Kellogg Magazine  |  Spring/Summer 2015



The bibliophile



ixteen years after leaving a successful career at Microsoft to promote literacy in overlooked corners of the globe,
John Wood ’89 revels in the statistics.

John Wood ’89

By year’s end, a full five years ahead of schedule, Wood’s Room to Read nonprofit will have benefited 10 million children across 17,000 communities in Asia and Africa by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education.

It was while vacationing in Nepal in 1999 and seeing unremitting poverty that Wood’s life took on its dramatic new locus. Literacy, he says, is the baseline on which to build an education and create economic prosperity.

“Two out of seven people live on $2 a day or less,” says Wood, who wrote about his road to social entrepreneurship in a pair of books: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World and Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy.

“So much of this goes back to the lottery of life, that where you are born and to whom you were born are completely random events that you have no control over,” he adds. “If you were born in Evanston, Connecticut, the U.K. or Switzerland, you’re amongst the luckiest people on earth because you’re guaranteed an education.”

After founding Room to Read in 2000, Wood, who is based in Hong Kong, set out to persuade benefactors — mainly business executives and companies — to donate $325 million in capital to Room to Read by demonstrating that it’s an efficiently run model for social change.

"Learning to read can be a lucky break for millions of children, and eventually millions of families"

The nonprofit is fastidiously data-driven. Research tracks everything from average words read per minute and library access time to graduation rates and community co-investment in school construction projects.

“A lot of our leadership team is what I refer to as corporate refugees,” Wood says. “They’ve done their education, they’ve cut their teeth at companies ranging from Goldman Sachs to Unilever and, as a result, so many of us have grown up in environments where, to use one of (former Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer’s expressions, what gets measured gets done. Otherwise, you just don’t know if you’re doing any good for the world.”

Data further show the challenge at hand: around the world, 773 million people cannot read or write.

“We can beam the Internet to remote parts of Africa from satellites, but if people don’t have the ability to read or write, then what good is it going to do?” Wood says. “Learning to read can be a lucky break for millions of children, and eventually millions of families.”