Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children by John Wood 2006

IQ "My favorite creative idea came from Parkgate, a Montessori primary school in London. Catherine, the energetic founder and headmistress of the school, called to say that her students had invented a new fund0raising technique. They offered their parents the opportunity to pay for what they called the Sponsored Silence. For 10 [I believe pounds] per hour, the parents could basically hit the Mute button on their children for the evening. Sales of this new luxury item were quite robust. [...]Children can be natural fundraisers, and very entrepreneurial, if given the freedom to think creatively." pg. 224

I found that quote especially appealing because I 100% agree, kids never cease to amaze me with their cruelty but then they outdo themselves with kindness, finding ingenious ways to raise money for a variety of causes. And I love the idea the children in London came up with. It got me thinking that something similar could be done in schools where students are particularly rowdy and they could raise money for those "with no voice" such as those incarcerated, victims of sexual and physical abuse, etc.

John Wood is the founder of RoomtoRead, an organization I was unfamiliar with until the fabulous Sarah Rettger recommended Wood's book to me. I'm so glad she did, it was fantastic! Room to Rea's goal is to promote literacy and provide an education to every child, no big deal. Currently they are based in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, Laos, Bangladesh, South Africa and Zambia. John Wood originally worked for Microsoft as a marketing director but after a hiking trip to Nepal where the illiteracy rate is 70% he was inspired to send books for a library. The Nepalese people were skeptical he would return but he did, bringing "thousands of books bundled on the back of a yak", shortly afterward he decided to start his yet-unnamed non profit organization to build libraries, schools and distribute books. This is his story and the story of the origins of Room to Read.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this story is the business model of Room to Read, even though Room to Read is a nonprofit. The author talks about how they relay on donations of all kinds, not simply the ones from billionaires. They insist the community they build the school/library in must take part in the building of the school/library, this way the community feels a deeper connection to it. I think that's a really great point that I have never heard mentioned by other non-profits. If people don't feel a sense of ownership they won't care, but give them some responsibility and people will create the best product they can. Classic business model, no? They also ensure that they have local staff and partner with local businesses/governments. I think more and more non profits are realizing that they need to consult with the actual people who live in the country they are trying to "reform/improve." It's very refreshing and reassuring. I loved reading John Wood's explanation as to why Room to Read tries to fund raise from more than large donors "there simply are not enough billionaires out there to solve all of the world's problems. True change requires mass participation, because one person writing a large check is never enough. He could change his mind about the cause, or make bad investment decisions that deplete his capital, or die and leave his money to his heirs rather than to charity. To rely on just one person is quite risky, especially when the future of millions of people is at stake. The larger problem is that too many of the truly rich are loath to give away their fortune in any meaningful way. [...he then goes on to say...] The Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century will not be a rich white male. It will be a network of concerned global citizens, and we will create it" (pgs. 151-152), he's ambitious, determined, and optimistic. In short, everything I would expect a business person to be (obviously intelligent as well) with the rarity of being truly about service.

The added bonus of this inspirational and productive story is the behind-the-scenes look at Microsoft. He doesn't spend a lot of time talking about Bill & Melinda Gates but he does mention a time when he met Bill Gates. It's not the most flattering portrait but the author makes apologizes for why Gates might have acted the way he did. What I found even more interesting was the author describing his interview with Melinda French Gates, who was Bill Gates' girlfriend at the time. The position he was interviewing for would be under her supervision and while it was brief mention, it gave a tiny peek at Microsoft in the earlier days. Something that wasn't mentioned but that I'm curious about, is if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports Room to Read? Furthermore the author is very pragmatic but also very fair. Perhaps I found him to be very fair because I can be very harsh and critical of people who I feel have been given much but do very little (which I am working on), regardless it's a wonderful quality to have. He discuses telling his girlfriend Sophie about his trip to Nepal and how amazing it was to deliver the books and his idea to do something similar but she isn't interested. "I reminded myself that despite her international postings, her strong preference was for the glamour of the expatriate life in a big city like London, Prague, or Paris. Large paychecks, housecleaners, and a full-time driver on call could make any city feel even better than home. My desire to strap on backpacks and 'go walk about' in the developing world held no appeal to her. We were both 'international', but in very different ways. This does not make either of us a better or worse person than the other" (pg. 43), I want the best of both worlds but I'm slowly realizing that it's not possible but that's Ok. I would rather "go walk about".

Room to Read was founded in 2000 and what makes this literacy organization really stand out is that it's run like a business, but the businesspeople actually have compassion. Room to Read is trying to sell you the importance of gender equality and raising literacy around the world, they have a business plan. Please consider donating to them, I know I will be (I will donate to them before I specifically profile the organization this weekend). John Wood seized the moment and created a dynamic non profit and this gives him a super-hero quality. He has human qualities though, he has doubts sometimes. Wood discusses his wish to own a home, to stay in a long-term relationship, to have more money to devote to a few small luxuries but at the end of the day he loves what he does. If only we all could be so lucky. I wish I could work for Room to Read but I'm not so sure I'd make it past the first round, it's a very competitive interviewing process! Which is as it should be, we need the best and the brightest working with nonprofits to change the world. Fortunately we have Room to Read and John Wood.

Disclosure: From the library. I wish I had bought it though since proceeds go to Room to Read. I may still buy a copy because it's definitely a book needed for my shelf