embrace have caused my eyes to mist up. then I hug my father  and share a thought I’ve had for a long time but haven’t spken: None of this would have happened were it not for you two, who believed in my idea before the world did. You persuaded me to believe in this dream even during the tough times when it would have been easier to abandon it. We’re only here today because of your faith in me.

Most parents would not encourage their son to leave a lucrative corpo- rate fast track at age thirty-five to devote himself to a highly improbable start-up charity venture. Parents are genetically programmed to do what- ever it takes to help their children  survive. their dreams  and aspirations for their  offspring typically focus on a good job, the predictable  place in society that comes with  it, and financial security. Yet in 1999 when  I told my parents  that  I planned  to quit my executive position  at Microsoft in order to focus “the rest of my adult  life” on the quest for global literacy, they barely flinched.

I told them: “there aren’t any charities building libraries across the de- veloping world at a massive scale, so I’m going to try to start my own. I’ll work for no salary for as long as I can, even if it means running down my savings. But don’t worry; I’ll never ask to move back in with you.”

My mother laughed.

My decision  could have fazed either,  or both,  of my parents.  At the

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height  of the Internet and technology  booms, Woody  and carolyn went from telling people, “John is the director of business development for Mi- crosoft’s greater china region, has a full-time car and driver, and lives in a beautiful  subsidized house,” to telling them,  “John delivers books on the backs of yaks to rural Himalayan villages.” But their advice to me was as encouraging  as it was succinct: “If that’s what  you want  to do, then  you should go do it—and do it well.”

Woody  told me: “I may be a little crazy, but you’re not. You have your

own wings, John, so fly.”

As we open the ten thousandth room to read library, I ponder  the fact that  I lucked out in the parent  lottery. carolyn and Woody  met in a bowling  alley in texas,  where  my  dad  was working for the  Bureau  of Public roads. We were always middle  class but lived in a home that was “rich in books.”

these two  believed in me, even when  it looked  like I was throwing away amazing  opportunities to embrace a life full of risk and no financial upside. their loyalty to me, and to my ambitious but risky dreams, is one of many  reasons I pleaded with  them  to share this moment with  me in nepal on my mother’s  seventy-ninth birthday.

I knew they’d be proud of me at this pivotal point in the development of my now decade-old enterprise.  today, though, what’s more important is to express how proud I am of them.

the courtyard  at the Shree Janakalyan  School is now teeming  with  hun- dreds of students bursting  with  excitement.  they take  turns  peering  in through the windows of their new library. two dozen teachers are gath- ered. We  hear the sound  of snare  drums  as the band  warms  up, along with  a wailing trumpet. Girls dressed in bright  red saris, their eyes lined with charcoal, practice their ceremonial  dance.

one of the teachers tells me that  he and three others came from a vil- lage thirty  miles away. “Are you here to help us to celebrate?” I ask.

“no, sir, we’ve come to petition  you. We have over nine hundred stu- dents but no books. We would like a library in our school, too.”

Hmm: Before we’ve even opened  number ten  thousand, we have a pipeline of projects to help get us started on the next ten thousand.

Ten Years, Ten Thousand Libraries!    5

Standing  next to these teachers  is a smiling  couple, both  waiting  pa- tiently  to hang  a garland  of marigolds  around my neck. “It is an honor, sir, to have you here  today.  Please know  that  from  the  bottom of our hearts we parents so value this gift you have given to our children.”

I want  to explain that  this  community, with  its outpouring of grati- tude to us and love for its own children,  is giving more to me than  they realize. this is a grand  bargain! Instead,  I ask the father how he’s gained such an impressive level of English proficiency.

“BBc radio. I’ve listened to it since the age of nine! I still listen for an hour each evening. this is how I can not only improve my own mind but also encourage my children.  It also helps the children who want  to work in tourism;  without English  or other  foreign languages,  they can’t have well-paid jobs like trekking guides or waiters.”

