Difference Maker

Once a high-tech exec, he now shares his passion for reading in Asia and Africa.

John Wood has turned his love of books, reading, and education into more than 10,000 libraries through 'Room to Read.'

By , / correspondent

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    John Wood was in Nepal in 1998 when he chanced to meet an education official who invited him to visit a school. Moved by the school’s meager collection of castoff books, so precious they were kept under lock and key, he founded ‘Room to Read,’ which builds libraries and schools and provides books worldwide.
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Back in the day, the local library in Athens, Pa., had an eight-book checkout limit. But there were exceptions. And young John Wood was one of them.

In order not to crimp his voracious reading habit, the library boosted his limit to 12 and John went on his merry way, gobbling up books the way most children do candy.

It's little wonder that today this successful social entrepreneur likes nothing more than a globe-wrapping airplane flight. It offers the ideal cocoon for a good read.

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Mr. Wood gets lots of airborne reading time these days as founder of Room to Read, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has spent the past decade building children's libraries and promoting literacy and education in some of the world's poorest regions. He averages five long-distance trips per year to visit the program's operations in Asia and southern Africa.

Under his tutelage, Room to Read has grown into a $30 million per year venture.

Despite his love for books, there is nothing bookish about Wood. A distance runner with a fondness for the outdoors, Wood was on a self-guided trek across Nepal in 1998 when his future veered from the more conventional path he had forged as a Microsoft marketing executive.

On Day 1 of a 21-day trek, Wood had a chance meeting with a local education official. As they chatted at a teahouse, the official extended an invitation to visit a local school. Off they went the next morning.

While Wood was touched by the meagerness of the school's resources, he was positively heartbroken by what passed for its library: The ragged collection of castoff books was kept under lock and key, so precious to the school were its contents.

As recounted in Wood's 2006 book "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World," the headmaster looked at Wood and wondered out loud, "Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books."

Come back he did. First with his father, Woody, and a donkey train of nearly 1,000 pounds of books. And then as founder of an ambitious nonprofit program to provide books, schools, and libraries in Nepal. The program has since expanded into Southeast Asia, India, and southern Africa. South America may be next.

"The hardest thing is that there are 50 more countries that need Room to Read," says Wood, who works in a corner office in one of San Francisco's most elegant old downtown office buildings.

Comfortably dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, Wood makes clear he has little time for a "small is beautiful" approach to his mission. "I want an organization with the heart of Mother Teresa and the scalability of Starbucks," he says.

Room to Read, which opened its 10,000th library earlier this year, raises all of its funds from private donors and foundations. It has no endowment.

Wood's technology background and entrepreneurial bent has made his work particularly appealing to the philanthropists who emerged from the dotcom boom of the 1990s. Earlier this year Tim Koogle, Yahoo's founding CEO and now president of his own foundation, joined Wood on a trek in Nepal to celebrate Room to Read's 10-year anniversary.

What Mr. Koogle noticed was how Wood and Room to Read had earned "great credibility" thanks to a track record of delivering on promises. "John so fundamentally believes in what he's doing that his story and the model he has developed are very clear and attractive," says Koogle, whose foundation has supported Room to Read.

The Skoll Foundation, founded by former eBay president Jeff Skoll, is also a big supporter of Room to Read. The foundation made a major pledge of more than $1 million in 2006. The three-years of funding were followed by a thorough assessment of the organization last year by Skoll's staff.

"We found it to be one of the top-­performing programs in our entire portfolio," says Skoll program officer Ana Zacapa. She applauds Room to Read's willingness to innovate, its use of local staff to run its programs, and its imaginative funding programs, which include volunteer-run chapters in 45 cities around the world.

"Tight fisted" might also belong on that list of attributes donors like. Wood makes a habit at fund-raising speeches to ask audience members to donate their frequent-flyer miles, with the result that he almost never pays for his travel. He asks for, and receives, donated office space and lodgings. He likes to tell hotel executives that donating a room for one night saves Room to Read enough money to fund a school scholarship for a girl in Asia for one year.

Wood's Nepalese founding partner, Dinesh Shrestha, was instrumental in pushing the idea of incorporating more girls into the group's educational programs.

To date, Room to Read has built more than 1,000 schools and funded nearly 9,000 scholarships for young girls. Literacy for girls has become a focal point, as has publishing in local languages.

Wood sees education as the path out of poverty, but he understands that it isn't a quick fix. "Education is such a long-term arc. It has a 20-year horizon," he says.

"Part of the problem with the aid world is that it's so focused on the short term. No one gets out of poverty on foreign aid. It's always education."

• For more stories about people making a difference, go here.

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