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John Wood’s Battle for Global Literacy

“Let’s collectively be the Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century,” says John Wood, who details his experience of building and scaling the non-profit Room to Read. 

It was like a “literacy-palooza” with kids “stage-diving for books.” That was the scene that John Wood describes as his “game-over moment,” or the moment he decided to quit Microsoft and pursue his non-profit organization, Room to Read, full-time. 

Wood had gone on a hiking trip in Nepal and witnessed conditions of extreme poverty. The deplorable conditions were particularly pronounced at a school in a remote village. Not only were 80 or so kids crammed into a single classroom without desks, their library had no books. 

“We’re too poor to afford education,” the school’s headmaster told Wood, “but until we get education we’ll always be poor.” Wood left the country determined to change all of that. After witnessing the initial book-drive-literacy-palooza referenced above, Wood became a man on a mission.

What’s the Big Idea?

We know that educated people live longer lives. We know that educated women earn more money and are healthier. We know that educated men are less likely to fight in civil wars or commit acts of terrorism. And yet, we also know that 780 million people are illiterate in the developing world. To put it another way, 98 percent of the people in the world who are illiterate live in the poorest parts of the world. Wood, who did well for himself at Microsoft but did not have the resources of an Andrew Carnegie, faced an uphill battle. How could he get other people to help him reverse the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy in the poorest countries in the world?

Speaking at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, Massachusetts, Wood describes how he developed a co-investment model that paired “mini-Carnegie” investors with people in the local communities. So rather than dumping surplus goods in the form of “hand-outs,” Wood developed a self-help model in which parents who realized that education is a ticket out of poverty had skin in the game, making the “hand-ups” sustainable. 

The ticket out of poverty also requires more than just exporting western books that children in developing countries won’t relate to. Wood’s efforts required getting into the publishing business, finding the local J.K. Rowlings that would resonate with children in rural villages Cambodia. 707 original titles later, Room to Read is the biggest publisher you’ve never heard of,” Wood says.

In the video below, Wood also details how he built on his experience in the corporate world to to keep costs low. Bankers donate frequent flier miles. Hotels give free rooms. Once again, not everyone has the resources of a Carnegie, but they can still participate in the small fundraising chapters that Room to Read set up in 57 cities around the world. 

“Let’s collectively be the Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century,” says Wood. 

Watch the video here:

Wood’s new book, Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy, was just released, and you can order the book and find tour info here:

You can also follow the book tour on Twitter: @johnwoodRTR. “I promise,” John tells us, “it will be as entertaining as 140 characters can be.”

Images courtesy of ShutterstockMeghan Brosnan

To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit


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