John Wood Still Rocks: Room to Read Founder Fires Up MIT Event

Uncategorized Posted Apr 23, 2008 by metropolis

I first saw John Wood present in 2006, when he visited Boston on book tour for Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Two years later, he’s still just as impassioned about the nonprofit that he leads, Room to Read.

Wood delivered the education keynote this past Saturday at the Millennium Campus Conference, which was sponsored by MIT’s Global Poverty Initiative (GPI). The GPI was formed by a group of 40 MIT students determined to mobilize the world’s next generation of leaders to act against global poverty. It gives you hope for Gen Y.

Wood was in outstanding company, with John Edwards opening the conference on Friday, and luminaries like Dr. Paul Farmer (Partners in Health) presenting the health keynote, and Ira Magaziner of the Clinton Global Initiative speaking for the public policy track.

Wood hit a nerve with Sox fans in his opening, speaking reverently of Dr. Farmer but noting that it was a bit like following Alex Rodriguez in the batting order. When the Boston crowd grumbled (with a few “ORTIZ” shout outs) Wood caught on to the faux pas and shifted gears to a music analogy, citing Bono. He later noted that he’d spoken at the recent Public Library Association Conference, where he followed the comedienne Paula Poundstone. “I have a tendency to do keynotes behind people who are smarter or better looking that I am, sometimes both.”

Given the serious nature of his topic, John’s presentation was consistently funny. He joked that leaving Microsoft to do good has become such a trend that Gates is following in his footsteps. Zack the yak, featured on the cover of Leaving Microsoft loaded with books, sported a design flaw; his rope was shorter than his horns, “evidence that the Microsoft design team had gotten there before me.”

On a more serious note, Wood applauded the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, noting that Warren Buffet’s follow-on support of the foundation raised the bar for billionaires everywhere. “These guys have stepped up. What are you doing?”

The grand challenges, according to Wood:

  • Every child, everywhere, deserves a chance at education.
  • 110 million kids of primary school age are not enrolled in school. If you lined those kids up side-by-side, they would form a line stretching from the East Coast of the U.S., across the country, across the Pacific, through Asia and on to London — 21,000 miles long. What an image.
  • 800 million people cannot read or write; two-thirds of these people are women.

Room to Read’s Challenge Grant Model is part of its secret sauce. On top of demonstrating need and dependability, RtR requires the school community to co-invest, which gives communities a greater stake in the outcome. For libraries, for example, communities might provide materials and labor to aid in construction.

The Local Language Publishing Program is another cornerstone RtR program. In 2003, survey work in Nepal revealed that more kids would use their library more often if books were in Nepalese, rather than English. So Room to Read found local authors and illustrators, publishing 10 local language books in 2003. By now, the organization has published 225 localized books.

Girls who are beneficiaries of Room to Read’s Girls’ Scholarship Program have even gotten into the act, writing one of the books in the series, “Baby Fish Goes to School.” It’s the story of a fish who wants to go to school with the other animals, but his mother explains that he can’t because he lives in the water, and the school is on land. So the animals get a fishbowl so that the fish can join them at the school. How great is that?

Wood noted that he told the story when he spoke before the Clinton Global Initiative last September. He looked out in the audience to find that he’d brought Nobel-prize winner Toni Morrison to tears.

He gives one heck of a presentation.

For the backstory, you can read Wood’s recent essay from Newsweek, or better yet, read his book.