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Transcript: A passion for breaking the poverty cycle

KARL MOORE – John Wood was on the fast track to being an executive at Microsoft but he gave it up at a relatively young age in order to form an NGO, Room to Read, which was focused on helping children do better in life through literacy and gender equality. I am delighted to have John here in Montreal today.

Good morning, John.

JOHN WOOD – Good morning.

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KM – So why did you give up a high-flying career doing so well at Microsoft with fame and fortune on its way? Why did you give that up in order to start Room to Read?

JW – I started Room to Read because a headmaster in Nepal one day showed me an empty library. I was trucking through Nepal as a break from Microsoft, and this headmaster had 450 students in his school and a library that was completely devoid of books. To me, this is a microcosm of what happens in the developing world: That teachers want to teach, students want to learn, but they have no books.

I asked the headmaster, "How can you have this many students and have no books in your library?" and he said, "Well, in Nepal, we are too poor to afford education, but until we have education we are always going to be poor."

It was that statement that really struck me, the cruel irony that almost a billion people lack literacy in the world today. I told that headmaster that I would help him, I would return a year later with books for his library, and that was really the start of Room to Read – that was the inspiration. I didn't think I would quit Microsoft to do this full time but in that little library there the seeds were planted for me to think about maybe career switch that would be pretty radical.

KM – But you could have sent a nice check – you earned enough money that you could have just worked hard, sent a check, and solved the problem. Why didn't you do what most business people would do and just send a check?

JW – For me, I think that just sending a check would have been a cop-out. This headmaster needed help but it wasn't just that one headmaster, right? There are tends of thousands of communities throughout the developing world where children do not have access to the most basic educational resources. I didn't want to do this in a half-baked manner. My thought was, this little village in Nepal needs books but there are ten thousand other villages in Nepal and villages in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and places in Laos and South Africa that need books. This became for me a much bigger calling and it couldn't just be a hobby and it had to be something bigger then a hobby for me.

KM – Giving up considerable wealth for frugality – what is that like?

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JW – Well, it is not easy. When I left Microsoft I worked for free for three years to get Room to Read off the ground. I watched my savings continually go down and down and wondered at what point do I arrest this? The good news about doing what I do is that I am just more passionate than I have ever been in my life. As my colleagues when I was at Microsoft would be able to tell you, I was very passionate when I was at Microsoft – I felt very lucky that I got to work there throughout the 1990s, a great period to be at Microsoft and a great place to learn to be a leader.

But now what I have today is passion for a mission. Microsoft at times, to be honest with you, sometimes I just felt like I was making wealthy people wealthier. Now what I am doing is working to help millions of kids in the poorest parts of the world. I think, for lots of these children, Room to Read is the best chance they have. If we can get into their villages, help them with literacy, help them have books in their mother tongue, help them have functioning libraries, and help the girls have equal access to education, because throughout the developing world the girls often are the ones who are left behind.

So what I have given up I think pales in comparison, because I have found meaning, I have found passion, and I feel like I have found my life's work.

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