'Dare to dream big'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 October, 2007, 12:00am

For John Wood deciding to change the world was the easy bit. The hard part was convincing others that it made perfect sense to quit his high-flying job as director of business development for Microsoft Greater China to set up a charity to promote literacy and education in the developing world.

'I was told I was crazy,' he said. 'That was 1999, the height of the technology boom. But I thought you can't listen to critics telling you why something won't work. You have to be a builder, a social entrepreneur, and get things done.' So, at the age of 35, he set up Room to Read, inspired by the beliefs that education offers the fastest route out of poverty and that a non-profit organisation should adopt the best practices of the business world.

His basic aim was to build schools and libraries in rural communities and to stock them with books. To make that happen, he felt the key was to come up with a business plan which addressed actual not presumed needs, and adhered to the principle of providing 'a hand up, not a handout'.

'The number one lesson I've learned is that you can't help people unless they want to help themselves. You have to get the communities to come and invest with you.'

His idea was to put a system of 'challenge grants' in place. If a village wanted a school, sufficient money and materials would be provided, but the parents had to build it themselves. Local project managers, not overseas volunteers, would supervise the negotiations and on-site work, and there would be an intense focus on results.

Mr Wood was also determined to create a direct link with donors. He realised that if they could endow specific projects and received regular progress reports, it would create a sense of partnership and clearly demonstrate that donations were not just going into some black hole.

'A key point was when I visited a school under construction in Nepal and saw mothers carrying bags of cement for two hours uphill and fathers digging the foundations. I saw we'd made a connection between them and the donors, and knew we had a model that could work.' Rapid expansion over the past few years has proved him right. Room to Read operates in six countries in Asia and is branching out in South Africa, Zambia and Ethiopia. This year it will raise about US$15 million, which will fund 1,500 libraries, 150 schools and around 1 million books. New programmes have been added providing computers, audio and video material for language teaching, and girls' scholarships.

Donations now flow in more readily than in the early days, helped by the fund-raising efforts of tireless individuals, the chapter structure and support from major corporations. 'They are very performance-driven and so are we, so that dovetails nicely,' Mr Wood said, adding that as for any business, it was essential to show results and benchmark against 'competitors'.

'We thought, 'Why not Starbucks?' In six years, they opened 450 new coffee shops around the world, but we opened 1,050 libraries during the same time frame. That's our goal: to be twice their rate.' Driven by the ambition to give as many children as possible a better start in life, he never had second thoughts about changing direction. 'I don't think jumping off the corporate path is the right move for everyone. But I hope my book [Leaving Microsoft to Change the World] can inspire people to think about what might be possible in their own life if they follow their passion and dare to dream big dreams.'

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by John Wood in a recent CUHK EMBA Forum. The EMBA Forum is conducted regularly to provide a valuable opportunity for EMBA participants and alumni to interact with key leaders

Personal file

My role model in philanthropy is definitely Andrew Carnegie. He used his fortune to create a network of libraries that have had an impact on countless lives across several generations. He built almost 3,000 libraries; we want to do 10 times that across the developing world

When I have time, I love to go skiing in Colorado and try to take a 'reading sabbatical' somewhere like Bali or southern Thailand every year

I've gone through periods of trying to read everything by Milan Kundera, Graham Greene, William Boyd, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and George Orwell. I also love biographies, memoirs and business books

In future, I hope to carve out more time to mentor young social entrepreneurs who are just getting started