Social entrepreneur steadfast in pursuit of global literacy

John Wood’s belief in the power of education prompted him to leave his job as a Microsoft executive in 1999 to start Room to Read, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving literacy in the developing world.

“At Room to Read we are trying to be social entrepreneurs who educate as many children in the world as possible,” Wood told more than 250 students, faculty, and staff who filled the Curry Student Center Ballroom on Monday evening. “In this day and age, anyone who wants to can have an impact on the world.”

Since its inception in 2000, Room to Read has grown into one of the world’s most successful, fiscally efficient social entrepreneurship organizations. Over the last 13 years, it has built more than 15,000 libraries and 1,681 schools in poor communities in 10 countries in Asia and Africa, including Laos, Nepal, and Vietnam.

The education nonprofit has already reached 7.8 million children and will achieve its goal of 10 million in 2015, a full five years earlier than expected. In 2011, Forbes magazine named Wood to its “Impact 30” list of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

Monday’s event was hosted by Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute, which has contributed to Room to Read’s success by donating money to build libraries at schools in India.

At the event, SEI’s executive director Dennis Shaughnessy announced that the university would form its own chapter of Room to Read, for which the institute would provide a $5,000 seed grant. The chapter will be led by students in Shaughnessy’s freshman Honors Seminar.

“We have been reading John’s books for many years now and studying his program as a model for social enterprises,” Shaughnessy noted. “John is one the leading social entrepreneurs in the world today, and Room to Read is one of the best organizations in that space.”

Wood attributes much of Room to Read’s success to its employees, the majority of whom are locals who know the language, people, and needs of the communities they serve. “These are the most important people at Room to Read,” he explained. “They’re more important than I am because they are the ones out in the rural villages getting things done.”

Another important aspect of Room to Read’s success is its method for building schools and libraries. Rather than asking volunteers to travel to the countries in which they build the education facilities, the nonprofit challenges locals to help with the work, allowing them to contribute to the process.

“We honor the work ethic of the local communities by saying we aren’t going to build it for you, we are going to build it with you,” Wood said. “Let the local people contribute the sweat equity because many times parents there are cash strapped and this is what they have to offer.”