I nod in the shared understanding that tourism is the biggest earner of foreign exchange in an otherwise  dormant economy. Proudly he tells me and my parents  of the roles community members  have played in getting the library built. three of the fathers helped to dig the foundation, while six mothers and  fathers  painted  the  exterior  and  interior  walls. It feels quite awkward that  they continue  to thank me, given that  they’ve done all the hard work.

this is part  of room to read’s “challenge grant” model.  rather than just sweeping in and handing local communities everything  they need to get the  school built  or the  library established,  we ask them  to meet  us halfway. our in-country  teams start every introduction of room to read by saying in effect: If you as a community are willing to put resources into the project, then we will do the same. But if you don’t value the project enough to lobby the community to support it, and if the local people are not willing to pitch in with some of their resources, then this tells us that the motivation is not there to make it succeed.

today at Janakalyan  School the offerings of gratitude are effusive. our diligent  translator lets us know  that  one mother “wishes to praise your team for allowing  us to strive for greatness  as we offer educational  uplift to our children.” I think of my own parents  and their continual  exhorta- tions to study. this community reminds me that parents  everywhere de- sire a better life for their children.  It’s a near constant:  they understand

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the importance of education  and crave it for their children,  even as they

are well aware of the sacrifice they will have to make.

With young children in classrooms instead of helping out on the fam- ily’s small plot of farmland, parents here will face hundreds of additional hours of backbreaking labor. Still, they know  that education  is the best— or perhaps only—long-term ticket out of poverty for their kids. “Go, go,” they tell their sons and daughters. “Without school, you’ll remain  a poor farmer, just like every other generation of our family.”

now it’s time for the ceremony preceding the ribbon cutting. Few peo- ple enjoy speeches as much  as the nepalese. there seems to be no upper limit on the number of people taking  the stage and commandeering the microphone. the crowd  hears from  the community’s government lead- ers, the village elders, education  ministry officials, the headmaster, teach- ers, parents, and anyone else who wants to take a turn.  It doesn’t seem to bother  anyone  that  they all say basically the same thing.  As the blazing sun traces a lazy arc across the sky, the speechifying enters a second and, I hope, final hour.

With ample time for my mind  to drift back to 1998, I replay my fateful first visit to Nepal. During  that  maiden  Himalayan trek,  a chance intro- duction to a headmaster who showed  me a library without books set me on this trajectory. the school he heads is actually not far, in Bahundanda, no more  than  seventy-five miles away as the crow flies—as long as the crow can fly above twenty-four-thousand-foot peaks. A mere mortal, walking  along  the  mountains’ numerous donkey  paths,  would  need  a week to make the walk.

these two villages are so close, yet so far. this is also an apt description for my life today as compared  with  a time  when  I had no resources, no employees, and no donor base—only the conviction that helping children across the developing  world  gain access to books was the only meaning- ful thing  I could do with my limited  time on earth.

room to read is one of the fastest-growing and most  award-winning charities of the last decade. Its rapid  evolution  and steep trajectory  have been beyond  my wildest  fantasy.  though we started  by focusing on li- braries,  we experienced  mission  creep—the  good  kind—when we real-

Ten Years, Ten Thousand Libraries!    7

ized that  libraries without readable books were not much  help and that books sat idle on shelves, without engaged readers, despite the impressive new rooms housing them.

In addition to opening  more than  ten thousand libraries, we now sup- port  (as of May 2012) seventeen  thousand young  scholars  in our  Girls’ Education  program and have constructed and staffed (with help from our host-country governments) more than  sixteen hundred school blocks. To fill the libraries, we’ve self-published more than seven hundred titles in lo- cal languages  by training hundreds of local authors  and  artists  to write and illustrate  the first brightly  colored children’s books the local children have ever seen. After  starting with  building  and  stocking  libraries,  we evolved rapidly  to also become a children’s  book publisher  on a massive scale. In addition, we’ve now embraced training teachers on enhanced  lit- eracy skills and ensuring  that  girls are empowered through not just edu- cation but also the life skills they will need to negotiate key life decisions. the need is global, growing  more urgent  by the day. Every day we lose


is a day we can’t get back. So we’ve also expanded  far beyond nepal and now  bring  books  and  libraries  to  Bangladesh,  cambodia,  India,  Laos, South Africa, Sri Lanka, tanzania, Vietnam, and Zambia.  the morning of the ceremony at the Shree Janakalyan  School, I told the local team that room to read had become one of nepal’s most  important exports. the model  we’d established  there  was now  having  a huge  impact  on other parts of the developing world. our role model, Andrew carnegie, known as “the patron  saint  of libraries,” helped  open  more  than  2,500  in  the united  States, canada,  and  Great  Britain.  only  a decade in,  room  to read has opened four times that number.

I look up to take in the mass of students sitting on the ground in front of the stage. the opening  of the library will change their lives. In helping create opportunities like these for students in so many  places, my own life has been radically altered.  during my Microsoft years my focus was on revenue,  sales growth, and  market share—all  things  that  were ulti- mately going to help make rich people richer.

My focus was also on ways to enrich myself: “What kind of raise will I get this year? How many stock options? can I remain  posted overseas so that the company  will continue  to pay my rent?”

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today I measure quite differently: How many additional books can we get into the hands of eager young readers each year? How many kids are visiting  our  libraries?  How  many  books  are  being  checked  out  each month? I think about the size of our team: the more employees we have, the  more  communities we can help  to bring  education  to their  young people. With more  than  six hundred people all over the world  now  on the payroll, and with  over 80 percent of them  being local nationals  who are “close to the customer,” room to read can accomplish quite a lot. the nepalese team  alone consists of sixty people. thankfully, all of them  are here today at the ribbon-cutting ceremony  in Kavresthali, beaming  with pride at how far they’ve come over the last ten years.

It’s been a volatile and unpredictable ride with  many  highs and lows. At  any  number of points  along  the  way,  the  idea  of hitting the  ten- thousand-library milestone  seemed the ultimate impossible dream. More than  once I debated  running back, tail between  my legs, to the relative stability, predictability,  and fat paychecks of the tech sector.

Perseverance paid  off: thankfully,  the  mission  and  the  work  are no longer a lonely pursuit.  Bill clinton endorsed  our work on multiple  occa- sions by inviting  me to speak at his annual  clinton Global Initiative  and later  to join its advisory  board.  cEos  of major  companies  have joined room to read’s board.  Volunteer fund-raising  chapters  have sprung  up in fifty-six cities around the world. In our first ten years, more than  seven thousand volunteers  threw  events that  collectively raised over $35 mil- lion, fueling our rapid expansion.

one of the most exciting fund-raising  campaigns  happened totally out of the blue after Oprah  Winfrey  invited me on her show in 2007, when I published  a book about the founding of room to read called Leaving Mi- crosoft to Change the World—a novice author’s dream come true.

then lightning struck twice. oprah got so excited about our work that she invited her millions  of viewers to be part of “oprah’s Book drive” to benefit Room to Read. Some of the very books we printed  with the three million  dollars she helped raise are housed  here in nepal. But to me the most  important figure in all these millions  is six million,  the number of children  who now have access to libraries room to read created. We’ve come so far, so fast.


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It’s difficult to process the difference between  that  first trip  to Nepal and today’s ceremony  in Kavresthali.  We’ve gone from being a disorga- nized, ragtag  band  of volunteers  to being a global movement involving millions of people. I remind myself that today is a day of celebration. this is a moment to revel in all that we’ve accomplished.

As if on cue, the headmaster finishes his speech. Proudly  he announces that  it’s time to cut the red ribbon  stretched  tightly  across the door. We will officially open a magical  and  colorful place where  students can de- velop a love of books and reading.  the walls are painted  in a riot of col- ors, and more  than  a thousand books are neatly  nestled  on the shelves, waiting  to be picked up and loved.

the crowd charges toward the library as I look for my guests of honor. Grabbing  my  hand,  my  mother leads me  as we walk  together  slowly. Each step is silent, but there are lots of namastes offered by the students: “the light in me bows down to the light in you.”

on this beautiful Himalayan morning our bond and our happiness are as strong  as they’ve ever been. My mother grips my hand  tightly  as my father walks a step behind.  “did you ever think you’d see this day?” she asks.

the only smile broader than those of the students is my own.

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Today on The Cycle: Global Education

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